How to avoid needing to sleep train your child

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

Hi. My name is Amanda Webb, and I’m a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who did not sleep train her child.

I didn't have to.

I'll explain.

Sleep training is teaching your child how to get the appropriate amount of sleep for his/her age group.

Sleep training can be used an intervention for older babies and toddlers who are not getting the minimum number of hours of sleep required for heathy development in their age group, and thus are accumulating sleep debt. Newborns cannot be "sleep trained." They don't typically accumulate much sleep debt. They have biological needs that must be met on an interval that does not align with adequate adult sleep (hence why you are absolutely exhausted), but that is not because they have not been trained to do otherwise. They typically sleep plenty for themselves in 24 hours given the opportunity - but the adults who care for them cannot get enough rest due to the short frequency and duration of newborn sleep. If there's a newborn around, someone (or more than one someone) is going to be sleep deprived. Older babies, however, can begin to stay awake long enough to accumulate sleep debt if they are unable to fall (and stay) asleep. Here is where sleep training comes in.

The various methods used to sleep train are where things sometimes emotionally charged. But I'd like to tell you that you do not have to sleep train if you raise a sleeper from the start.

Sleep training is a necessary solution to a later problem (inadequate sleep), not a goal to strive for initially. It’s a kind of "emergency" sleep intervention to address sleep deprivation. The smoother pathway is to develop the longest stretches of sleep possible for you child from birth. You can do this by timing when you meet your child's biological's needs. This is how you raise a sleeper - and how you avoid sleep training later on.

Sleep deprivation is always an emergency.

Even in the postpartum period, when there's a baby to be fed every 2-3 hours and mothers are not expected to get sufficient sleep, it's still a state of emergency. Mom will be accumulating a sleep debt that must be paid, one way or another. Lack of sleep will deprive your senses of their ability to function properly, rob you of your predictable mood and emotions, and suppress your immune system, among other things - and that's not even mentioning how it feels to be sleep deprived.

If we wait for your baby to accumulate sleep debt and be old enough to sleep train, we will have missed a critical opportunity to develop independent sleep habits from birth, and everyone will be cranky and tired.

That doesn't mean that if you have to sleep train, you did something wrong or that sleep training is bad (in fact I help families sleep train their older babies and toddlers every day!). It's easier to do from the beginning, but if you are the exhausted parent of an older baby or toddler, sleep training is the only way to teach your child how to meet their needs for rest. It's never too late to end your family's sleep debt and get quality sleep.

If you are thinking of sleep training, that usually means that you are already exhausted.

By the time parents seek out sleep training or give it a try, hours and hours of sleep are already lost. You, your child, and possibly your entire family are not getting the necessary sleep to function as people.

It’s far easier (not to mention more enjoyable) to develop excellent sleep habits with your newborn from day one, rather than intervene when you’re 3 months, 6 months, or a year in and completely exhausted. That’s what I mean when I say I never had to sleep train. From the moment my daughter was born, I timed her calorie intake to tank up her daytime milk consumption and let the amount of time she could sleep at night gradually lengthen. That’s it. With the permission of her Pediatrician, she was sleeping 6 hour overnight stretches by 4-6 weeks of age, and slept her first 8 hour stretches at 8 weeks of age. I've seen this over and over again with the babies I work with from a very young age. I can look back and watch their stretches get longer and longer. As they gain weight, day after day, they also gain minutes on their longest stretch of sleep.

Feeding is the core of newborn sleep

At their very core, newborns would rather sleep than do anything else. Yes, even eat. Their powerful, insatiable hunger comes only after they sleep and secrete growth hormones. The cells of their bodies respond by rapidly dividing and burning an incredible amount of energy. As a result. their biological hunger cues drive them from sleep to a reflexive, panicked cry that is desperate for more calories, but only so that they can go back to their primary activity - sleep.

With a newborn, if we can time the calories right during the day, we'll allow the baby to tank up enough energy to do their favorite activity - sleep - as long as they can at night. Combine this with responsible use of sleep props and some control of the sleep environment (hello white noise and swaddles) and your child will be a fantastic sleeper.

Raising a sleeper is much easier than sleep training an older baby.

There’s also the insane bonus of not missing out on hours and hours of sleep in the first place. If you’re already exhausted or your baby is already weeks, months, or years old - this message is for you:

It’s never too late to teach sleep. Sleep training works.

Sleep is teachable. Your child deserves the ability to seek rest when he/she is tired. You deserve the ability to put your child down in a safe sleep space knowing she is fed, loved, comfortable, and will fall asleep on her own while you go to bed like a normal person. This can be a reality for you, and at this point - sleep training is the only way to get there. If you have a next baby, we’ll get you sleeping from the start. But right now? We need to get you sleeping. Now.

For more on how to raise a sleeper from birth, see the Sleepy Apple "Raising a Sleeper" course.

For help with sleep training a baby or toddler with sleep debt (4mo+), get On-Demand Sleep Help.

Amanda Webb is a Pediatric Sleep Consultant in Madison, Wisconsin.

She is a former teacher, daycare provider, and nanny who now works with families over the phone and online.

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