What Happens When You Don’t Sleep Train

Posted on Posted in Behavior Modification, Sleep Training

When you are at the hospital, leaving with your brand new baby, nobody hands you the holy grail of parenting books, promising everything you will need to know with absolute certainty, is contained in this book. The fact of the matter is, we go home and we figure it out. We ask our family members, we google it, but mostly we listen to our babies cues and learn from them, what they need from us.

The problem with parenthood unfolding like this, is that in certain instances, our little ones are slowly training us to do as they please, and we don't realize we are slowly letting them call the shots. We mistakenly let the habit become more and more solidified, not even realizing poor habits are being formed because we don't realize bad habits can happen to cute babies. In this case, I am specifically talking about what happens when we don't sleep train.

I have mentioned that if there weren't long-term hazards of lulling a baby to sleep, I would be all for it. Unfortunately, the habits formed when we lull our babies to sleep do morph into very undesirable behaviors down the road.


The night time domino effect:

When we rush in to comfort our baby and lull them to sleep, either by nursing, rocking, bouncing, or patting their back, they never learn that they are capable of finding sleep without your help. Aside from never having uninterrupted sleep, this doesn't seem like a big deal in the first 6 months. You just chalk it up to #NewParentLife. However, that seemingly innocent habit, creates a domino effect and becomes harder to manage as they get older.

Let's say you arrive at a point where you don't want to be going in once or twice (or more) times a night so you decide to just let them cry, to see if they get back to sleep on their own. What happens next? You and your spouse lay there feeling guilty, suffering through the screams, while what feels like an eternity passes, then one of you caves in and goes in to lull them to sleep. Fear of harming our babies when they cry is a very common and understandable fear. But when we cave and go into the nursery, they learn an important lesson: "If I scream, I get what I want". That sets you up, as parents, for even longer/harder screaming next time you attempt to let them put themselves back to sleep, because they have learned that it is an effective way to get you to pick them up. This cycle doesn't get better over time, it only gets worse. This obviously isn't to say at that as infants, they are intentionally manipulating you. This is happening purely as a function of basic human psychology:

If an undesirable behavior (crying) is met with a reward (being lulled to sleep), then the child learns through positive reinforcement (giving positive attention to their undesirable behavior) that the undesirable behavior will lead to the outcome they want (being lulled to sleep).

That is the just basic psychology. The other way it could play out is this:

If undesirable behavior (crying) is met with no intervention, then the child learns that the undesirable behavior (crying) doesn't work. So baby will move onto other means of going to sleep. Babbling, cooing, changing positions, gnawing on their fist, sucking a thumb, snuggling up to a sleep blanket in the crib, etc. Some babies will even rock their little bottoms side to side!

Have you ever watched a two or three-year-old who isn't aware you are watching, spot a toy or a cookie up on a counter top that they want. I have seen this (or a similar situation) a number of times. First, they get you and ask for it. You say no and walk out of the room. They will throw a fit. You don't come back in. Throwing a fit doesn't work, so they stop screaming after a few minutes. Next, you will see them try to figure out another way to get what they want. They will stand directly below and reach as high as they can. No dice...Hmmm, you will see them look around the room and find something to stand on. You will see them figure out how to push the stool over to the toy or treat they want, and yes, you will watch your brilliant child climb up to reach what they want. He will find a different solution to getting the desired outcome! Throwing a fit didn't work, so they stop trying that approach, and they problem solve.

When we rush in to comfort them in the night, we don't leave them an opportunity to problem solve. Very simply put, once a goal is achieved, we stop trying other means of reaching the goal. The other side of that logic, is that whatever behavior worked to reach our goal, we go back to over and over, whether it is desierable or undesierable behavior. That is true as babies, kids and adults, because this boils down to basic human psychology.  When we go to hush our babies to sleep, we are quite literally robbing them of the skill to self-soothe and learn to problem solve. 


The night domino falls and hits the day domino:

The lesson they learn during sleep time (that crying is an effective means of getting what they want), isn't going to remain limited to night time sleep issues. Oh no. It will be present in other areas too. This more than my 16 years experience speaking. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says, "Behavioral sleep management strategies have the further advantage of generalizing to the management of daytime behavior issues."

Have you ever looked at your 12-month-old, who you KNOW is not hungry, and watch as they tug at your shirt to nurse again? You say no and redirect them, they fuss and try again. You say no and they scream and protest. You say no and they dramatically flail on the floor. You decide OK, the fight isn't worth it, and you give into what turns out to be nursing for 30 seconds because they aren't actually hungry. They are just nursing on demand because they know they can.

That isn't a coincidence.

Young children aren't separating these two behaviors: Wanting to be lulled to sleep and wanting to nurse on demand are interchangeable behaviors because they are learning the simple formula:

If I want ________, I cry and tantrum, then I get ___________.

The "blank" is going to show up all over the place. So if night time wake ups show them that crying works to get _______, then they are going to use that skill (crying) to get every other thing they want during the day as well because they know that it is effective. This is linking back to the 3 basic principals HPHC Lifestyle is based on. They're covered in the first 3 posts called the foundation, the cornerstone, and the keystone. But in general, the idea is that undesirable behavior needs to be met by consistent reactions from parents. This is not to say that whining and throwing a fit isn't normal or isn't ok. It is a very normal and healthy part of development for kids to push and test boundaries. But there is a huge difference between the typical child who receives HPHC principals, and the child who's parents don't utilize the HPHC principals. The parents who consistently use the 3 HPHC principals will see fewer tantrums, and less severe tantrums that fizzle out faster than the parents who aren't using these principals.


The day domino falls and hits the "child getting older" domino:

Now you have a 3, 4 and 5-year-old who has learned that being told no, doesn't really carry much weight in any context, sleep habits or otherwise. You say no about anything, and they call your bluff and know they can push until you give in. That's when it starts to become more clear that you're not actually the authority figure in your house- your child is actually in charge. However, by the time this realization sets in, you are already 4 years deep into this kind of behavior. And it's far far less adorable and sweet at this age. It becomes embarrassing that your child behaves this way at school, on play dates, visiting family, at the pediatrician, etc. The same behavior that once made us go, "awwwww (insert sympathetic frown) poor little guy!", at this point makes us cringe and go, "I am serious, I said NO, (insert frustrated, exasperated sound)." Below is a quote from the AASM on the topic of what happens when babies are not sleep trained:

"There is increasing evidence that sleep disruption and/or insufficient sleep has deleterious effects on children’s cognitive development (e.g., learning, memory consolidation, executive function), mood regulation (e.g., chronic irritability, poor modulation of affect), attention, and behavior (e.g., aggressiveness, hyperactivity, poor impulse control), as well as health (e.g., metabolic and immune function, accidental injuries) and overall quality of life."


The "child getting older" domino falls and hits the "my child keeps getting older" domino:

Any time after kindergarten, behavior issues can come from any number of sources that aren't as easy to pin down to lack of discipline at home. However, if you have established with your children that you are not an authority figure they need to respect or listen to, the odds of them respecting and listening to other adults (teachers, parents of friends, etc) are slim to none. You can see where learned misbehavior and a lack of respect for authority can go from here into the middle school and high school years.

So, to sum up here, the choice not to sleep train, actually has some very real, very logical long-term behavior risks attached to that decision. This might seem dramatic, but I assure you, I have seen enough homes with siblings staggered enough in age, and watched the years pass with parents (starting from the beginning) letting that first domino fall, and every other domino just falls right into place as described here.

As an important side note- You can sleep train your child and still have these issues come up if you are not using the 3 HPHC principals in your daily parenting choices.  However, parents who do sleep train, are more likely to easily pick up and make use of the HPHC Lifestyle principals.

Sleep trained kids or no, the sooner you address behavior issues that non-children having people commonly refer to as "being bratty", the easier it will be. But if you have arrived at the point where you are ready for a change, no matter how old your child is, it is never too late to make some positive shifts. It might be harder having waited longer, but it's certainly an achievable goal to modify behavior with the HPHC principals.

One thought on “What Happens When You Don’t Sleep Train

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *