“Sleep Training” vs “Sleep Learning”

What do you think of when you hear the term “sleep training”? Sleep training means a lot of different things to different people, however it also has a lot of negative connotations associated with it. 


You will often hear that sleep training means getting your baby to sleep independently by letting your baby “cry it out”, or following a set of timers. There is also the assumption that sleep training means training your baby to sleep by following a set of steps that will work for any baby.


If you share with a fellow parent that you are thinking of “sleep training” your baby, you are often met with the response, “well, I could never leave MY baby to cry themselves to sleep.” Mom groups are full of advice on what is the “right” way to sleep train your baby, leaving other moms to feel shamed, or riddled with guilt if that way doesn’t sit well with them. 


It is because of these lies, assumptions, and mom-shaming that I threw myself into baby sleep research and ultimately created The Peaceful Sleeper. But more on that later! In this post, I will debunk the sleep training myths, outline exactly what “sleep learning” is, and share with you how The Peaceful Sleeper approach truly is the best approach for every baby and every family. 


What is “sleep learning”? 


How is sleep learning different from sleep training?


Is “cry it out” part of sleep learning? 


What sleep learning approach is best for my baby? 


What is “sleep learning”? 

Baby learning to sleep |The Peaceful Sleeper


Sleep learning is essentially teaching your baby independent sleep skills in a way that honors both of your learning styles. 


Sleep learning is teaching your baby a skill, and just like with learning any skill, every child learns best at a different pace and has a learning style that works best for them. Sleep learning begins with meeting your child where they are at, in their zone of proximal development. “Zone of proximal development” means the space or distance between what a child can do completely independently and what they can do with adult guidance and support.


The goal is to teach your child to sleep independently, however in order to meet that goal we have to work with our children as we guide and support them to independence. There is the school of thought that you can teach your child to swim by tossing them into the deep end and they will figure it out, or teaching them to sleep by putting them into their crib and letting them cry until they figure it out, however that is not sleep learning. 


With sleep learning, you are meeting your baby where they are at, and then using a gradual release of responsibility to gradually guide and support them to more independence as they are developmentally ready, at a pace that works for them. For some babies and children a more accelerated pace works best and for others a more gradual pace is best. The key to sleep learning is YOU learning to tune into your baby so you know how to best support and guide them. 


Sleep learning is a collaborative growth process where you are working WITH your baby. You are laying the foundation for optimal sleep while honoring your parenting values and choices AND honoring the learning style and needs of your baby. 


How is sleep learning different from sleep training?


Here’s the thing. Sleep learning isn’t necessarily different from sleep training. It just depends on what one means when they use the term “sleep training”. The problem I am finding with the term “sleep training” is that it has so many negative connotations associated with it, and it leads many parents to feel guilt and shame if they even consider wanting to “sleep train” their baby. 


Sleep training is hard to define because so many people have defined it in so many different ways, which has muddied the term, caused confusion, and ultimately lead to a great divide between Team Sleep Training and Team Anti Sleep Training. And this makes me so upset because you deserve great sleep. And your children deserve great sleep. And great sleep CAN happen without compromising your parenting values and without making you feel uncomfortable or like you are doing something wrong. 


This is where the term “sleep learning” comes in. I am clearly defining it as a method that only means ONE thing: Teaching your baby independent sleep skills in a way that works for both of you. It is not a “one size fits all” approach and it is not about “training” your baby to comply or do something for the sake of making your life easier. Sleep learning is a holistic approach to teaching an extremely important skill while honoring both of your learning styles. 


Mom with baby sleeping |The Peaceful Sleeper


Every baby can get better sleep. And every parent can teach their baby how to get better sleep in a loving and gentle way that fosters attachment and is grounded in science. 


Is “cry it out” part of sleep learning? 


First of all, full “cry it out” means ensuring your baby is fed, dry, comfortable, and is sleepy, then putting them to bed in their crib and letting them cry it out until they fall asleep. Does it work? For some babies, yes. For others, no. With this approach, some babies learn best with some time and space to figure it out on their own and they fall asleep within minutes.  For others, it results in unproductive crying that does not result in any skill building. This is why the aspect of sleep learning, where you are tuning into YOUR baby, is so important. 


The Peaceful Sleeper method centers around four main approaches to sleep learning, and each approach is meant to be tailored to YOUR baby. With three of the approaches there is some degree of “cry it out” however it’s important to understand what that means.


All babies protest (cry) as a form of communication. It’s healthy and developmentally appropriate. What we want to ensure when we are sleep learning is that the protesting is productive, with variability, and is healthy expression as they work in their zone of proximal development to learn this new skill. What we don’t want is unproductive screaming with no variability, as this indicates to us that baby is not in their zone of proximal development and thus they are not in an optimal learning place to learn this new skill. 


“No Cry” Sleep Learning

Remember, if you feel that having your baby cry while you give them even a very short period of time to protest on their own does not feel like a good fit for either you or your baby, that is totally fine! Our fourth approach is “no cry” which means you are physically with your baby at all times while you work with them to learn healthy and independent sleep skills.


When we learn to tune into our baby, read their cues and work WITH them, we can teach them the skill of independent sleep in a productive and efficient manner. Since every baby is different, this means that for some babies a degree of “cry it out” will be effective and work best for them, and for others, they will learn the skill best if they are not left alone while they are protesting. 


Dad with baby learning to sleep |The Peaceful Sleeper


What sleep learning approach is best for my baby? 


There are a lot of factors that go into deciding what sleep learning approach is best for YOUR baby, however the essential element is the understanding that every baby and every parent is different. 


At the end of the day, my goal is not to get you to teach your baby to get great sleep in a specific way, my goal is to empower you with the confidence and knowledge that you need to be the expert on your baby. 


The “right” approach is going to be different for every baby and every family. It’s about tuning in to not only your baby, but to yourself and your learning style. We want to customize an approach that works for the unique combination of you and your baby. 


Once you know what you and your baby need for optimal learning, you can start there and then continue to tune into your baby as you meet their learning needs. Learning the skill of independent sleep, just like learning any skill, has ups and downs, which is why another key component of sleep learning is being consistent and yet responsive. Knowing when to make tweaks to the plan and when to stay the course makes the process of sleep learning smooth, successful and efficient. 


Baby sleeping with Mom |The Peaceful Sleeper


Recap on “sleep learning” vs “sleep training” 


To recap, the essential components of sleep learning are: 


  • Working within your child’s zone of proximal development
  • Using a gradual release of responsibility model as you work towards independence
  • Feeling empowered with the knowledge and confidence to be the expert on YOUR baby
  • Tuning into your baby
  • Tuning into your own parenting values and learning styles 
  • Knowing how to be consistent yet responsive 


I fundamentally believe that every baby can get better sleep, and I want to empower you to make that happen for YOUR baby. 


My 4-24 month course teaches you exactly how to be the expert on your baby, walks you through all four of my approaches, and then teaches you how to tailor each approach to best fit you and your baby. 


If watching a video course is not the optimal way you learn, you can schedule a consultation with one of our amazing sleep consultants! They will walk you through all of your options, help you learn to tune into your baby, and work with you to create an individualized sleep plan to meet all your sleep goals. We offer every level of support to meet the unique needs of every family. 


The bottom line is we are here by your side, to help everyone in your family get the sleep you need and deserve, in the way that works best for you!

Christine Lawler

Christine Lawler

MS, LMFT, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant

Hi! I’m so glad you’re here! I’m a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, practicing for over 13 years. I’ve set out to do ALL of the research and I created a method to optimize baby sleep that is tuned in, empowering and WORKS. There absolutely should be joy in motherhood, and I have learned that every baby CAN get better sleep!

Read more about my team here.

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