Your child is not “protesting”…they are crying. The language sleep trainers use and the damage it causes.

(*Not ALL sleep consultants use this language. If you help parents with sleep and you don’t use this language or leave babies to cry then that’s great!)

If you live in a developed nation and are currently raising children then you are well aware of the obsession we have with sleep. There are many different reasons for this, however one of the biggest reasons is that our “developed” societies are obsessed with independence! We are obsessed with this idea that our babies, toddlers and children “should” be sleeping through the night. They “should” be on their own, without any cuddles from an adult, even though we know there are many reasons babies are encouraged to be kept in the same room as us, including the decrease in SIDS risk [1]. We also know that bedsharing (sleeping on the same surface as the caretaker) and co-sleeping (sleeping in the same room but on a seperate surface than the caretaker) help encourage and lengthen the time women breastfeed for [2, 3, 4].

Not only does this make NO SENSE whatsoever to seperate ourselves from our breastfeeding children (or formula feeding children for that matter!), it is actually crucial to our children’s development that they receive these cuddles. Research from 2017 found that the postnatal contact (cuddles) we have with our babies have long lasting associations with child biology [5]. What does this mean? Whether or not our babies are held frequently literally changes their DNA. Boy I wish someone had told me that before I had my first baby and I would not have worried so much about how he never let me put him down for the first 3 years of his life. 🙂

For many years, we have been researching something us mothers have known since forever…the importance of infant communication and the need to RESPOND to our babies. Even way back in 1958 Bowlby (a pioneer in attachment parenting studies) identified crying as one of the instinctive patterns of behaviour through which the infant actively seeks to sustain contact [6]. They are crying because they need contact. Why do they need contact? Because we know that human physical touch is literally CRUCIAL to basic human development. All you have to do is familiarise yourself with the horrendously unethical and heartbreaking rhesus monkey research that Harry Harlow did which highlights the basic needs of mammals. The baby monkeys preferred cuddles with a doll (and no food) over being with a bottle. They needed the cuddles more than the actual food. If that doesn’t highlight the importance of touch I don’t know what does.

So why oh why do sleep trainers try to change the language around sleep so much when we know that waking to breastfeeding is not only normal but this physical contact with caregivers is actually crucial to development and wellbeing? Sleep consultants and sleep trainers use terms such as “sleep consolidation…sleep problems…responsive settling…protest cries vs. emotional cries, bad habits, sleep props…the list goes on. This language confuses new mothers and health care professionals alike! All of us start questioning and asking:

“Does my baby have a sleep problem? She must!!”

“Is this cry a little protest or an emotional cry?”

“Why is she waking again? I just fed her and changed her nappy! Is she creating bad habits?”

I had a look at some sleep consultants’ websites and I see the same themes emerge from many of them. Are there some gentle sleep consultants out there who truly do not encourage you to leave your baby crying? Yes! However that’s not something you need someone to teach you. That is you continuing to hold and breastfeed your baby as they fall asleep. You don’t need to pay someone to get that information, just listen to your baby. They’ll tell you that for free! Their cries mean, “Hold me! Breastfeed me!”

Here are just some of the things that I see many sleep consultants write (and why the language used is misleading and harmful)…

“I am a baby whisperer” No. You’re not. The mother is her baby’s whisperer. Instead of claiming you are going to come in and be the answer to all of her sleep concerns, remind the mother that she knows her baby best and to follow her baby’s lead. Her baby needs cuddles and breastfeeds…not sleep training. Her baby is waking because he needs cuddles and breastfeeds. He is waking for a reason. Here are all of the reasons why they continue to need breastfeeds overnight…

“Achieve your sleep goals in a very short period of time!” If someone is claiming they are going to get your baby sleeping in a “very short” period of time it is 99.9% likely that means you are going to be leaving your baby to cry, while they are not being held. Or AT BEST they will say you can hold them but not breastfeed them!!! It’s usually pure torture for mother, and for baby. It never felt right for me to withhold the one thing that I knew would settle by baby; a cuddle and a breastfeed. If it doesn’t feel right then DON’T DO IT. Pick up your baby and breastfeed them.

“Sleep begins to consolidate at around three or four months of age.” When a mother reads this what she is really reading is, “My baby has a sleep problem because it’s not consolidating by 4 months old.” No, your baby does not have a sleep problem. They are what I like to call…100% normal.

“Help prevent sleep problems from emerging further down the track.” Who is the person defining this “problem”? Sometimes my 6 year old still likes me to lie next to him while he falls asleep. Is that a sleep problem? No, it’s not. I know that one day he will be like my oldest child who is 15 and wants nothing to do with me whatsoever when he’s ready to head to go to sleep!

“Your baby is just complaining a little.” No. Your baby is CRYING. Your baby is communicating with you that they need some cuddles and some breastfeeds.

“He might put up a bit of a fuss.” No. Your baby is CRYING. Your baby is communicating with you that they need some cuddles and some breastfeeds.

“This is not cry-it-out, it’s responsive settling.” Responsive settling (as they like to call it), is repeatedly picking up and putting down your baby AS THEY ARE CRYING. Can you imagine what that’s like for your baby? They are happily settled and happy as you cuddle them, then you put them down. They then wonder what happened, their cortisol (stress levels rise), they are alone and they start crying. Then you pick them up, they are content again and happy. Then you put them down. Then they start crying again…and the cycle continues over and over. Here is an alternative I’d like to offer you…pick them up, breastfeed them to sleep and then hold them and cuddle them.

“Your child needs great sleep for their rapid mental and physical development.” Breastfeeding has profound impact on a child’s survival, health, nutrition and development [7]. We know that breastfeeding is one of the most important ways we can protect our children’s health and develoment. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support this notion that breastfed children who bedshare and wake frequent to breastfeed grow up having issues with their mental or physical development.

“As a Certified Baby Sleep Consultant my role is to find the underlying reasons WHY your child is experiencing their sleep issues.” Even better would be someone reassuring the mother that actually her child does not have a sleep issue at all but is 100% normal. And then offer them some ways to help manage in the early months, without having to do cry it out or responsive settling.

“Your baby will get more restorative sleep during the night.” Dr. James McKenna and Dr. Lee Gettler [7] came up with the term “breastsleeping” as a way to describe what happens when women feed their babies overnight. This term is brilliant because it describes what’s actually happening…children and mothers who bedshare do not really “wake”. The baby stirs, the mother takes out the breast and the baby latches on, all while barely raising an eyelid. To claim our babies are not getting “restored” because they are waking to breastfeed is not evidence based. If you are concerned about the safety of bedsharing, my gentle sleep book has guidelines on safe bedsharing and co-sleeping.

“‘Emotional cry’ vs. ‘protest cry'”. A baby who is crying is a baby who needs a cuddle or a breastfeed. Whether it’s emotional or a protest, 99% of the time they will be settled back to sleep the same way…at the breast.

“Protesting during sleep training is usually because baby is frustrated they aren’t getting help to fall asleep.” This is a lovely way to put it and confuse parents isn’t it?! The baby is frustrated because they are trying to tell the mother, “Please pick me up and breastfeed me! I need some cuddles!” So there is an easy answer…pick them up.

Breastfeeding is not just about food. It is about comfort as well and every time we breastfeed our children we are cuddling them. This need for comfort and being mothered through breastfeeding happens during the day as well as overnight. If your child is asking for a breastfeed at 2am and your instincts are telling you that it’s what your baby, toddler or young child needs THEN PICK THEM UP, CUDDLE THEM AND BREASTFEED THEM! You are not creating bad habits, your child does not have a sleep problem and you do not need to “train them” or “teach them” to fall asleep. They will fall asleep when they are developmentally ready to do so. Being able to easily and happily sleep on their own is about where they are developmentally and what their individual personality is. Don’t let someone convince you that you’re child is broken because they are continuing to wake to breastfeed. It is the biological norm to continue to ask for breastfeeds and cuddles.

-The Milk Meg. Meg Nagle, IBCLC

ps. Also, don’t forget that adults usually wake up between 3-6 times each night! It’s just that we are old enough now to know how to put ourselves back to sleep easily.

  1. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/10/20/peds.2016-2938
  2. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.usc.edu.au/doi/full/10.1111/jmwh.12753
  3. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.usc.edu.au/doi/full/10.1111/apa.13354
  4. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/1740763
  5. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579417001213
  6. http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/online/inge_origins.pdf
  7. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/apa.13161

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