No matter the lie, if it’s repeated long and hard enough, it becomes a cultural truth. Even when it has no factual origins. Enter: ‘sleep training’.
“It’s for their own good,” they say, leaving their baby wailing for a half-hour next door. That declaration’s born out of our own need to rationalise away decisions abrasive to our instincts. To help us justify choices we know deep down aren’t right.
And sometimes those choices really are for their own good. Like telling your kids to eat their greens or brush their teeth. But when it comes to discounting their emotional needs, well—that declaration goes out the window. And the more I’ve ventured into my parenting journey, the more detached I’ve felt from mainstream practices—and many, it turns out, can be traced back to mistruths told to us when we were kids ourselves.
The myth of ‘self-soothing’
Sleep training is an umbrella term for any number of practices whereby the parent lets their baby ‘cry it out’, and fall asleep of their own accord. Collectively, advocates refer to this process as self-soothing. The theory goes that by ignoring your baby’s needs you actually instil in them resilience. And that’s where fear comes into play: parents are scared into believing that if they fail to teach their baby to self-soothe, they’ll grow up lacking emotional fortitude.
But… it’s an illusion. And illusions can be shattered. And when they’re shattered, they have no power over you, no way of leveraging your love and sleep-deprived desperation to their advantage. You become immune to practicing harsh parenting practices as you aim for a goal that never existed in the first place. And in so doing you prevent the myth from embedding in your subconscious.
Modernity places unfounded value on the expectation of solitary sleep, so you need to be emboldened if you’re going to ask the tough questions and take your own path. The truth is, self-soothing is an impossibility for infants. They haven’t the faculties to regulate their emotions—you’re trying to expedite a developmental milestone you simply have to wait for. The last part of the brain to mature is the neocortex, where analysis and rationalisation occur, enabling us to assess our situation and mediate our response. The infant neocortex is undeveloped—babies and young children cannot be rationalised with. That’s why they rely on us to regulate their emotions on their behalf.
Why has sleep training pervaded the parental zeitgeist?
When parents leave their babies to cry, they’ll probably observe that their little one eventually stops. But silence doesn’t mean they’re sleeping through the night. Silence doesn’t mean they’re soothed. It might just mean they’re being silent—and through the night. They may be lightly or fully awake, having learned that crying elicits no response. Is that a good thing?
No. Because it teaches babies to freeze. This kind of silence doesn’t equal calm, peace, tranquillity. When your baby’s left alone with its physical or emotional needs unmet, they experience stress. More specifically, their blood cortisol level rises, and their fight-flight-freeze response kicks in. Fight didn’t work (crying). Flight is off the table (they’re immobile). Their only choice is to freeze—or they’ll develop what’s known in psychology as learned helplessness, which defines people who feel powerless to effect positive change in their lives.
Your baby’s brain grows from 25% to an astonishing 80% of its adult size in the first three years of life. You cannot overemphasise how vital this period is, and how the quality of this developmental stage has implications for your child’s long-term mental health. The more you nurture your child, the more the volume of their hippocampus rises, a region of the brain integral to stress modulation and behavioural regulation. Flipping that correlation around, healthier children can be shown retroactively to have had more parental support during that critical three-year period. Why? Because they’ve been raised to believe their needs matter. Whereas babies who go ignored grow into children predisposed to anxiety, insecurity, and doubt. They grow into people who assume nothing can be done when they face hardship, harassment, or abuse.
The way you parent lays the foundations for your child’s beliefs
Children believe they’re the source of their own experience. What do I mean by that? Simple: they subconsciously assume that how they feel when they’re growing up equates to who they are. Infants don’t understand that by attempting ‘sleep training’ you’re making a conscious effort to bestow strength on them for the future. They just ‘believe’ they’re being ignored, don’t matter, and so should keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves.
If you repeatedly disregard your baby, they may irreversibly imbibe the notion they’re unworthy of love, happiness, and attention.If you shower your little one with praise, demonstrate attentiveness, and meet their needs no matter how physically or emotionally inconvenient their resolution is to you, well—your child will grow up feeling not only loved, but validated, valuable, and worthy of respect, too.