We talk a lot about how to sleep train babies, when to start, and even how to make sure your baby’s attachment to you remains unaffected during the process. But, we’ve never discussed how to make sure you (usually Mom) can maintain her composure and calmness while sleep training.

The reality is that no matter how prepared a parent is before they start sleep training, Moms will sometimes struggle. Especially when it comes to remaining calm during the time their child is learning to fall asleep on their own. Your child will express their frustration at having to learn to fall asleep on their own without help by crying. Crying is a natural, normal, and necessary part to sleep training. This crying almost always causes some kind of anxiety for parents. Crying for the purposes of sleep training has been proven safe and harmless time and again. However, parents can still be left feeling weary during the first few days of the process.

Hiking mom wearing baby over beautiful vista

Photo Credit: Josh Willink

Why Crying Makes Us Feel the Way it Does

Researchers have come up with a variety of theories on why mothers react to their child’s cries the way they do. The theory that resonates most with me takes us back to cave (wo)man days. When we were still evolving into the humans we are today, a crying infant signaled our location to predators. The safety of a mother, her baby, and the rest of the family relied on a mom’s ability to stop her baby from crying. It is for this reason I believe a baby’s cry triggers her mother’s fear response in the brain.

Moms can feel sweaty, have increased heart rate, and basically experience a strong set of sensations urging her to *stop the crying*. Not surprisingly, it is the same changes in the brain a mother experiences when she gives birth. These changes help her distinguish her own baby’s cry from that of others early on in the baby’s life.

Why Crying Has to be Part of the Sleep Training Process

Soon after a baby is born, they develop a set of dependencies in order to be able to fall asleep. In most cases, it is impossible for a newborn not to become dependent on some form of assistance to fall asleep. Examples are a pacifier, swaddle, rocking, nursing, etc. This is normal and healthy. It’s not necessary or recommended to attempt to “sleep train” a newborn. However, as a newborn grows into an infant, sleep training often becomes necessary.

It is normal for humans to wake throughout the night as they go from one sleep cycle to the next. A child has to be able to fall asleep without help at naps and bedtime. They must possess the skill set to put themselves back to sleep without help as they wake throughout the night. When you take away a child’s sleep props, so that they can learn how to go from being awake to being asleep independently, they will cry. They are crying to express their frustration at having to learn this new skill.

Side note, having a good plan with robust help from a sleep professional is likely the number one thing a parent can do to ensure their child cries the least amount possible during the sleep training process.

Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to keep yourself calm during the sleep training process.

How to Stay Calm When Sleep Training

First, be prepared! Have a detailed plan to follow for bedtime, overnight sleep, and naps.

Next, remind yourself that crying is harmless. And have a sleep coach and/or friends you can go to to help you. Remember, as crummy as it feels to hear your baby cry, you have started the sleep training journey for a good reason.

Third, use headphones. If you have a partner or caretaker who can monitor the crying, listen to literally anything else other than your baby’s crying. It’s the hearing of the crying that triggers the release of the chemicals in your brain that make it so hard to not respond to baby.

Finally, before you start sleep training, practice a few breathing techniques. This can help your body deal with the stress and anxiety it feels at hearing baby crying. My favorite is to close my eyes, inhale, and count to five. Then exhale to the count of five. Do this 6 times (for a straight minute).

Beyond feeling better during the sleep training process, it’s important to keep calm for baby’s sake. Babies are extremely sensitive to their mother’s emotions. If you feel anxious and stressed, they will pick up on that. It’s vital to keep in mind that in most cases, it is possible to calm yourself down using a good breathing technique. And to choose to watch your baby through their video monitor (while another caretaker listens to the cries).

To review how to stay calm during sleep training, remember that:

  1. Crying is a necessary and normal part of sleep training. It is simply a child expressing their frustration at having to learn to sleep independently.
  2. Even if it makes you feel anxious, crying has been shown to be harmless when used for the purposes of sleep training.
  3. Having a solid plan, with adequate follow up support, is one of the best ways to reduce the amount your child will cry.
  4. Being prepared with headphones, someone else to help, and an array of tried and true breathing exercises can go a long way to reduce your feelings of stress and anxiety.