The Difference Between Sleep Training and Sleep Conditioning

This week, there is an article going around titled “Fifteen years of research suggests that sleep training for babies can cause them more distress” by iNews in the UK. (

The article gained traction after it was shared by a fairly well known lactation influencer, The Leaky Boob. While I have met Jessica at multiple industry events and respect her work in the lactation world, we have wildly different views on the importance of healthy independent infant sleep. The article has since been shared by some in the Newborn Care Specialist and Postpartum Doula community. However, once again, its time to fact check! 
Many of the sources for this article are irrelevant to newborn/infant sleep. The article is quoting a study that isolated baby monkeys for days and weeks with no maternal touch. The studies used as argument for this article do not reflect any actual research into infant sleep or sleep training in the western world. Sleep conditioning or sleep training do not negate parental bonding, attachment, and touch! Supporting healthy attachment and infant/parent mental health is something I am incredibly passionate about, and so is healthy sleep! These things go hand in hand!
Let’s talk about the difference between Sleep Training and Sleep Conditioning! 

As a sleep based Newborn Care Specialist, you will often hear me speak about the idea of sleep conditioning. Sleep conditioning is essentially creating an ideal sleep environment and encouraging healthy sleep habits from day one, allowing your newborn to form the building blocks for healthy sleep from birth and eliminating the need for traditional sleep training later in infancy. In addition to the ideal sleep environment and allowing baby to learn to fall asleep unassisted, this is accomplished by creating an eat-play-sleep routine, ensuring baby is getting enough calories during the daytime hours and an appropriate amount of daytime sleep to encourage longer stretches of overnight sleep. 

Sleep training refers to a number of different techniques and regimens employed to adjust a child's sleep behaviors. Traditional sleep training can range from a gentle hands on approach where the parent is in the room the entire time to a timed interval approach (much like the traditional Ferber method) or full extinction. There are multiple longitudinal studies around sleep training that have shown no long term negative affect, and in fact show so many benefits for both child and parent. Maternal postpartum depression and anxiety rates are significantly lower in parents of infants who are sleep trained/sleep independently through the night. Sleep is such an important learned skill! Sleep training can be a completely appropriate and helpful tool to help older infants learn important independent sleep skills, however traditional sleep training is never developmentally appropriate before 4-6 months of age. 

Sleep training should not even be a part of the conversation for Newborn Care Specialists as newborns are not sleep trained. Creating a routine and implementing this routine with consistency through sleep conditioning is not sleep training. 

I am a firm believer in Sleep Conditioning. By giving your newborn these building blocks to encourage independent sleep and having consistency in their sleep routines, newborns can fall info a great nap schedule and sleep through the night (7pm-7am) by about 12-14 weeks old with no unsupported crying! This means sleep training is not even needed later on. As an NCS, this is the sleep based approach I take to newborn care. Baring any healthy conditions, most newborns under my overnight care are sleeping 7pm-7am straight through by 12 weeks of age.

So before you read an article title and run with it, do some research, know the options, and reach out to experts! Here are some tips to help your baby build these healthy sleep habits from birth, if this is something you want to try:

● Create an ideal sleep environment. This means a dark room (dark enough that you cannot see your hand held out in front of you), white noise machine, a safe sleep surface, and swaddle.
● Don’t let your baby become overtired. Most newborns cannot stay awake happily for longer than 45-90 minutes-and this includes feeding time.
● Get your baby ready for sleep at the first signs of tiredness like fussiness, rubbing eyes, or pulling on ears. Extreme fussiness and yawning are often signs that your baby is overtired.
● Swaddle your baby with arms-in during the newborn phase, and arms-out in a sleep sack once they learn to roll over. The Miracle Blanket is my favorite swaddle until rolling over!
● Try to avoid nursing or feeding to sleep. In the very early days (or before bedtime at night) watch for when your baby slows from active sucking to comfort nursing, and gently comfort her another way before she falls asleep.
● Establish an eat, play, sleep routine early on. During the day, encourage baby to be awake and alert right after feedings. This is great time for tummy time or other stimulating activities. 
● After swaddling, transfer your baby gently to her safe sleeping space from a horizontal position. Moving from an upright position like holding her over your shoulder to placing her on her back can cause a startle reflex even when swaddled.
● Be consistent. Putting your baby down drowsy, but awake, will allow baby to practice their independent sleep and feel comfortable in their safe sleep space. Your baby may fuss slightly when placed down, but give her a chance to settle on her own. Try placing a hand gently on her chest, soothing in crib, or offering a pacifier instead of picking her right back up.

Over time, your baby will become used to falling asleep independently and you will be able to place them in their crib or bassinet when they’re less drowsy.

Sara McAllister is a dual certified Newborn Care Specialist (ICNCS, advCNCS (ncsa)) and the owner of Welcome Home Baby, based in Los Angeles, California. Sara discovered her passion for childcare after volunteering in various infant programs and orphanages in Peru and Kenya before beginning her NCS career almost 10 years ago. Sara has been invited to speak at multiple National Nanny Training Day events, Nanny Care Hub virtual parent trainings, as well as at the national Nannypalooza conference. As an NCS, Sara believes in helping parents form the building blocks that support healthy sleep habits from birth and establishing a routine around the needs of baby and family.  Specializing in the care of multiples and travel positions, Sara has a passion for supporting new parents during the first 12-16 weeks of their parenting journey. Welcome Home Baby serves families nationwide and Sara continues to be actively involved in both local and international childcare organizations and training opportunities.

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