In today’s fast-paced world, independent infant sleep seems as THE must-learn skill for all infants– the sooner the better. The quest for a full night’s sleep can lead many parents to consider various sleep training methods, which almost inevitably involve letting the infant to cry either alone or accompanied.
While sleep training may offer a temporary solution to sleep disruptions, it’s essential to examine its implications from a neurodevelopmental perspective. In this blog post I aim to explore why sleep training does not make sense when considering the neurodevelopmental needs of infants. I challenge the assumptions of learning theory (aka behaviorism) and shed light on the importance of co-regulation and emotional development during early childhood.
Assumptions of Learning Theory
Before delving into the neurodevelopmental perspective, it’s crucial to understand the assumptions of learning theory that underpin many sleep training methods:
- Infant’s Cry Due to Learned Associations: One common belief is that infants cry at nighttime because they have learned to associate crying with receiving parental attention. In essence, parental attention becomes the reinforcer of crying.
- Behavior Over Emotions: Learning theory often focuses solely on observable behavior and neglects the emotional aspect of an infant’s distress either by completely ignoring or dismissing the crying as a “want cry”.
- Learned Associations Are Fixed with Extinction: Learning theory suggests that these learned associations can be effectively eliminated through extinction interventions. Extinction involves weakening conditioned responses until the target behavior becomes extinct.
Now you wonder, ok, what are the interventions? This is where the “treatment” comes: sleep traning
All sleep training methods involve letting an infant to cry without providing immediate comfort or providing an inappropriate response to the cry.
For example, in controlled crying, any checks that occur are brief and involve minimal interaction, avoiding actions such as picking up the infant, cuddling, or initiating conversations and feeding. The goal is to create conditions for the infant to learn self-soothing and ultimately achieve a full night’s sleep.
To comprehend why sleep training may not align with an infant’s neurodevelopmental needs, we must consider the following points:
- Immature Brain Development: An infant’s brain is immature and develops hierarchically, from the bottom-up. This means that higher cognitive functions are not fully developed, and the infant relies heavily on their survival and emotional brain regions.
- Emotional Needs: Emotions play a significant role in an infant’s life. Infants need co-regulation from an adult’s nervous system, particularly during stressful situations, to help them navigate their emotional experiences.
- Crying as an Communication of Needs: When infants experience stress or fear, they enter an alarm state and cry to elicit a co-regulation response from their caregiver. This behavior is innate and rooted in survival.
The jury is still out as proper sleep training studies have not been done to this day. However, given what we know, I believe that in the absence of a suitable response from the caregiver, infants may transition to compliance and dissociation behaviors, which can appear deceptively like self-soothing. Scientific evidence tells us that true self-soothing, or self-regulation, is biologically impossible for infants.
Learning Theory’s Limitations
From a neurodevelopmental perspective, learning theory falls short in explaining infant behavior and needs, including sleep needs. It raises questions such as: If parental attention reinforces crying, why aren’t daytime extinction interventions promoted? That way infants can just be independent day and night and we can all just go to work or go on with our lives. Why don´t we do that? Well, the answer is clear: such methods would be considered neglectful during the day!
Moving Beyond the Paradigm
It is time to move beyond the outdated paradigm of sleep training that relies on learning theory assumptions. Instead, we should focus on offering appropriate support to families that respect the neurodevelopmental needs of infants.
If you are a sleep consultant who advocates for extinction interventions, I encourage you to open up to this perspective, gain knowledge about brain development and attachment, and understand the role of the parental brain in fostering healthy emotional development. It is not about creating conflict and divide, it is about updating our knowledge and offering parents the best support we can!
In the pursuit of a good night’s sleep, it’s essential to consider the neurodevelopmental perspective when evaluating sleep training methods. The assumptions of learning theory may not adequately explain the complex needs of infants, particularly in their early stages of development. By embracing a more holistic approach that prioritizes emotional and neurodevelopmental well-being, we can better support families and create a more nurturing environment for our children. As Maya Angelou wisely said, “When you know better, you do better,” and it’s time to do better for all the baby´s and families out there!