Is My Baby “Giving Up” During Sleep Training?

Is My Baby “Giving Up” During Sleep Training?

Sleep training and the concept of independent sleep inspires a lot of opinions. Because there is no solid evidence that one method of family sleep management is more beneficial to children than another, the subject of sleep training is a breeding ground for opinions, myths, half truths and unfounded conclusions.

One opinion that is currently circulating on social media is that babies are “giving up” during sleep training. The conclusion being that when a baby is in the midst of a sleep training program, he cries and cries and cries until he realizes there is no point in crying. Sometimes the crying is referred to as “signalling” and proponents of this opinion insist that the baby is crying because he has a need that is not being met. According to the theory, he comes to understand that his needs will remain unmet, until his caregiver decides to tend to him. He then makes a conscious decision to “give up” on crying and falls asleep from sheer exhaustion. 

As a certified pediatric sleep consultant and mother of two I completely understand why some families feel that independent sleep is not for them and instead prefer to assist their children to sleep. I can also see how the “giving up” theory would develop, however I feel this conclusion should be scrutinized before it is accepted by caregivers. 

It’s difficult for me to believe that anyone knows what an infant is thinking during the sleep training process but since we are theorizing, below is my opinion on what is actually happening. First a few points about modern sleep training methods. 

Modern Responsive Sleep Training Methods 

The theory that the child is “giving up” during sleep training is based on the assumption that the caregivers are completely unresponsive during the process or in other words, that they are using the “cry it out” method. However, I do not know of any qualified sleep consultants who use this method. On the contrary, most modern sleep consultants have blended responsiveness and attachment based theories with some elements of the traditional approach. 

Along with the “cry it out” method, there are some old school recommendations that can be left in the past if caregivers don’t feel comfortable using them. I recall the sleep program that was written for my daughter only 7 years ago and there are some parts that I would not recommend today such as avoidance of eye contact and refraining from holding or picking up the baby. (They didn’t feel right at the time so I didn’t follow these recommendations.)

In recent years, modern sleep consultants are composing sleep plans that encourage responsiveness and connection but still drive home the point that the child should fall asleep independently. The check and console method, the chair method, pick up put down ect, all state that the child should not be left alone to cry for more than a few minutes. The goal of these methods is to give the baby the message that she has not been left alone and that her caregivers are close by but that it is time for bed. 

Meeting a Baby’s Needs

When caregivers begin a sleep training program with a qualified, certified baby sleep consultant, they are normally instructed to make sure all the baby’s needs are met before putting the baby to bed. The baby should have had a milk feed or for older children, a before bed snack. The baby’s diaper should be dry and they should be in an environment that is comfortable and conducive to restful, safe sleep. The baby should be healthy and not in the middle of a teething episode. Qualified baby sleep consultants also recommend a wind down routine that gives an opportunity for connection through hugs, cuddles, kisses and quiet activities such as reading, singing, ect. 

In short, the baby should be fine, all her needs should be met and she should be tired and ready for sleep. This disputes the idea that the baby is crying because she has an unmet need. 

My Personal Theory Regarding the Child’s Realization 

In my opinion, the goal of modern sleep training is not to make the baby realize that he should give up, however the goal is for him to realize something. 

Having sleep trained my own children and helped a number of families successfully implement sleep plans I don’t feel that children “give up” during sleep training. I observed my children closely during the sleep training process and I ask my clients to do the same. Most caregivers, myself included, observed the following behaviour: 

On the first night, when their children stopped crying, they peered around the room, laid in their sleep spaces, their eyes started drooping and they fell asleep. The second night there was less crying and the same thing happened. During the nights that followed, crying continued to diminish until there was no crying at all. I personally witnessed my children exploring their sleep spaces, waving their arms or kicking their legs or shuffling around. My daughter scooted to the side of her crib, put her face against the bars, and I saw her eyes blink until they closed completely and she fell asleep. My son, who we sleep trained at 7 months, turned over on his stomach, tightly shut his eyes and fell asleep. 

I witnessed my children finding their own way to get comfortable and cozy to get ready for sleep. In my opinion, they were not realizing that they should give up, they were realizing the expectation that my husband and I have for bedtime in our family. The expectation that when it’s bedtime, we want them to try to fall asleep in their own sleep spaces. They realized that it’s time for sleep and that they were ok. I think babies realize that they are fine and there is no reason to be afraid. It’s ok to be upset about bedtime but it’s still bedtime – so go to sleep. Although their caregivers are not physically in the bed or in the room, they are close by and will tend to them if truly needed. 

What I find troubling and contradictory is that the same sleep experts who claim that sleep is a biological need that cannot be taught, claim that sleep training teaches the child to “give up.” It seems like picking and choosing what a child can and cannot be taught. Of course sleep is a biological need, we all know that. However, the act of falling asleep is not something that children know how to do instinctively, especially if they have always been assisted when falling asleep. 

In my opinion, the “giving up” theory is an example of fear mongering and conjecture. How can we know what a baby is thinking at any given moment? How can we know what is truly occurring in the infant brain during any learning process? We can’t. All we can do is what feels right for our family and not judge others for doing something different. 

If you want to discuss further about sleep training book a 15 minute consultation call.