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Why Sleep-Shaming About Sleep Training Needs To Stop.

“Should I sleep train? Is it safe?”The topic of babies’ sleep is one of the most guilt-ridden, fear-driven topics in the parenting world.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of companies profiting off these strong emotions. ‘Your child must learn to self-soothe, or they will never sleep independently (now buy my sleep training product),’ say the staunch sleep training proponents. Conversely, ‘If you sleep train, you are traumatizing your child (now buy my anti-sleep-training product)’ as imply certain influencers. Not only are some of the arguments used on both sides oftentimes illogical and/or unsubstantiated, but given the realities of families in the 21st century, they can be counterproductive and harmful.

Whether you choose to co-sleep, engage in sleep training, or abstain from sleep training altogether, the decision is entirely your own. Parenting choices, especially those as deeply personal and context-specific as this, should be made free from judgment or societal ostracization. You deserve to exercise your parental rights without fear of reproach or criticism.

First, we’ll examine the historical context of sleep training and then turn to each of the objections by both sleep training advocates and anti-sleep training proponents.

The Stigma Around Sleep Training

There is so much stigma and shaming around infant sleep. The stigma seems to have started initially from pediatricians (CIO and Ferber both originated from pediatricians) and was then picked up by sleep coaches as sleep training became popular among new parents. The rhetoric was that if you don’t sleep train your child will never learn to self-soothe, your child would net be getting enough sleep and if you respond to every cry, you are overindulging them. Using the CIO or Ferber Methods was considered to be good parenting and to not sleep train was somewhat frowned upon.

And then the tide started to turn. Parenting philosophies like attachment parenting and conscious parenting gained popularity. And with it, a prevalent anti-sleep training movement also gained momentum. This anti-sleep training camp warned that sleep training (and especially cry-it-out) was harmful to the parent-child attachment as well as a child’s mental health. The narrative focused on sleep training being unnatural and selfish, putting a parent’s needs above a baby’s needs, which is a powerful argument as it questions a parent’s ‘worthiness’.

With the advent of social media, suddenly the prevalence and vocality of anti-sleep-training advocates exploded. For example, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a ‘gentle sleep trainer’ publishes an article that starts with “Are you considering sleep training because you are exhausted and desperate for a little more sleep? Here are ten reasons why you shouldn’t do it!” (1). With these narratives came the guilt, shame, fear, and ultimately inertia of parents (especially first-time parents) who feel like whatever they choose, they are damaging their children in some way.

To Sleep Train or Not to Sleep Train: the Ultimate Question

If you are a new parent or have just had a new baby, you probably have seen these debates on social media on both sides. Instead of getting into the weeds of the shaming debate, let’s take a step back and look at each of the arguments used and judge them on their individual merit. A logical fallacy is a flawed argument that can be disproved through reasoning (2).

“Sleep Training is Harmful.”

This argument is flawed for several reasons. First and foremost, the science doesn’t support this claim. While a key issue with the sleep training industry as a whole (and what we are trying to address at Batelle) is that we don’t have enough strong, peer-reviewed data to show either benefit or harm, the evidence that does exist points only to varying efficacy metrics and is very different from the question of “benefit” or “harm”.

If we did want to measure the harm or benefit of various sleep training methods, here are some preliminary questions to consider:

  • Harm/benefit to whom? Are we looking at the child in isolation? What about the parents? What about the family as a system or unit?

  • What type of sleep training? Assuming harm/benefit in all is reductionist (3).

  • How are we defining ‘benefit’ and ‘harm’? Are we looking at psychological or physiological factors? What about the harms or benefits of the outcome (e.g. sleep deprivation v getting enough sleep)?

  • Lastly, what timeframe should we consider? Is there long-term harm or benefit from sleep training? What about the long-term harm/ benefit of getting more sleep?

These questions are multi-faceted. Stating that sleep training is harmful/torturous/cruel/child abuse[fill in the evocative adjective]….loses the nuance and inherent complexity of the question and falls prey to the “appeal to emotion” fallacy (4). This fallacy occurs if this statement is intended to incite fear or other strong emotions in the reader without providing evidence.

“But just because there isn’t proof of harm, that doesn’t necessarily mean harm doesn’t exist!” shout the anti-sleep training camp. Whilst this statement at face value is technically correct, to say “sleep training is harmful because there’s no proof that it’s safe” is an example of the ‘argument from ignorance’ fallacy itself! (It’s worth noting that the same logic applies to the statement “sleep training is beneficial” – as many doulas and certified pediatric sleep consultants will say). Essentially – the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

“Sleep Training is Unnatural.”

This is a refrain in anti-sleep training circles. For example, Resting In Motherhood says “Mothers of the past (and many mothers today all over the world) didn’t stress about the perfect nap.” This line of reasoning falls prey to the “appeal to tradition” fallacy (5). The argument suggests that because co-sleeping has been practiced for a long time, it is inherently better or more natural (ie. the naturalistic fallacy). However, the fact that something has been done for a long time does not necessarily mean it is the best or only way to do things. The hypocrisy inherent in this belief is also beautifully summed up by Lucy Morris in her article in Slate Magazine, “Vulnerability to disease and injury is also normal in babies, but most of us correct for that by vaccinating and using car seats.”

Human societies and behaviors have evolved and changed over time, and what may have been practical or necessary in the past may not be the best option in the present. Parenting in our society these days differs significantly from parenting hundreds of years ago. Families are statistically more isolated than ever before, meaning they have a less communal support structure. Most families are also now dual-income households (i.e. both parents need to work), whereas a hundred years ago, a woman’s full-time job was being a stay-at-home mom. We also have a far better understanding of the link between sleep and mental and physical health (in children and parents). This kind of ‘sleep training is unnatural’ statement misses the real-world context and nuance and holds parents to an outdated and often unrealistic standard.

“Sleep Training Puts a Parent’s Needs Ahead of a Child’s”

The first problem with this statement is that there is a false dichotomy; it suggests that either you cater to the parent’s needs (by sleep training) or the child’s needs as if there’s no option to meet the needs of both with an intervention (7). It assumes that addressing a parent’s needs will somehow neglect a child’s, or have some form of detriment to the child’s wellbeing. Clearly, different strategies might balance the needs of both parent & child, and could have net positive or negative outcomes for both.

For one, the needs and wellness of parent and child are inextricably linked. With an increasing rate of dual-income households, modern-day parents are more time-poor than ever, and with a lack of sleep, their mental and physical health will suffer. If a child is not getting enough sleep, the effects are felt across the whole family unit. 66% of working parents feel burnt out (8). The likelihood of postpartum depression in women with poor sleep quality was 3.34x higher than those with good sleep quality (9). Sleep deprivation increases the risk of heart attacks by 20%, and car accidents by 33%. (10, 11) It affects how good a parent one can be, which has a direct effect on the child. This is not a case of prioritizing the needs of one over the other necessarily, but of prioritizing the needs of the family as a whole.

“Sleep is a Biological Need and Therefore is Not a Learned Skill.”

“No amount of sleep training will change your child’s biological needs,” says @islagracesleep. At face value, this statement is correct, but any implication that sleep training is therefore not useful does not follow. The imprecise use of language by both camps has created one of the most contentious arguments, which is also surprisingly easy to dismantle. Both statements, ‘sleep is a biological need, not a learned skill’ and ‘sleep is a learned skill’ have elements of truth but are semantically incorrect. Yes, sleep is a biological need. It is also a biological function. A newborn sleeps on average 12-16 hours per day without us needing to “teach” them anything. However, if it were purely a question of biology, no changes in a caregiver’s behavior should have any effect on the outcome: you can jump up and down as much as you like, but your child’s eye color is not going to change. With sleep, the behavior of the caregivers can be hugely influential. Why? Because while the need and mechanics of sleep are biologically based, the questions of when, how, who, and where are behavioral-based.

So the correct statement is that sleep is both a biological need and behavior. A caregiver’s behavior and interactions with a child will shape that child’s behavior and habits. For example, eating is a biological need, yet dietary habits are inherited both genetically and behaviorally (12). Ultimately, this is a case of both nature and nurture rather than binary and explains why even identical twins can have very different sleep behaviors.

“If You Don’t Sleep Train, Your Child Will Never Learn to Self-Soothe”

This was one of the more prominent arguments used by sleep trainers on the other side of the argument, trying to persuade someone to buy their program. Firstly, there is no evidence to support this claim. Secondly, it’s a false dichotomy. This statement presents only two options – either you sleep train, or your child will never learn to self-soothe. It doesn’t account for other possibilities, such as the child learning to self-soothe in other ways (such as during play time) or at a later stage in life (like self-talk when they become a bit older). Lastly, it falls prey to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (after this, therefore because of this) (13). This fallacy occurs when it is assumed that because one thing occurred before another, it must have caused the other. Here, the assumption is that because sleep training happened before a child learned to self-soothe, it must be the cause. But correlation does not imply causation.

“If You Respond to Every Cry, You are Overindulging Your Child”

The perspective that equates responding to every cry with overindulgence isn’t as prevalent today as parenting norms have evolved. However, let’s dissect the underlying assertions. Firstly, the statement commits a logical fallacy known as “begging the question” (14).  This fallacy is characterized by assuming the conclusion within the premise, which in this case is assuming without evidence that responding to every cry automatically constitutes overindulgence. There is no scientific basis that establishes a definitive link between responding to every cry and overindulgence. In fact, there are studies that suggest the opposite. Secondarily, the assumption also creates a false dichotomy by asserting the situation is either black or white rather than on a spectrum.

In Conclusion

A lot of the arguments used to scare parents into one camp or another are unsound and/or lack scientific basis. It’s worth noting that just because they are subject to logical fallacies or currently lack sound evidence, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily untrue. Yet, in a world where parents are already struggling, using half-baked arguments to push fearful narratives is harmful.

It is understandable why people vocalize such strong opinions one way or another. As humans, we often feel defensive and want to prove our decision is sound. It feels great to be a part of a ‘cause’, and it feels even better when our own views are reinforced by others. I’m sure a lot of people really do believe these narratives and are unaware of the flaws in their reasoning. At Batelle, we have tried really hard not to buy into the fear narrative, but even with this reference point, have fallen into the trap on a number of occasions.

As an example, we had “Never-Cry-It-Out” on our website, saying that it is “fundamentally against the basis of the Batelle process”. By calling this out in this manner, it implies cry-it-out is harmful. Our aim is to articulate our position: we embrace sleep training, but not the type that carries so much stigma.” We know that when parents are considering different sleep training options, the questions they are asking are the very ones they have asked on Instagram; “is this not putting my needs above my child’s?”, “is this not going to harm my child”, “am I not going against what is natural?”. When a lot of parents in the US choose to do cry-it-out, our jumping on the judgmental bandwagon is unkind and just entrenches the stigma.

Instead of defining ourselves by what we are not, we should be defining ourselves by what we are. Because what we are is what a lot of parents need: a lifeline, an alternative to burnout, a way to solve a problem that is straining their marriage, putting strain on their mental and physical health or hindering their career. We are really proud of that.

To be clear, there is nothing necessarily wrong with highlighting differences: we’ve explained how Batelle is different to Taking Cara Babies or from Nanit. But, we shouldn’t be demonizing or shaming one parenting choice or another – we should just be presenting the facts.

The only thing we are truly opposed to is the fear-mongering and shaming in this industry. And that’s a fight we’ll pick any day.

This article was written by Batelle – a team of sleep experts, lactation consultants, therapists, doulas, and early education specialists.

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