We talk a lot about how to sleep train babies, when the right age is to start, and even how to make sure your baby’s attachment to you remains unaffected during the sleep training 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 (because crying is a natural, normal, and necessary part to sleep training), Moms will sometimes struggle to remain 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, and this crying almost always causes some kind of anxiety for parents. Even though crying for the purposes of sleep training has been proven safe and harmless time and again, parents can still be left feeling weary during the first few days of the training 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 their 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 that helps her be able to 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

As a short primer, 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 in order to be able to fall asleep (like a paci, swaddle, rocking, nursing, etc). At first 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. Since 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 the use of any sleep props at naps and bedtime in order for them to have the skill set to put themselves back to sleep without help as they wake throughout the night. When you take away the sleep props a child needs to fall asleep, so that they can learn how to go from being awake to being asleep independently, they will cry 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.

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How to Stay Calm When Sleep Training

Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to keep yourself calm during the sleep training process. First, be prepared! Have a detailed plan to follow for bedtime, followed by overnight sleep, and for naps. Next, remind yourself that crying is harmless, and have a sleep coach and/or friends you can go to to help you remember that 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 to 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, and 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 – they 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 if you can use a good breathing technique while watching 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 as a child expresses 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.
Ready to sleep train?