No Need for Guilt, Sleep Training Doesn't Ruin Your Baby Bond

Parent tries to comfort crying baby in crib

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows babies who are sleep trained slept better and longer than babies who were not sleep-trained.
  • Sleep training did not affect the bonding between parents and infants.
  • The decision to sleep train is up to each individual family, but this study can help parents ease parents anxious minds about sleep training.

If you're a parent, chances are you've been there—we all have. You have a baby that won’t sleep when expected, who then cries incessantly because they are overtired. The exhausted parent in turn also gets cranky and the cycle seems to be continuous and torturous. Sleep training may seem like the obvious answer but some parents worry the process will break the parent-child bond, and possibly damage the child’s mental health.

New research should help calm some of those fears. It not only showed that sleep training worked, but it didn't impact the parents' bond with their babies. This study was conducted in collaboration with Nanit Lab, the research arm of Nanit—a company that makes high-tech baby monitors. The monitors use technology to help track the baby's sleep and growth.

In the study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, 2,090 Nanit users were surveyed about their experience with infant behavioral sleep interventions (BSIs). This is also known as sleep training. Participants were all parents of U.S. infants between the ages of 3 and 18 months. Approximately 64% of parents reported using BSIs.

Sleep Training Doesn't Break Your Bond With Baby

Sleep training is a safe, effective way to help your baby get the sleep they need to set them up for a lifetime of sleep health. ”Babies who were sleep trained slept better and longer than babies who were not," says Natalie Barnett, PhD and vice president of clinical research at Nanit.

Not only are sleep-trained babies sleeping better, but researchers found no correlation between sleep training and negative outcomes such as depression, sleepiness, or damage to parent-infant bonding. This is great news for parents concerned about the connection and safety of sleep training methods. 

“There was no evidence of sleep training interfering with the parent-child bond," Dr. Barnett explains. "There was no difference in attachment between the babies who were sleep trained and the babies who were not,”

Jessica Madden, MD, a board-certified pediatrician, neonatologist, and International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) agrees. She says she doesn't believe sleep training interferes with the bonding of parents with older infants or children.

Dr. Madden however has one caveat.  She doesn’t recommend sleep training before 4-5 months of age. Babies should get comfortable falling asleep on their own at this age before the separation anxiety phase which usually starts around 8 months old. "It's really important to not initiate sleep training for any babies who have current problems with growth, weight gain, and nutrition or other chronic health problems," she adds.

Babies Who Are Sleep Trained Get More Zzz’s

Sleep training teaches children how to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and the ability to get themselves back to sleep when they wake. These are vital healthy habits that help children feel their best.

“We often don’t realize how impactful sleep training can be for parents as well," says Sydney Lucas, a certified sleep training consultant with Wee-Sleep. "Having guidance and support helps ease parents' stress, anxiety, and exhaustion that comes with lack of sleep and frustration around what to do and how.”

Lucas says having a plan helps parents feel in control and can be life-changing for many families. Children who sleep better are emotionally adjusted, have less difficulty learning, less fussiness, and have a reduced risk of health problems as they grow. Restorative sleep is crucial for the development and overall well-being of the whole family.

From a developmental standpoint, infants do not sleep through the night, on average, until they are at least 6 months old. Dr. Madden advises parents to have realistic expectations and goals if they start to sleep train. “Sleeping through the night means having one stretch of sleep that is at least 6 hours long—so sleeping from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. is considered to be sleeping through the night," advises Dr. Madden.

It's important to remember there's no 'one size fits all' approach to sleep training. The decision whether or not to start to sleep train, and when, needs to be made from a holistic standpoint. Dr. Madden says parents should factor in the baby’s temperament, sleep environment, method of feeding, age and size of baby, and also parents’ goals and desires. 

Types of Sleep Training Studied

  • Unmodified extinction (“cry it out”): Parents leave their baby’s room at bedtime without soothing them when they cry until they can fall asleep on their own. 
  • Modified extinction (“controlled crying”): Similar to “cry it out”, but gradual. Parents soothe their babies when they cry, but gradually increase the amount of time until they soothe.
  • Parental presence: The parent stays in the room with the baby as they fall asleep, but gradually moves farther away until the baby can fall asleep without them.

Different Methods Yield Different Outcomes

In the Journal of Pediatrics study, babies who were left to cry it out (unmodified extinction) or experienced controlled crying (modified extinction) got the equivalent of an extra night of sleep per month compared to babies who were not sleep-trained.

Controlled crying was the most common approach. "Unmodified extinction was the method that was the fastest to see improvements and took the shortest time to complete, while parental presence took significantly longer to see improvements and to complete,” says Dr. Barnett.

Critics of the unmodified extinction method worry that letting their baby cry it out without comfort will elevate the baby's stress levels.

Dr. Barnett says the benefit of the parental presence method was it was the easiest method for parents to implement. It was significantly easier on the parents than modified or unmodified extinction. However, the study found that it took parents more than 50% longer to see improvements in infant sleep using parental presence compared to unmodified or modified extinction.

What if I Don’t Want To Sleep Train My Baby?

Ultimately, the decision to sleep train is up to the parents. The most common concern parents have is causing emotional stress and damage to the baby. Lucas shares a combination method she often recommends.

“Putting your baby to bed while he or she is still awake, and a parent stays nearby to support them when needed until their baby falls asleep. This is a gentle, supportive way to help your baby learn to sleep without leaving them to cry it out or do it all on their own,” she says.

Parents who did not implement sleep training visited their infants’ cribs 37 times per month more than parents who sleep train their babies. Additionally, parents who did not implement sleep training or relied on parental presence were more likely to perceive their infants' sleep as problematic.

“Sleep training, if done in a developmentally appropriate manner, can help older infants and toddlers start to sleep through the night,” adds Dr. Madden. “To my knowledge, there are not any scientific or research studies showing any real benefits of sleep training. The main benefit I can tell is for both parents and children to get longer stretches of sleep at night."

What This Means For You

Sleep training your baby is safe and can be beneficial for both the baby and the parents. Having guidance and support helps ease parents' stress, anxiety, and exhaustion from lack of sleep and frustration around what to do and how to do it. Speak with your child’s pediatrician before attempting sleep training. The use of a certified sleep training expert can also help to answer any questions and guide you.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Taayoo Murray
Taayoo is a New York City-based writer and boy mom who writes about family, health & wellness, and lifestyle. Her work has been published in national publications like Parents, Health, Huffpost Well, Verywell Health, Yahoo Life, Business Insider, New York Times Kids, Giddy, and others.