Activism in Action – Changing Sleep Training Culture: TBSTP Perspective

Sleep Training is sadly the dominant culture in the Western world. It hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t need to be this way either. From first world countries in Europe through to third world countries in Africa there are hundreds of societies across the world where sleep training is either unheard of or very much in the minority. (And women still work) 

Definition of Sleep Training Culture

The constant pressure from health professionals, baby “whisperers”, friends and family for baby to sleep alone, without feeding or comfort including “sleep associations”. 

Typical comments include “baby should be sleeping x hours without waking”, “baby no longer needs night feeds”, “you’re still breastfeeding? Why don’t you give a bottle so you can get more sleep/go out”  “they’re just feeding for comfort” “they’re just protesting” “you need to give them the gift of sleep” “are they a good baby”

Our primary aim at Little Sparklers/The Beyond Sleep Training Project is to challenge and eventually see the end of Sleep Training Culture. 

One of the ways that aim can be achieved is through grassroots activism. 

There are a lot of everyday little things that you can do to help change sleep training culture. 


Being honest with health professionals.

We get it, its super irritating and frustrating to be constantly dealing with health professionals who push sleep training culture, but we believe that being honest with health care providers is one of the fastest ways to create change. 

When you lie to your health care provider about how and where your baby sleeps, you take the heat off yourself, but at what cost?

Lying skews data, meaning that the real numbers of parents who bedshare or babies who still wake multiple times a night at 1 or who breastfeed at night till 2 will never be known. That mean the data used for everything from developing government backed information on “norms” to SIDS statistics to journalism is wrong. 

That’s a major problem, because it means that the mid point of the bell curve of infant development becomes more and more incorrect. It means that you health professionals have an inaccurate understanding of your child’s health, and it means that the status quo doesn’t get challenged – either at a macro level or an individual level.

If even 10-20% of the case control families who say they didn’t bedshare, if they in fact were not being completely truthful with these epidemiologists asking where their baby sleeps, all of the statistical numbers are invalid. And just with 10% of the parents who did bed share with their babies and their babies lived, that will change the whole statistical profile.” – James McKenna

And recent studies suggest that between 46-100% of parents are lying to their doctors about not bed-sharing. 

In the USA alone over 1.5million mothers are likely breastsleeping most nights. That doesn’t even consider those who bottle feed. Yet most of these families doctors believe that the baby is sleeping in a crib.

Just like us parents, a health care provider’s specific education and life experiences are a huge factor in what they say and believe. And they will never grow without being challenged.

Every time you lie to your doctor, or just let their sleep training speil roll off your back as you ignore it but say nothing, you are missing an opportunity to make things better for other mums.

So unless you are in a position where it is likely that you could lose custody of your children, (which is a legitimate risk for some US parents) please don’t lie.

-> Practice statements that you feel comfortable with. 
-> Take literature with you.
-> Ask why it’s even medically necessary to know where your baby sleeps. 
-> Ask them for the evidence to back what they are saying.
-> Anticipate their questions and head them off at the pass.

If you can’t bring yourself to do that because you hate confrontation, then make complaints later.

-> Email the practice manager or department head.
-> Fill in patient feedback forms
-> Email the doctor or nurse with follow up-questions asking for evidence
-> Contact the licencing board.
-> Complain to the overseeing bodies in your area.

Example : The where is your baby sleeping question. 

Doctor: Is baby sleeping in their own cot? 
You: I understand that you are required to ask this question, however it is not relevant medically.


Doctor: Is baby sleeping in their own cot? 
You: I have made the decision about where my baby sleeps based on extensive research including the works of Drs James McKenna, Helen Ball, Gabor Mate and Sarah Buckley. The decisions I have made to bedshare and breast sleep reflect what is biologically normal for humans. I understand that you are required by the APA to tell me that babies should only sleep alone in their own cots and that bed sharing is inherently dangerous, however UNICIEF, the Infant Sleep Information Source and Lullaby Trust all disagree. Here are the UNICIEF guidelines for health professionals regarding cosleeping. Please write “Safely bed sharing – educated decision” in my file.” 

2: Stand your Ground with Family.

2.1 Make your beliefs known, and show that they are based on evidence, not opinion

Ideally you can start this during pregnancy, but it’s never too late. Share articles that talk about normal infant sleep practices on your facebook and in conversations. 

Example:  Preemptively showing family that you have made informed decisions. 

Family member: How are you/ How’s things going? 
You: Great, I’ve been reading this really interesting psychology research that talks about how babies in their first year are learning their sense of trust. The way and consistency in how their primary caregivers respond to their cries literally wires their brains to either expect that the world is a safe place, an unsafe place or that they can’t guarantee either. It’s totally fascinating and it talks about that old myth of spoiling a baby by picking them up everytime they cry and how science has completely debunked that.”

2.2 Get on the same page as your spouse.

Use a workbook (such as this one) or work with a therapist trained in attachment theory to help you identify key similarities and differences and evaluate your approaches. 

->Step 1: identify what you each want for your child – what kind of person you want them to be, what kind of relationships you want them to have (with romantic/sexual partners, with you, with friends, with children etc) what values you want them to have, what you hope they will implicitly know and believe about themselves/your parenting, what your biggest fears are regarding how they will grow up. What kind of adult are you raising? 

->Step 2: Identify common ground, what do you both want fro your child? eg, for them to be healthy and happy and have good relationships as an adult. 

->Step 3: Identify WHY you want what you want and believe what you believe. How has your own childhood, along with your family, friends, media etc shaped your values and beliefs about how to parent and why you should parent that way? What happens to you physiologically when someone or something challenges those beliefs? How do you manage that? 

->Step 4: Look critically and analytically at your current approaches to parenting. Are they helping, hindering or simply doing nothing or your goals? Are they pushing you away from or towards having the things you fear happen? What does research say? 

->Step 5: forward plan, skill up and create an action plan for how you are going to parent.

2.3 Shut down criticism and “advice” 

When family start in with criticism of your choices or advice on how you should parent differently shut it down quickly.

“I appreciate that you only want to help, however there’s been so many changes in what is considered best practice over the last 30 years, and I really need you to just trust me and my decisions.”


“I really value our relationship, and have always felt like you have supported me in everything I do. This is new territory for us, and I feel like the best way that you can support me is by only giving advice if I ask for it,  and trusting that I know what i’m doing.”

Example: If they’re just not getting the message;  Practice your resting bitch face and the following statements.

->“The best way that you can support me is by respecting my decisions.”
->“It’s not up for discussion”
->“We are happy with our choice, and have made it based on science”
->“Our doctor agrees with us” (even if they don’t)
->“You raised your kids, i’ll raise mine” 
->“That’s a myth mum”
->“Fruit spoils, babies don’t”
->”I understand that you disagree, however, this is an educated decision I’ve made in the best interests of my child, and I’m not interested in anyone else’s input on the matter”
->“I’ll need to research that further,”
->“I had no idea that was still a popular method,”
->“Huh, you know I actually just saw that that is not longer recommended because of safety/child development issues.”

Example: For more pushy family members who just won’t let it go, and are texting you all the time with “how was last night? baby in their own bed yet?” or constant passive aggressive and belittling comments try:

“This is how I/we are choosing to parent. Yes it is difficult but we/I believe that it is important. I would ask that you support me with this or at the very least keep your opinions to yourself. If you are unable to do so then we will be unable to visit with you until (insert appropriate time/incident) this would be a shame as your friendship/relationship is important to me/us/baby. Unfortunately you are forcing my hand. “


“You raised your children. It’s our turn to raise ours. We are going to take a break from you while you think about the kind of relationship you want with us. From our end, that relationship does not involve you pushing to have our children raised your way. Nor does it involve being harassed for not doing things your way. But most importantly, it does not involve you going between a married couple and trying to interfere in said marriage by doing the divide and conquer. It’s disrespectful and will not be tolerated. Any instances of you ringing one spouse to complain about the other will not be an acceptable part of any relationship. We will contact you when we are ready to discuss how we will move forward from this.


3: Reaching out to stem the tide.

Friends, Family, co-workers, mother’s group members and strangers online are all being bombarded with the same pressure you are. To sleep train, to limit comfort, to limit feeding, to ignore cries, and to “give their baby the gift of sleep”. They are dealing with the drain of sleep deprivation and want to do what’s best for their kids and everyone and everything is telling them that that’s going to mean sleep training – and if they can’t bring themselves to do it, it’s because they are “too soft”. 

Most parents who sleep train do it because they believe they have to. Not because they are lazy or uncaring. 

We have the power to plant the seeds of change. 

But we need to consider the effectiveness of how we go about engaging in these discussions if we truly want to create change.


->Be kind and respectful in your comments. Being nasty, aggressive, judging or shaming is not a way to win anyone over. It just puts people on the defensive and makes them dig their heels in even more.

->Have empathy. Remember that often families who are Sleep Training are usually pretty desperate and exhausted. They often don’t know about normal infant sleep. They often are acting on advice from a health professional. They often don’t know there’s another way.

->Commenting in an overly assertive manner, using highly emotive language, saying something is abusive or neglectful, is NEVER a way to win people over. It only leads to them digging in their heels and becoming defensive. Remember that there is a REAL mother and a REAL baby and a REAL family behind the post/picture.

->If you are too angry and triggered to say anything constructive, step away.

->Use science over emotion. There are loads of articles in the files that you can use.

->Channel Michelle Obama and go higher than high in your comments.

>If you can’t articulate yourself clearly, grab a meme/graphic from the album here specifically for Sleep Training posts and use that instead.

->Link to our group or public page or any one of your favourite gentle people,

Save this comment somewhere you can copy paste it.

If at any point sleep training doesn’t feel right to you, please know that it is absolutely not necessary. There are other ways to get the sleep you and baby need without sleep training. If you would like more information please (join TBSTP or Pm/call me)”

3.1 For Parenting pages, media articles, email lists and bloggers/influencers.

->Make your comments practical. Offer a solution, not just a whinge. If you want to see something different, give them ideas on what they could show that would make you happy as a viewer.

->The most effective complaint is one in writing to the station manager/editor or other person in power. If you get a form response, keep writing back.

->No one likes trolls. You know, those people who tag in your buddies to help you attack, or post 50 comments on a thread or attack people personally. Don’t be one.

->Above all- strive to be as gentle with each other as we strive to be with our babies and remember that your behaviour reflects on our group, and our legitimacy as a Not For Profit organisation.


4: Ask for a refund.

If you, like thousands of others paid (a lot of) money for a sleep coaching program, in home service, or mother-baby-unit stay, that claimed to be gentle, but was actually sleep training; ask for your money back. If you we’re left in the lurch after your baby “failed” sleep school – Write to your health insurance company or health department complaints service. You could even complain to the advertising standards board if their advertising is significantly different to their product.

If you can’t bring yourself to write,  because you hate confrontation, get your partner to do it for you, or use the following template.

The more people who show their dissatisfaction, the more chance there is that the provider will realise that what they are offering is letting families down.

Example template:

Attention _________ Re: <Program Name> feedback.

I would like to express my dissatisfaction with the __________ program. I paid for this program under the belief that it was gentle and I would not be required or encouraged to leave my child to cry, practice responsive settling or otherwise ignore my child. The advertising suggested that the methods involved would be gentle, and responsive, and that no parent would be pushed to do something that they were not comfortable with.

In reality, this was my experience ____________________________________________________.

As a result I would like a full refund of the cost of the program, and I strongly encourage you to make your true practices clearer in your advertising.

Regards, ___________