The Best Argument for Sleep Training You’ll Ever Read

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Photo: Milan Marjanovic/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In an essay today in the New York Times, one mother details trying — and ultimately failing — to sleep train her daughter, who is now 6 years old and sleeping on a yoga mat beside her parents’ bed.

At first glance, “Our Sleep Training Nightmare” seems like a worst-case-scenario story. Sleep training didn’t work for this family, so they’re doing the best they can to get everyone rest. But on closer read, the essay doesn’t depict sleep training at all: It depicts a refusal, over years and years, to sleep train.

Sleep training is when parents of an infant or small child deliberately and methodically nudge (okay, sometimes, we force) a “sleep through the night” situation. It’s mildly controversial in some parenting circles, though research suggests it’s not harmful and is actually beneficial for babies. Experts differ on when the ideal time to start this process is, and they differ on how much one should let a child cry, but most agree that before the age of 1 year is ideal. They also agree that some crying, even if only a few minutes, is almost always necessary.

Some parents (myself included) sleep train very early, at around 2 or 3 months. The notion is, and research largely agrees, that the earlier the better, or at least the faster. Some babies take just a night or two. Some take more than a week.

This is not an easy process, as any parent who has ever even tried it for a few hours will tell you. It runs counter to the basic, animal instincts to soothe your baby when it cries. Most baby-sleep gurus will tell weeping parents that a little bit of crying now will save a lot of it later, but just try listening to your own baby scream for just ten minutes: It feels like a century.

So it’s with a lot of sympathy that I read “Our Sleep Training Nightmare” — until I realized that the essay, which comes to the conclusion that sleep training simply didn’t work for the author’s child despite her years of effort, leaves out some important details.

The author, Lisa Selin Davis, writes:

When our firstborn turned 2 and started screaming in the crib, we moved her to a mattress on the floor, and lay with her until she fell asleep — sometimes for two hours. We let her sleep in our bed. We put the mattress in our room, and let her sleep on our floor. Every iteration, because she — because we — needed sleep.

This is a completely normal reaction to a screaming 2-year-old, but it has nothing to do with sleep training. For an essay about sleep training to skip the first two years — when most people who believe in sleep training try, fail, and then try again until they succeed — is puzzling. No one would blame a parent for pulling a crying child from her bed. But by two years into the process, people who abide by sleep training usually have a protocol for this kind of situation, not just a series of increasingly desperate stopgap measures.

And the rest of the essay follows suit. At every turn, doctors and sleep consultants tell Lisa to “lock the door” of her now aging child’s room. If this sounds harsh, it’s probably because babies really should be sleep trained before they can turn doorknobs.

That is, of course, if you want to sleep train them. And the author, clearly, does not. Which again, is fine: Families must choose what works for them and then deal with the consequences. Some kids are harder than others, for sure. But no one should be scared off of sleep training — which really can be a glorious revelation for parents — simply by one writer’s stubborn refusal to ever, ever take any advice, and then decide when the child is 6 that the real problem is the professionals. Selin Davis writes:

“All the experts were wrong. There is no sleep silver bullet, just the tarnished brass of a deadbolt. Now I understand: I have been parenting the child I want her to be, and not the child she is.”

But they were not wrong: They were ignored. For years.

She’s right about one thing, though: There are no easy answers. Just this morning, my daughter, who is almost 3 and usually sleeps until 7 or 7:30 a.m., woke up at 5:15. She decided, in her crib, that the day had begun. I went into her room and tried to resettle her, but she wasn’t having it. “I’m sorry,” I said to her, “It’s still dark. I’ll be back at seven.” I left a little lamp on for her and went back to bed. Over the monitor, I heard the inevitable wail. It went on and on for more than ten minutes, and then she was silent. A minute later, I heard her sing.