Sleep Deprivation, “Good” Babies and Mental Health: Why Parents Need to Ditch The Myths of our Sleep Training Culture

Night Sleep

Culture is like the air we breathe. It influences all aspects of our lives, impacting our decisions and affecting how we see ourselves. How well we measure up. How easily we fit in. How “normal” we are.

When it comes to nighttime parenting, it’s fair to say that we live in a sleep training culture. A culture that sees solitary sleep as normal, sleep training as necessary and self-soothing as the holy grail parents must strive for.

Yet, it is merely a cocktail of myths…

Myths that dupe parents into ignoring their baby’s communication.

Myths that erode a mother’s connection with her infant.

Myths that potentially undermine healthy mental and emotional development.

Myths that threaten a mother’s ability to sustain breastfeeding.

Myths that sabotage a child’s ability to trust that the world they live in is a safe and joyful place.

Myths that are now perpetuated by a billion-dollar sleep training industry.

So, how does the sleep training industry convince parents to buy into these myths?

By preying on our greatest fears; that our children will never become independent, that they will never learn to self soothe, that they will never leave the family bed.

By creating the conditions for the “problem” and simultaneously providing the “solution”.

By using pseudo-supportive marketing messages that tell adults what we want to hear while profiting from our exhaustion, desperation, and isolation.

So, let’s disempower ourselves from these myths by meeting them with evidence, facts, and logic. With consciousness, community, and conviction. Let’s dig a little deeper so that you can liberate yourself from these cultural myths and parent YOUR way.

Myth One: Sleep training teaches babies to self soothe

The idea that sleep training teaches babies how to self soothe, which refers to the ability to regulate one’s emotions, is one of the biggest cons of new parenthood. Why?

Because babies and young children are physically incapable of self-soothing. Instead, babies rely on their parents to coregulate emotions with them until they can do it themselves.

The human brain can be broadly separated into three main areas; the hindbrain (responsible for survival mechanisms and the most developed at birth), the limbic system or “feeling brain” (develops over the first three years of life) and finally, the neocortex or “thinking brain” (doesn’t fully mature until we are in our mid-20’s and is responsible for critical, analytical and rational thought as well as decision-making).

When faced with a situation that requires emotional regulation, we need to be able to draw on all three areas of the brain; our hindbrain ensures our survival and determines whether we fight, flee or freeze. Our neocortex helps us rationalise, analyse and problem-solve, which then allows our limbic system to calm our emotions.

The issue with the theory of self-soothing in infancy is that babies would need to be able to use their neocortex in order to solve their own problem or rationalise that they are safe when they feel unsafe – but babies don’t have a mature neocortex, nor a mature limbic system.

The skill of self-soothing is a developmental milestone – just like walking or talking – and cannot be rushed.

Having said that, we can help our children learn healthy emotional regulation skills – but that doesn’t involve ignoring their communication. It involves modeling how we regulate our own emotions, helping our children describe how they feel and rationalising their experiences.

Myth Two: Babies should sleep through the night

It would be wonderful if this myth were true…but it’s not.

Babies – even sleep trained babies – DO NOT sleep through the night. Why?

Because they’re not designed to. Because a baby’s sleep cycle is half the length of an adult. Because babies spend considerably more time in REM sleep, from which it is much easier to rouse.

Quite simply babies NEED to wake through the night. They don’t do it to torture their parents. Or because they’re “bad”. They do it because they’re human. To think that we could “train” millennia of genetic blueprinting out our babies is delusional. What we can do is “train” them to stop signaling for us and to be silent through the night.

When researchers use objective measures, such as actigraphy, to monitor sleep/wake cycles, what they have found is that there is a vast difference between what parents observe and what actually happens during the night.

In a study that compared a control group of parents and babies with an intervention group (controlled crying), researchers found that in the controlled crying group parents reported that their babies were waking 3.1 times per night, whereas actigraphy found that babies were actually waking 8.2 times per night. Six weeks after the controlled crying, parents reported that their babies woke 1.7 times per night, but actigraphy showed that there had been no meaningful change as babies continued to wake 7.9 times per night. (1) Babies continue to wake as their biology dictates, regardless of whether we sleep train or not.

Myth Three: “Gentle” sleep training techniques are ok

If the sleep training industry were honest in their marketing messages, very few parents would employ their strategies.

And so, they sugar coat their message to make their product more palatable for parents.

Because the honest truth behind the process of silencing our babies’ nighttime communication is heartbreaking. Whether it’s the more extreme forms of sleep training like cry it out and controlled crying or whether methods have more “gentle” sounding names like spaced soothing or responsive settling – they are all just a variation on the same thing – ignoring a baby’s communication for various arbitrary lengths of time from various arbitrary distances.

How must this seem from the baby’s perspective? Babies may be nonverbal but they are capable of communication. They are capable of feeling abandoned, unheard and unseen. It doesn’t matter what the intention may be behind a parent’s actions, whether they’re well-meaning or not, it only matters how our children feel as a result of those actions.

Myth Four: Consolidated sleep is necessary for healthy brain development

Let’s take a look at one small part of the brain, the hippocampus. The hippocampus is an organ that forms part of the limbic system, which helps regulate emotions and consolidate information, including short- and long-term memory.

A longitudinal study involving depressed and healthy preschool children found that maternal responsiveness in early childhood was strongly predictive of hippocampal volume measured at school age. The researchers found that hippocampal volumes were greatest in non-depressed children who received high maternal support, while hippocampal volumes were lowest in depressed children who received low maternal support. (2)

Responsive parenting has a positive impact on healthy brain development and long term emotional regulation abilities.

Of course babies need healthy sleep in order to grow and develop normally, but it is total sleep that matters, not whether it is interrupted. Babies also have tiny tummies that digest low-fat breastmilk (or formula); they are going through the most rapid growth period of their lives and need to feed frequently, day and night, in order to support healthy brain development.

Myth Five: Babies should NOT be nursed to sleep

This cultural myth is completely false, serving only to undermine a new mother’s confidence, while also stealing one of her superpowers – her ability to help her baby sleep. If a baby is ready for sleep and breastfeeds, it is almost impossible for them not to fall asleep.

Nighttime breastmilk is qualitatively different to daytime breastmilk and contains hormones, including melatonin, which help babies sleep. In addition, the sucking action of breastfeeding releases the hormone cholecystokinin, which results in feelings of sleepiness in both mother and baby. This is often misinterpreted as being physically draining for a mother, but it is, in fact, Mother Nature’s way of ensuring new mothers get the sleep they need.

There are countless reasons, backed by science (which I outline in the soon-to-launch Good Science Guides, The Sleep Series) that demonstrate that nursing to sleep and throughout the night is exactly what nature intended.

Myth Six: Babies and toddlers may try to get your attention by vomiting

I read Tizzie Hall’s book, Save Our Sleep, Toddler when I first started Raised Good to make sure I had a well-rounded understanding of all aspects of sleep training. I will never forget reading this paragraph:

“I often come across a toddler who has learned to vomit at bedtime during failed attempts at controlled crying. If you have one of these toddlers you will need to teach her that vomiting will not get your attention or buy any extra time. This is hard, but it has to be done to stop the vomiting. The way you achieve this is to make the bed vomit-proof.”

Babies and toddlers who vomit, do so not because they’re trying to manipulate their parents but because the trauma of sleep training causes them to enter the fight, flight or freeze mode. For contact-dependent, social mammals like human infants, the perceived threat of being left alone signals the hypothalamus to release adrenaline and cortisol, priming the body to either run from danger, freeze or fight against it. Some babies will shut down, while others, due to the gut-brain connection will vomit. In prehistoric times this would have served us well as running from danger was more efficient on an empty stomach.

To suggest that a parent should ignore their traumatised child is promoting cruelty and is unfair to both the parent and child.

Myth Seven: Normal infant sleep is a risk factor postpartum depression

A 2018 study set out to examine the relationship between uninterrupted infant sleep and maternal mood. At 6 and 12 months of age, 388 maternal reports were used to assess the longest period of uninterrupted infant sleep and feeding method. Two different criteria were used to determine if infants “slept through the night”: six and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

The researchers found that a high percentage of 6- and 12-month-old infants do not sleep through the night and that there was no significant association between sleeping through the night, mental and psychomotor development, and maternal mood. The researchers concluded that “Considering that high proportions of infants did not sleep through the night and that no associations were found between uninterrupted sleep, mental or psychomotor development, and maternal mood, expectations for early sleep consolidation could be moderated.” (3)

So, perhaps it is total sleep duration that matters more to maternal mood than consolidated sleep. If that’s the case, how do mothers get the most sleep?

A study by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, involving a sample of 6,410 mothers of babies 0-12 months of age revealed that women who were exclusively breastfeeding reported significantly more hours of sleep, better physical health, more energy, and lower rates of depression than mixed or formula-feeding mothers. There were no significant differences between mixed and formula-feeding mothers, suggesting that breastfeeding is a fundamentally different experience than even mixed feeding. (4)

While breastfeeding mothers woke more frequently throughout the night to nurse their babies, mothers fell back to sleep faster and also only woke lightly rather than fully as they were more likely to be bedsharing.

If we, as a society, are genuinely concerned about mothers’ mental health then we need to accurately identify the problem if we have any hope of finding a meaningful solution. Using normal infant sleep is an easy scapegoat and suggesting sleep training is an ineffective Bandaid.

For more on the relationship between sleep training and postpartum depression, read How I Healed My Postnatal Depression Without Sleep Training My Baby. 

Myth Eight: No parents can survive multiple wakeups for months (or years)

This is such an important talking point that I am dedicating an entire post to it in the coming weeks, because this myth goes to the core of why we, as a culture, sleep train at all.

Because we all NEED sleep.

No parent is intentionally trying to ignore their child.

Every parent wants what is best for their baby.

But parents, especially mothers, are EXHAUSTED.

Why? Because we were never meant to do this alone. We were never meant to return to work weeks or months after giving birth.

We were never meant to sleep in isolation from our contact-dependent, immature, social little mammals.

But, the reality is many of us are. There is very little safety net for new mothers.

And so I understand why parents sleep train. This is not about judging individual parents, this is about questioning social norms that fail parents when sleep training is presented as the ONLY way parents will get any sleep.

Yet, we know from Kathleen Kendall-Tackett’s research, common sense, and experience that breastfeeding and bedsharing mothers get the most sleep, overall. If we truly cared, as a society, about mothers and babies getting the sleep they need, why aren’t we invested in teaching safe cosleeping practices?

I write a lot about natural parenting practices and for me and my family, bedsharing has been as amazing as it was unexpected. It was my path to get the sleep I needed as a new mother.

Your path won’t look the same as mine and it shouldn’t.

But it shouldn’t look like everyone else’s. It should look like YOURS.

Take the science of what we know about nighttime parenting and create your own work of art.

My aim is to inform, inspire and empower you to do just that. To question. And question. And question again…until you find YOUR answer.

My aim is to challenge our collective view of normal so that we can see families who cosleep or who choose not to sleep train, not as being alternative hippies, but as being totally normal.

My aim is to support you on your journey and normalise biologically normal infant sleep so that you can find meaningful solutions for YOUR family.

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THE GOOD SCIENCE GUIDES: SLEEP SERIES
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References

  1. Hall WA, Hutton E, Brant RF, Collet JP, Gregg K, et al. A randomized controlled trial of an intervention for infants’ behavioral sleep problems. BMC Pediatrics 2015; 15: 181.
  2. Luby JL. Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age. 2012. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA;109(8):2854-9.
  3. Pennestri MH, Laganière C, Bouvette-Turcot AA, Pokhvisneva I, Steiner M, Meaney MJ, Gaudreau H.  Uninterrupted infant sleep, development, and maternal mood.  Pediatrics 2018
  4. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, RLC, FAPA1, Zhen Cong, Ph.D. Thomas W. Hale, Ph.D. 2011 The Effect of Feeding Method on Sleep Duration, Maternal Well-being, and Postpartum Depression, Clinical Lactation, Vol. 2-2, 22-26 
COMMENTS
  • Avatar
    July 04, 2019
    George Hervey

    I’m hands on dad in my children’s growth. I’m actually astonished at how many things I’ve been doing wrong. Good thing it’s better late than never. Thank you, I hope more parents read this post and change where necessary.

  • Avatar
    September 07, 2019
    Corne van Niekerk

    This was beautiful to read, as I’m nursing my baby to sleep.

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