When criticisms of sleep training circulate, there are always people who will say “but there are gentle ways to sleep train” and then give an anecdote describing how they implemented routines from birth, or offered comfort from next to the bed or whatever.
Sometimes, in an attempt to differentiate from Cry-it-Out/Controlled Crying, this is referred to as “sleep learning”.
So is sleep learning, really a thing, and is it any different to sleep training?
Well, yes and no.
If you have any education training, you’ll be familiar with a concept called the “Zone of Proximal Development”. This concept, developed by Lee Vygotsky “refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner. Thus, the term “proximal" refers those skills that the learner is “close" to mastering.”
Vygostky recognized that at any particular developmental level there are:
(i) certain problems that a child can solve without aid,
(ii) certain problems that a child can solve with aid, and
(iii) certain problems that a child will most likely never be able to solve at this particular stage (e.g., Vygotsky, 1962).
This is one of the primary reasons why schools have curriculum. Or why maths, for example is taught sequentially. There would be no point teaching quadratic equations to someone who hasn’t learnt basic algebra, it would be beyond their zone of proximal development, and attempting to do so would simply be stressful and frustrating for everyone involved.
So what has this all got to do with sleep?
Well whilst Vygotsky was primarily concerned with cognitive learning, and problem solving, the theory applies just as well to developmental learning, or physical skills. Like the old adage, you can’t run before you walk.
As a general rule, babies do not have the ability to put themselves to sleep without adult help. So as a general rule, attempts to “teach” a baby to put themselves to sleep, result in stress and frustration, regardless of the type of approach used (eg, “sleep learning” or “sleep training”). It’s simply outside of the baby’s ability, and therefore outside of their Zone of Proximal Development.
But, just like in a classroom, where the curriculum is pitched to the majority, there are always going to be outliers. Those students or babies who are further ahead or behind in any particular area.
Thus for some babies, the term “sleep learning” is a legitimate name.
They have a low-needs, easy going temperament, so they don’t get upset easily, and they are happy to accept comfort in numerous ways.
These are the babies you can actually put down “drowsy but awake” and they just gurgle, stretch, and go to sleep.
These are the babies who when they cry, take a long time to build up their distress, and are quite happy to just have you hold their hand and pat them to calm down.
On the other hand you have the babies with high-needs, those with anxious temperaments, Koala babies.
These are the babies who cry the second you try to put them down “drowsy but awake” or to ninja roll away. The babies whose cries go from zero to panic attack in approximately 1.2 seconds.
For those babies, no “sleep learning” technique is going to be “gentle” enough for them. They aren’t going to be able to “learn” anything, because they are simply too stressed. And when we are stressed we can’t learn.
In education theory the effect of stress on learning is known as the “affective filter”, but it’s essentially just Fight/Flight/Freeze.
The body and the brain respond to stress with a complex cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters. When a child’s senses perceive danger, their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system releases steroid hormones (glucocorticoids). This includes the primary stress hormone, cortisol, which has a direct effect on the heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, immune system and skin. The HPA also stimulates the release of catecholamine neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline), which activates the amygdala, which in turn triggers a fearful response. The brain then releases neuropeptide S, which increases alertness and feelings of anxiety. Together, the HPA system will keep a child’s stimulated and ready to run. But while this may be good for truly life or death situations, this stress response makes learning difficult, as the stimulated senses are not those associated with deep learning. Think about it this way: would you be able to memorize the times tables when you were being chased by a bear? Of course not.
Neither can your baby learn to sleep, or “self soothe” (a term which is confusing in itself as it is interchangeably used in the context of baby sleep to mean either, “go to sleep from a calm state without adult support or a sleep association” or “calm themselves down from a state of distress”) when they are in a fight/flight/freeze state.
Their brain has shut down all the thinking centers (which are pretty immature anyway), the memory centers, and control.
The only part of the conscious brain that is working is the ability to signal for help. Babies, by nature of the fact that they are immobile and highly vulnerable automatically signal for help, since they can’t run or fight. If help doesn’t come, they “freeze”, shutting down their bodily functions and going into a state of energy conservation similar to a possum playing dead.
There is absolutely no way that a baby who is crying is “learning” to “self soothe”, “sleep” or “be independent”.
If they stop crying and look like they are sleeping it is not because they have “learned to self soothe”, it’s because they have entered the energy conservation stage. Learning, just doesn’t work that way.
So is there such thing as “sleep learning” or gentle techniques that can be used to help any baby “learn” to sleep independently?
There are simply babies for whom being expected to settle themselves to sleep is a realistic ask - within their zone of proximal development. And babies for whom being expected to settle themselves to sleep is unrealistic - outside of their zone of proximal development and therefore in the “affective filter” zone.
The good news is that if you pay attention to your baby, rather than the marketing spin on any any sleep book/website/consultant’s advertising, you’ll quickly establish if the technique you are using is actually “gentle” for YOUR baby.
Hi I'm Nicole