Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make

Advice to ignore the needs of babies

Posted Jan 06, 2013

*See co-author list below

A world of “experts” and journalists tell parents about the safety of “controlled crying” or “cry it out” techniques to make babies sleep. The advice has multiple mistaken premises and conclusions about what is normal and good for babies.

Here are several foundational mistaken premises:

Mistaken Premise 1: The notion that sleeping through the night at 6 months is normal and developmentally/physiologically appropriate, therefore not sleeping through the night at age 6 months is a disorder

Mistaken Premise 2: The notion that there is such a thing as self-soothing, and the accompanying idea that when babies do not sleep through the night at age six months it is because parents have interfered with their ability to self-soothe

Mistaken Premise 3: That sleeping through the night should accompany breastfeeding which contradicts the social and  biological realities of breastfeeding and the fact that breastfeeding beyond six months is a widely agreed-upon public health goal,

There is an incredible disconnect between mainstream medical notions of normal infant sleep and sleep advice for parents.

What is normal? Study after study shows that breastfed babies wake up more often than bottle fed babies (ergo, night waking is arguably normal in breastfed babies).

Some breastfeeding advocates don't seem to like to talk about frequent waking perhaps because they are afraid mothers will be discouraged from breastfeeding.

Sleep experts typically don't like to talk about breastfeeding at length because they can't be seen to be anti-breastfeeding. But their focus/obsession is that babies simply have to sleep through the night, even though this is unnatural.

What is the core message parents need to hear? Breastfeeding is natural, normal and necessary for optimal development (more here). It is the kind of feeding that babies and mothers were designed to experience. Night waking to varying degrees is normal in breastfed babies. So if a breastfed baby is waking, parents may not like it, but should understand that it doesn't mean that anything is wrong. Parents can choose to live with it rather than trying to fix it.

 How to cope with night waking?

  • Make breastfeeding at night easier and less intrusive for the baby. This means co-sleeping (same room) and/or bedsharing (including sleeping units added to the parental mattress).
  • Understand the true (and limited) risks of co-sleeping
  • Learn gentle strategies for calming babies generally
  • Learn gentle strategies for gradually moving older babies and toddlers in the direction of less parental intervention at night and perhaps fewer wakings.
  • The overall goal should be nights that parents can live with, not eliminating night waking at all costs. In our experience, both personal, from talking to parents and from doing research is that many parents do not find one relatively short wakening per night to be hard to cope with.  

Controlled crying should never be presented as the default, best or only option. But it is difficult to say that it should never, ever be an option that might be right for certain parents (based on consideration of a number of factors).

If parents want to try a controlled crying method they should understand the risks which are:

  • It will be hard for them
  • It will be stressful for their baby, regardless of whether the baby continues to cry or stops crying
  • It may not work or it may work only temporarily
  • Parents should also get guidelines on when to give up when controlled crying isn't working and outside limits in terms of how long to let babies cry.

We will discuss more details of these points in other posts in this series on baby sleep training.

Posts in Sleep Series:

Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make

'Let Crying Babes Lie'? So Wrong

Simple Ways to Calm a Crying Baby

Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development

Normal Infant Sleep: Changing Patterns

Normal Parent Behaviors and Why They Won’t Hurt Your Child

Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing's Importance

More Normal Parenting for Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep-Tiredness?

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success

SIDS: Risks and Realities

Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?

Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives

Also, check out: Dangers of "Crying it Out"


NEW BOOK: To read more about the importance of early experience for optimal development, see the forthcoming book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.




New Moms Need Social Support

Painkillers for Childbirth? The Few Pros and Many Cons

What's the Use of Midwives and Doulas?

Jesus Had a Home Birth

What if Jesus Had Been Born in the USA?


Why Continue to Harm Boys from Ignorance of Male Anatomy?

What Is the Greatest Danger for an Uncircumcised Boy?

Circumcision Ethics and Economics

Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities

More Circumcision Myths You May Believe: Hygiene and STDs

Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe


Stand Up For Breastfeeding

Talk About Breastfeeding With Your Family, Friends and Doctor

Breastmilk Wipes Out Formula: Responses to Critical Comments

In Light of Last Week's Posts: Is Pushing* Formula Evil?

Breastfeeding Resources

The REAL Truth about Breastfeeding

5 Things You Thought You Knew about Breastfeeding

The TREMENDOUS Benefits of Doing What is Normal: Breastfeeding

Myths you probably believe about infant formula

Your assumptions about infant formula are probably wrong

It’s Breastfeeding Week: Why should you care?


Research on Spanking: It's Bad for ALL Kids

What Happened to Ethics in Pediatric Medicine?

Baby-, Parent- or Life-Centered Parenting?

Ten Ways to Truly Respect Motherhood

Slings and Heroes

Parents Should Know the Limitations of Science Experiments

Babies "don’t cry in Africa," why should they cry in the USA?

Blame the baby or blame the experts?

Dumb Parent(ing), Dumberer Child

How to Grow a Smart Baby

Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Undercare: The bane of American life?

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

Is it good to make kids afraid?

How NOT to Ruin a Child

Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?

Mother’s touch of dead baby causes “miracle”

What Does Good Parenting Look Like? You Decide.


Childism Revisited

Are You a “Childist?" Test Yourself

Babies Are Needy—Does That Bug You?

Do We Need Declaration for the Rights of the Baby?

Where Are the Happy Babies?

The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

Believing "children are resilient" may be a fantasy

How America Morally Fails its Children: What Needs to Change

Increase the well-being of children around you


John Hoffman,

Wendy Middlemiss, University of North Texas

Sarah Ockwell-Smith,

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett

Helen Stevens, Safe Sleep Space


NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS: When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: breastfeeding on demand for several years, nearly constant touch, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and natural childbirth.

All these characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies. Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.