The mainstay of almost all baby sleep training is the idea of teaching 'self soothing' or 'self settling'. This approach believes that if babies are put down 'drowsy but awake' and parents do not rush in to feed or rock when they wake, that the baby will learn to settle back to sleep without parental input.
Once a baby can self settle, parents are to believe that the baby will 'sleep through the night'. What they are actually implying, since no baby ever sleeps through the night due to extremely short sleep cycles, is that every time the baby wakes in the night (around 10 to 15 times, depending on age) they will be able to start a new sleep cycle alone.
This sounds like a sensible idea. If only it were true.
Babies are incapable of self soothing or self settling in the true sense. Sure, they can suck their thumb, stroke a lovey or take comfort from a dummy/pacifier. This is their limit though. It's like 'self soothing lite'. This 'self soothing lite' requires the baby to be in a position where everything is fine. If there are no problems, this 'self soothing lite' may work. If there are problems, it just doesn't.
As an adult, why did you wake last night? Aside from your baby waking you!
- Perhaps a different, unexpected noise woke you
- Perhaps your partner was snoring
- Perhaps you needed to go to the toilet
- Perhaps you woke with a dry throat and needed a drink
- Perhaps you woke cold
- Perhaps you woke hot
- Perhaps it was too light
- Perhaps it was too dark and you could see shadows that scared you
- Perhaps you woke because of a nightmare
- Perhaps you struggled to get back to sleep because of anxiety
- Perhaps you struggled to get back to sleep for no known reason
- Perhaps you were uncomfortable
- Perhaps you were lonely, missing your partner
- Perhaps you woke because you were in pain
- Perhaps you woke because you felt sick.
The list is endless and unique.
Why do babies wake? I suspect the list looks pretty similar to that above. With the important addition of 'hunger'.
So, as an adult, how could you fix the problems that caused you to wake?
- You could investigate and stop the noise
- You could go to the toilet and return back to bed 'clean'
- You could go to the kitchen and make yourself a drink
- You could add blankets or a thicker duvet or add clothing
- You could swap the duvet for a sheet or change clothing for something cooler
- You could open or close the window or fiddle with the air con or heating
- You could turn a lamp on or off
- You could breathe deeply and remind yourself "it's only a dream"
- You could call a friend, check Facebook, write a diary or practice relaxation/meditation
- You could give up on sleep and get up for an hour or two
- You could call your partner, or ask them to come up to bed with you
- You could take a painkiller tablet or medication
Now, how many of these can babies do? The answer is "none". What do babies do? They cry. They cry for us, as adults, to help them. Because they cannot "self soothe" and do any of these things. Sure they can suck their thumb or stroke a lovey, but how many of the above will this help?
Babies are incapable of true 'self soothing'. They cannot fix problems alone. They need our help.
Now, throw in some sleep training that includes getting them to fall asleep drowsy but awake. How do you think that helps them to resolve the problems above? If they can't resolve the problems but the sleep training makes them quiet what is really happening? If they lay alone in their crib, not crying, but still experiencing a problem that they are incapable of fixing are they really calm, contented, happy and "a good sleeper"? Or perhaps have they learned that if they cry you do not come to fix their problem(s), so they may as well not bother? Is this perhaps what really happens when we mistakenly believe we can teach them to "self settle" and "self soothe"?