Is Sleep Training Cruel? The Mommy Wars Continue…

SleepyBabyI received an e-mail from a client upset about this article expressing frustration about the difference between “cuddlers” and “tamers.” In the article, Pinky berates the “tamers” for treating their babies like objects and having expectations that are too high. The tone of the article implies that it’s cruel to help your baby learn to sleep that involves any crying. She is clearly exasperated at receiving e-mails from parents at the end of their rope/tether, looking for “quick fixes.”

So, how do you handle the judgmental tone of those around you unable to understand why you are sleep training your baby?

While Pinky did explain later why she “flipped her lid”, the damage was done with the judgmental tone of the first article. In the end, some of us/you are still considered “tamers” rather than “cuddlers.” And, it’s still assumed that if you employ certain sleep training techniques with your baby, it says a lot about your character and how you may treat your teenager (even implying you may kick him out of the house one day!).

What is a mom or dad to do when your decision now could be speaking about your character even 15 years from now, according to other people? The pressure is insurmountable! That reminds me of that one person who said cry-it-out would lead to Prozac. **groan**

First, recognize that just because another mom feels parents can be divided into one group or another, that does NOT mean you need to be a part of either of said groups. I, for one, am a big-time cuddler (and I cuddle with my boys who are 5 and 7 years old every night still) and we are very affectionate and a close family all around, but that doesn’t mean I accepted the sleep deprivation as “normal” and one that my son would outgrow. Don’t let someone else lump you into an arbitrary group meant to divide rather than join us together as moms. The mommy wars rage on as to whose “way” is better, which really doesn’t do any one any good.

While there are certain things babies need to outgrow such as being able to go 12 hours without eating, there are other things that boil down to habits and what we teach them. No one would suggest that a child “outgrows” being rude at the dinner table or not using their manners. We teach them the “rules.” So, if your 2 or 3 year old is still expecting milk or food at night, perhaps you simply haven’t taught her the rule that you eat in the morning at breakfast, not in the middle of the night, eh? Or, perhaps your 12 month old waking up for the 10th time for you to grab the pacifier that is right next to him needs to learn how to maneuver the pacifier himself (or learn to sleep without it). And, maybe a 6 month old actually can learn to nap in his crib rather than your arms 3-4 times a day with some direction from you. What if you could get him to do it just once a day and actually get something done during the day?

There is an assumption that crying always means a baby needs something. That isn’t always the case! A baby can’t say “Moooooom! I dropped my pacifier AGAIN! Can you get it for me? I’m really tired and all I want to do is go back to sleep. Don’t you??” If a 3 year old kept calling Mom back to help him tuck in the covers, perhaps his mom would teach him how to tuck himself in. They could practice during the day and everything. You can actually teach him about the expectations for sleep rather than expect him to figure it out “one day” when he’s 5 or even later. Sometimes our babies or toddlers cry out of frustration or as an emotional release and we need to give them the space to do that rather than rush to “fix” it.

A week or two ago, I saw this on Facebook from Dr. Kaylene Henderson of Little Children Big Dreams and thought it was very fitting.

Is Sleep Training Cruel?

This is important, because while some babies truly lack self-soothing abilities and physically can’t find any other way than sucking on a pacifier or bottle, being swaddled, or breastfeeding, for example, as your baby gets older, these become habits and preferences. Yes, maybe falling asleep will be harder, at first, without a sleep “prop” but that doesn’t mean your baby can’t do it! I recently had to explain to my son that some of the best things in life are harder to come by, after all. And, yes, your baby may have moments of frustration. But, just as I’ve explained before, crying is sometimes a part of changing sleep habits, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be right there with moral support and guide your baby through the change in routine. You can even practice Attachment Parenting and Sleep Train. And, if it’s not going well, you can even take a break and wait until he’s a little older. The pace and the process is up to you and it’s not a race to the finish, but rather, finding that unique process that is right for you and your family.

As I always say, NOBODY is walking in your shoes or living what you live day in and day out. Yes, some people would have said I was mean for sleep training my son, but he was MISERABLE without sleep and so were all of us! If he was at least happy through it all, maybe I could have held on longer, I don’t know. I don’t regret our experience for a second. He needed sleep. Period. I needed sleep to be the mom he needed. Oh the patience, energy, and focus I had as a mom when I got more than 2 hours of broken sleep! If others can tolerate and even flourish on less sleep, more power to you! But, try not to judge others for something you can’t understand.

There will be parents every day at the end of their rope. These parents are frazzled and trying to function on less sleep than THEIR mind and bodies need to perform well. We may not always understand the decisions that other parents make, but remember that all babies are very different and their temperament and personality will be a HUGE variable among many families. I’ve had families contact me with their third child when they thought they had it all figured out. It’s not simple or straightforward at all. And, if you have one of these more challenging babies, take heart that you are NOT alone. The more than 400,000 monthly visitors (and growing) to The Baby Sleep Site tell you that you aren’t the only one trying to help your baby sleep, with and without a lot of tears. 😉

Please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 (tear-free) Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.


  1. Kristine says

    THANK YOU for taking the time to address this, and doing so with compassion. Your words travel further and mean more than you could possibly know. From one sleep-deprived mama, thank you :)

  2. Ellen says

    Thank you for writing this. I resisted sleep training for so long because I took the berating of parents who sleep train to heart. I never wanted to be in the “sleep training category”. But it was absolutely necessary. The sleep deprivation took an incredible toll on our family. We tried gentle no-cry methods for months and months, and they did not work. Finally we bit the bullet and committed to a method that did involve a lot of crying. And now that we have made some really great progress, I really regret not doing it sooner.

  3. Katie says

    I sooo appreciate your perspectives Nicole!! Lately I have heard judgment after judgment being passed about “sleep training” and “crying it out” that it is ridiculous!! At times I feel like when some people hear the term cry it out they think of someone locking their child in a dungeon for three hours so that a parent can watch a soap opera or something. There are moms and parents with real needs, whether relief from a baby suffering with acid reflux or colic, or an expectant mom who barely has enough energy to make it without having to go to the toilet. Not to mention a parent with multiples or a family with infants and toddlers!!

    Thankfully both of my children have been good sleepers since 3 months old and 6 months old (they are now 4 and 2.5 years old), largely due to the fact that I was able to work an in infant room with an amazing mentor for two years then earn a degree in Early Childhood Development. However, I research sleeping habits because I have so much empathy for the moms I see on a regular basis who are dealing with lack of sleep. Plus I have been/am their child’s teacher and see the struggle to learn or even make it through the day because they are overwhelmed with exhaustion.
    Thank you again for this great article and so many others you have written. Each child’s needs are different, and you get that!!

  4. Dale L says

    Nicole thank you for this article! I have been a long time reader of your site and I find it so refreshing that you don’t judge mothers. We are all just trying to do our best, whether that be leaving your baby to cry or picking him up at every whimper. I have sleep trained both my boys and I don’t always admit to it, especially on forums as I can’t stand the judgement. However my two boys (5 and 16 months) are great sleepers and I’m so glad I put the work in as they are rested and happy! The mummy wars are awful and we need to learn to accept what other people do, even if its at odds with our own techniques. My children are safe and loved and sleep like champions! Thanks again for not being judgmental :)

  5. says

    I am a ‘tamer’ & proud of it! Well, ‘cuddler’ by day & ‘tamer’ by night :) I find it sad that mamas can’t just leave other mamas alone to do their own thing. If I hadn’t taught my son to self settle early on, goodness knows the mess we would be in now – he is still night waking at 14 months…hardly good for a growing boy, let alone me. Of course, the night waking has all but stopped after I decided enough was enough and got onto you guys :) Thanks again!

  6. Shruti says

    I am so glad you brought this point up. In India not many people are even aware of “sleep training”. When my DS was 7 months old (now 15 months), I was so tired that I used to be always irritated, annoyed, etc. My relationship with my husband was taking a toll too. It was horrible!! I tried to sleep trained my son when he was 7.5 months and followed extinction method. It didnt work at that time. I tried again when he was 10 months old. He started to show some improvement after 5 days (from 40 min of cry to about 20 min). It took total of 14 days for him to get it right. Now, he sleeps well and we do too!! I dont know which part of this was “cruel”. I love my family now :) .. I love the relationship that I share with my son and husband. At last, I really want to thank you for all the wonderful advice and tips that you share!

  7. says

    @Kristine Awww! You’re very welcome! And, thank YOU for your kind words. :)

    @Ellen Thank you so much for sharing your story! And, I’m so glad you’ve seen some great progress, too! :) It’s so hard not to take steps to do something when you don’t want to fall into a category of people. Continued luck to you!

    @Katie I feel the SAME way about the dungeon! People act like parents are sleep training for a cushy lifestyle or something. Thank you so much for commenting and I’m glad you liked the article! :)

    @Dale Awww! You’re so welcome! And, thank you for being such a loyal reader. I wish all of us moms would try to support one another more, even if we don’t agree with each others’ methods. That’s great that you have great sleepers! Keep up the great work!

    @Audrey That’s another way to do it, embrace being in both groups! 😀 I’m so glad to hear your LO is sleeping so well, now. Great job! :)

    @Shruti I find some parents really struggle when their culture does not support sleep training, but they have a very difficult sleeper. :( I’m so glad you’ve been able to find a solution and work on your son’s sleep! And, I’m so glad you now feel you can ENJOY your family and not resent it. You can now be the mom you want to be, I suspect! :) Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  8. Vera says

    loved the article and Katie’s comment on dungeons :)
    after some serious sleep deprivation we did controlled crying to get our daughter sleep. there wasn’t and still isn’t any other way of getting her to sleep than leaving her alone to get on with it.
    when some mothers say they don’t understand how people can let their babies cry, I would like to tell them how lucky they are for not knowing about the most frightful being: a baby who can’t sleep because of tiredness!

  9. Kate says

    I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I love, love, LOVE your website. It’s helpful and empowering and understanding and so much more. I visit the site often to remind myself why I “make” my baby boy take naps.

    I read the linked article and it just made me sad…all the moreso because after my crying, overtired baby skipped his last nap yesterday afternoon, his grandpa (yes, the one who kept him up to take him to the park and play!) “teased” me about putting him in his pack and play “jail.” Not funny. (Also not funny: My baby, who normally falls asleep within ten minutes without a peep at night [not so during the day!!], took over an hour last night–lots and lots of tears :( Maybe it’s because he was up for FIVE hours! He’s not even 6 months old!)

    So I’m here for support and to support all of the other mamas out there who know that there babies need sleep, one way or another. I don’t love letting my baby cry himself to sleep for naps, but I make it worse if I stay with him. I continue to believe that the militant anti-cry-it-out crowd didn’t have babies who continued to cry (harder! longer!) when you pick them up to try to soothe them to sleep. *sigh* Sorry to use the forum as a venting space.

    As Nicole says, we all do what’s best for our families. So let’s give the judgments a rest! (pun intended)

  10. says

    @Kate Thank you so much for your comment, kind words, and for being a loyal reader! And, most of all, thank you for the support for all the parents out there all doing their best. :)