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Will Sleep Training Affect Your Baby Psychologically

I’m sure you’ve heard and seen that sleep training is portrayed as a cruel parenting practice and that if you decide to sleep train your child, they’ll most certainly have psychological damage.

I know that if you’re even considering sleep training your child, and you’re reading this blog post, that you are dutifully and lovingly doing your research to make the best decision for your child – you are a great parent!

This question is one I get a lot, and I want to cover it in detail today, so let’s start with what attachment is, what sleep training actually is, move into some relevant, science-backed research, and then you can conclude for yourself if sleep training is the right decision for your family.

I’m coming at it from both ends of the aisle today so that you can make the best decision for YOUR family and for YOUR baby.

Types of Attachment (and what to strive for as parents)

There are four types of attachment: secure, anxious-ambivalent, disorganized, and avoidant.

We want to have a secure attachment with our child. We want our child to have secure attachments with any and all caregivers. We want our children, as they grow, to have a secure attachment to their future partner. 

A secure attachment is displayed early in life when a child might be visibly upset by a parent leaving the room and calming upon their return. Also, when a child is passed from their primary caregiver to another, probably fussing for a bit, but when understanding that this is another trusted adult, can calm down and carry on with their day, trusting that their parent will return in time. 

You can see how it’s all about building trust. Attachment types can change over time as trust is maintained or broken, and as the child builds other attachments to other people throughout their life. Repairing broken relationships can also help repair attachment.

What Sleep Training Actually Is…

Sleep training is training a child to sleep. There are four cornerstones to sleep training:

  1. Providing the right environment that is safe and conducive to promoting quality sleep.
  2. Setting your child up for success by following a child- and age-appropriate schedule based on homeostatic sleep needs.
  3. Foundational pieces including the use of routines, ensuring nutritive needs are being met in a way that compliments healthy sleep, optimizing the circadian rhythm, etc.
  4. Using developmentally appropriate behavioral strategies that can help with teaching your child to link sleep cycles, yielding in unfragmented and consolidated, healthy sleep.

So, you can see here, that sleep training does not actually mean “cry-it-out” – CIO, or extinction, is one strategy (part of #4) that a family might choose to use as part of sleep training.

This whole idea that sleep training is damaging stems from what happened in a Romanian orphanage YEARS ago that was NOT sleep training. Basically, orphan babies and children were not responded to – they were neglected – for a long period of time (months and years) – so, as one would expect, they did not have a secure attachment to their caregiver(s). Anti-sleep trainers have used this as an example to promote the idea that sleep training is comparable and will damage your child’s secure attachment. There are other psychologists who’ve taken and twisted this idea as well – see here and here.

If you’re interested in learning more, a quick google search of “Romanian orphan study” will yield plenty of results that I’m sure are not comparable to the conditions in your household where you care for, attend to, and love your child.

You might be wondering why I share these ideas and resources with you….it’s because I want you to do the research for yourself, and decide for yourself and your baby what’s best.

Luckily, there are thousands of other peer-reviewed articles out there that we can now fall back on that paint a much more accurate picture of how sleep training can actually help you and your child get quality sleep, one of our two most very basic needs as human beings.

What We Know From Peer-Reviewed & Science-Backed Research

When I refer to different sleep training “strategies” those are the different methods that are out there that one might choose to help teach their child to sleep better.

A quick sample of methods for you:

  • Cry-it-out/CIO/Extinction
  • Graduated Extinction/Timed Intervals/Leave and Check/Check and Console
  • Chair Method/Sleep Lady Shuffle/Fading
  • Gentle/Soothing Ladder
  • Pick-Up-Put-Down

Most research and studies on sleep training and its effects have used either the extinction or graduated extinction methods, so knowing that these are the more “extreme” (for lack of a better term!) methods, and babies are not damaged psychologically should give you some peace of mind, whether you have used or are considering using any of these methods.

The right method (refer to #4 above), paired with the appropriateness of #1-3 (see above) specific to your child will help sleep training be successful, both from a sleep perspective and from a psychological perspective.

You can see that the majority of these methods are not leaving your baby alone to cry-it-out, and instead are supportive and parent-present approaches…hmmm…ideas that actually PROMOTE a secure attachment.

And the benefits of using a behavioral approach of teaching the skill of sleep are endless; a well-rested child, optimal growth and development, predictability, health and wellness, and positive outcomes for maternal mental health.

When I work with families, we utilize all four cornerstones to help your child and your family experience success with sleep training. There’s a lot that goes into it, so having an expert to help guide you through the process can be invaluable! I am also a big fan of following the parents’ lead and doing what they’re comfortable with. I will never ask you to leave your baby to cry!

Here’s what I want you to take away from this post: if you follow what you think is best for your baby, then you are doing what’s best for your baby and your family. And that’s the right choice for you.

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