Could a Muslim give sleep training to their child?
One of the new topics derived from modern life is sleep training infants or toddlers. If you are a new parent in this new age, it is highly likely that you have heard the concept or even discussed it at home once. Everybody seems to have an opinion about it, there are many supporters as well as opponents. Perhaps, It will put you in a dilemma in between your patience and your inner conscience, since the sleep of a baby is a really difficult subject. In this post, I will cover the history of sleep training, the science behind the sleep of baby, why it seems to be desired in modern life and finally what would be the perspective of religion on it.
There are many reasons why the sleep of a baby considered as 'problematic'. The most leading reason is the fact that babies do not sleep through the night. We may list putting them into sleep meaning the way we support them till they fall asleep as the second reason. We will look at both from the science point of view to see if they are a real problem.
The idea of sleep training based on 'teaching' baby sleeping on his own, on his own bed so that the baby would sleep through the night uninterrupted. Regardless of which sleep training method is chosen(yes there are many, from harsh ones to so-called gentle ones), the basis of the concept is not answering the wish of the baby to be held or supported during sleeping. By this way, the baby is conditioned to go back to sleep since he/she knows that crying or asking for it will not work. It is a method in psychology that falls under behaviorism. If the parent consistently cuts reacting to call, the baby will give up after a certain time.
Let's start with the history of sleep training. The way we parent does change in time with the changing world. The term 'spoiling kids' formed in the 18th century after the industrial revolution, especially in the big cities(1). People started to have bigger houses with an extra room for kids which would end co-sleeping and which gave the opportunity to not to answer to kids on their wishes with the fear of creating demanding children. Towards the 20. century, especially in western cultures, with the availability of bottle, the tendency of choosing not to breastfeed led to a more distant relationship between the body of mother and baby. But the real popularity of sleep training started only 100 years ago with the author of a best-selling book on child care by Dr. Luther Emmett Holt who was American(1). Popular methods on sleep training as of today(Ferber, Kim West or so many others) are formed even more recent, after the 1980s. Therefore, sleep training is not an ancient term but very new, derived from the culture and needs of modern life. Today, it is common to see some paediatricians and psychologists advice applying it without any doubt.
Why babies do not sleep through the night then? In fact, babies do sleep with intervals just like adults. But adults have a more developed neurological system and sleep patterns that they do not remember the transition between these sleep cycles whereas babies become more awake and need support to go back to sleep. It mostly takes an average of 2 years for babies to have sleep patterns and proportions of non-rem/rem sleep phases to be like adults. The reason for this might be evolution. Babies who would wake up and remind themselves frequently might be more protected in wildlife and pass their genes to today. Another reason might be the historical habits. In a study(2), it is shown that we as humans were not sleeping as one block either. until the 1800s, we used to take a 2-3 hour awake gap in the middle of the night to run errands and go back to sleep in the second half of the night.
To repeat the important fact, it is accepted scientifically that a baby might not be physiologically ready to sleep through the night until the age of 2. However, a minority of babies do achieve this milestone much sooner. Babies have the fastest growth rate in the first 2, even 3 years of their lives. They go through developmental leaps, teething, acquire new skills and emotions which also beings anxieties and fears. All these are digested and classified during sleep. These might translates into the need for more night wakings and reassurance during sleep. Therefore, although they achieve a big milestone around 2 years old physiologically and start sleeping through the night, due to psychological needs, it is normal that they will continue to wake up time to time to seek for support in the early childhood years(3).
It is crucial to mention 2 important scientific facts very relevant to the topic. First is the fact that babies already do know how to fall asleep when they are born. It is known that they do sleep in the womb and wake and sleep again on their own. The second fact is that children are not able to perform emotional regulation on their own until about age 5(4). They need an adult to help to regulate their emotions which is called co-regulation. I remember feeling surprised when I first read this and thinking every parent should read about neurology to some extend( Dan Siegel books are highly recommended who is an expert in this area). When these 2 facts are combined it can be concluded that babies will fall asleep, but they need us to provide the necessary environment to calm down like following their cues for tiredness(timing), leading them to a calm environment and supporting them in a proper way according to you and your babies character to relax. Because of the same reason, they will need us not only before sleep but also in other areas where they might find difficulties until they are skilful enough to do it on their own.
Let's look at what other mammals do with their babies. In nature, babies are taken care of until they are ready to survive on their own by mostly mothers or other females in the community. The timescale varies greatly depending on the type of the animal. Mothers breastfeed the infants from birth onwards and mostly stay very close. Babies fall asleep naturally during a feed on mothers or during a play on other siblings. There is no such thing as sleep training nor a need for it. Since human infants has to born much earlier due to the diameter of the head because of very developed brains, the time needed for close attention to babies is relatively long. To have an idea for comparison, look at other mammals infants who mostly can immediately walk or swim right after birth.
''Infant seals are ready for solids as soon as 2 weeks after birth. Bears, similar to humans breastfeed for 2 years, whereas Orangutans extend breastfeeding for up to 7 years. In nature, breastfeeding and sleep seem to be linked and happens in a natural flow.''
Well, then why we live so different in modern life compared to history, why methods like sleep training formed? The most important change happened in family life in society. Humans used to live as big families or tribes and children were raised all together with the help of everyone, similar to other daily errands. Here is an old saying: it takes a village to raise a child. Recently, I heard another nice expression from a documentary(5); ‘A child is born with such high energy and creativity that a mother cannot handle alone.' Therefore, we need to have a social support network. Parents who have help as such tolerate difficulties like lacking sleep better. You may have noticed that the child is so much happier and occupied in a crowded family visit and you feel less tired at the end. Old folks used to have such daily life until they go to sleep in their individual room where they were sleeping all together with children so that there was no need for sleep training. Nowadays, we live in an individualistic modern life culture, probably miles away from grandparents, have no immediate help unless we hire someone.
The Second difficulty we face is social pressure. New parents or parent candidates hear such phrases from the experiences ones; 'if you spoil your kid, you can not handle them', 'you make a bad habit if you hold your child often', 'I put my child in bed and sleeps through the night since he was a baby'…When a new parent hears such things they find themselves in a dilemma between their instinct to respond to baby no matter what and fear of future to so-called spoiling. Similarly, I was told 'we never took you in our bed even once, you would sleep till morning quietly', and when I actually had my son, I had a very difficult period due to my expectations vs real life. If the older and more experienced ones tell rather more helpful things like 'babies don't sleep, you are doing nothing wrong', 'just cuddle as much as you can, they will grow up in the blink of an eye, 'we have all been there, it is a difficult phase but it is temporary' and offer more support, new parents would enjoy this period more. One of the reasons why older ones act like this is the fact that nature has a mechanism for us to forget difficult things. Hence, keep in mind that they might not remember well. In short, fear of spoiling a baby and expectations like most babies sleep perfect and regularly is the second reason why we are struggling.
Some other factors in our generation that contributing to our struggles are; short maternity leave, perfectionism, availability of so many information although not all of them are true, daily strict schedules and desire for predictability(sleep of a baby is the most unpredictable thing, you just start to think everything is settled and things change again), performance anxiety at work etc...A new, exhausted parent is in the middle of all these, and on the other side, there are sleep coaches/advisors using various sleep training methods and promising you uninterrupted sleep. These sleep coaches claim that you would be doing a favor to your child and they would sleep better, it is partly true. With sleep training, both parents and children sleep more. These sleep coaches even shoot videos and write articles about how about sleep training would not harm secure attachment between parents and children since attachment issues are becoming more popular. However, secure attachment is a quite deep and comprehensive topic that nobody can claim if something particular would harm it or not, it is unique for different families and different situations. I empathise how difficult choice is this for exhausted parents. If I share our experience a bit, when our son was around 5 months, he went through a really difficult and long phase with numerous wake ups. I remember calling a sleep coach and making an appointment saying 'I feel it is not right but I will still do it, I am going crazy!', I canceled the appointment afterwards though.
Another factor that might force you for sleep training might be creating a habit for your baby to put him down for sleep in an unsustainable way. Babies do need our support for calming down until they fall asleep, yes, but It has to be in such a way that works for both of you but you can maintain when baby gets heavier or wakes up in the middle of the night(7). For example, rocking them into sleep while standing will not be possible in the long term.
We personally benefited floor beds since our son was around 6 months old(on left: a view from my son's throne:)) which allows you to lay next to the baby during putting them sleep and sneaking out easily afterwards. We use slings(baby carriers) outside as he tends to fall asleep only in them but not in easier ways like a pushchair. This is what works for us, may not work for you. You should find solutions according to your own specific circumstances and preferences. I want to add another personal note here. You may have heard from child sleep experts tell that if babies learn to fall asleep on their own in their own bed, they will also do the same during night wakings. My son was able to fall asleep in his own bed most of the time naturally without any support like rocking or nursing, but he still kept waking on multiple occasions during the night, he still does. After about he was 9 months old, I was feeling more confident and aware, I was able to ignore these so-called best practices and listen to my gut feelings more. I started to be able to nurse him to sleep to time to when he or I need it or take him into our bed in the middle of the night without feeling guilty. I wish I was being this flexible in the first months which would make us all less tired and stress as family.
You may find good quality articles from experts about the real truth behind sleep training or possible harms(4). The most commonly known is that a study(6) that shows sleep trained children and parents both have elevated levels of cortisol although babies stop crying after a certain time. When you do not pick up your child consistently, it works most of the time, you will see them waking up from the monitor in the middle of the nigh and going back to sleep on their own. However, this will not mean they calmed down and not stressed, they just know that calling for help will not work. Another important problem with sleep training is the fact that sleep training is not sustainable in the long term. There will be times that you have to break your rules like sickness, developmental leaps, travels, separation anxiety, etc. I know many friends that have to repeat the process due to these again or regretting doing it in the first place. Moreover, you will feel afraid of going in and support your child when he is having a difficult time and will feel bad about it or when you will simply miss cuddling.
There are other trends formed as a reaction to these new modern life solutions that defend more child-friendly, gentle approaches. We can list attachment parenting which started to become popular around the 1960s or respectful parenting, aware parenting, gentle parenting and so on. They are definitely worthwhile to be looked up as they defend more compassionate ways like following signals of the baby rather than strict schedules, being responsive to a child's needs, being present and mindful about parenting and many more. However, the danger with these ones is again being on the high end of the spectrum and being emotionally and physically drained off as a parent. Or putting the child as a center of the universe and missing the signals of independence and not giving any space to realistic failures and difficulties.
You know the rule of putting the oxygen mask to the parent first and the baby later. It is a must for a parent to have private time for themselves to re-charge. It takes time and experience to find this inner balance, and yet it is still so difficult that you will keep missing the thread back and forth. If I may give an example of another personal experience here, night or day, if our son demands me those times I fell on the edge, I hand over the responsibility to my partner or whoever and immediately take time for myself. Yes, this involves some crying and frustration but life is never ideal, difficult experiences will teach my son as long as he has the compassionate empathy from us. However, I do empathize with those who do not have the support to do so and not as lucky as I am. Overall, there is no such thing as a perfect parent or human or relationship, we all grow with our mistakes.
Let's try to empathize with children a bit. I feel a need for holding a hand time to time when I fall asleep at this age or have a good cry on a shoulder, or feel angry and take it out from my closest ones without realizing my emotions. What would we expect in such times? A response like 'there is nothing to cry, you are spoiled' or ‘I am here to listen to you no matter what, go on’? Let's try to realize how much we expect from our children since very early times; sleeping on their own-on time, behaving everywhere decent no matter what, follow their schedules without feeling different, acting like adults...
Lastly, we will look at sleep training from the perspective of Islam. To begin with, let's remember the words of Profit Muhammed: "Make things easier, not harder. Facilitate things, not complicate"(8) We can see that the approach of Islam is to always choose the more merciful path. If we look at the relationship of Profit Muhammed with children throughout his life, there are many examples. It is known that he was very compassionate with kids, playing with them like a kid, speaking with them in a respectful but playful way(used to call them with a nickname they would find pleasant), show them his love with close attention. Enes b.Malik who stayed with him almost 10 years starting from the age of 9-10 tells us that he never questioned him like "why would you do it like", not even once. Another example is that He used to take his granddaughter Ümame to masjid quite often carrying her on his shoulder, performing his salaat(paying ritual of Muslims) holding her. Another time that he was leading to a praying session he picked the shorter prayers and the crowd asked why. He explained that his intention was much longer but after hearing a cry of a child from the back rows, he cut it short so that the mother could help the kid immediately(9). We should remember all these precepts better, as when we see a child playing even a bit louder in any public place or in mosques, people criticize immediately nowadays. In short, we can conclude that morals Islam advises against harsh concepts like sleep training. Just a small note here, in those times almost 1400 years ago, people were helping each other more, there were even concepts like wetnursing.
What we talked about so far does not mean to give children whatever they want and put the priority on them for everything. Setting healthy boundaries for children is a natural necessity as they require a confident leader to guide them. The most important factor here is the setting proper boundaries for the relevant age and development stage, and always in an understanding supporting way. Leaving them alone for falling asleep is not appropriate for an early age, they are simply neurologically not ready. Having compassion and being gentle requires a great deal of patience though. In the Quran, it is clearly stated that those people who advise each other patience and compassion are in the right path. But it also says that path is a steep hill so it is not easy at all(10).
Despite all these facts, there are people who do not have any help trying to survive in modern cruel life, there are people who have twins or even triplets or in situations, we simply do not know. Solutions may be asking help to anyone who could, becoming aware, knowing more and setting expectations wise, doing whatever to help to the situation like co-sleeping or nursing to sleep, whatever fits your specific circumstance. Still, after all these it may seem like sleep training is the only solution. If a parent feels like this must be done, this situation should be also have empathized. To give an example in a similar area as breastfeeding, Quran sets 2 years as advised duration but it is also allowed to stop sooner with consultation among parents(11).
In summary, sleep training is a term that is formed due to the needs of modern life. However, it is against the natural development and needs of children, as well as science and religion. It seems to be needed due to lack of help with raising a child, expectations and social pressure. The best is to educate ourselves as a parent and try to be inspirational for others. We should also help increasing helping culture and compassion in society, avoiding judging anyone else. I hope that every family will make the best decision according to their very specific circumstances. After trying your best and trying to find alternative ways, if sleep training seems to be the way to go, it is good to remember it is only one of the choices we make in the long parenting journey. One decision will not make you a bad parent, it is best to look forward and move on.
(1) Dr. Aletha Solter ; http://www.awareparenting.com/comfort.htm
(3) Sarah Ockwell-Smith, The Gentle Sleep Book
(4) Psikolog Melis Keşan, uyku eğitimi doğru bilinen yanlışlar https://www.doktoramcam.com/uyku-egitimi-dogru-bilinen-yanlislar/
(5) Netflix, The Beginning of Life (S1;E5)
(6) Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=middlemiss+asynchrony
(7) Psikolog Melis Keşan, Uyku Öncesi Hangi Aktivitelerle Bebeğiniz Sakinleştirilmeli https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4jS4mVpmrE
(8) Buhari, ilim 12;Müslim, Cihad, 6
(9) Buhari, Ezan, 65; Neasi, Kıble, 35
(10) Holy Quran, Beled; 8-18 ‘…And shown him the two highways?But he hath made no haste on the path that is steep.Then will he be of those who believe, and enjoin patience, (constancy, and self-restraint), and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion.
(11) Quran, Bakarah; 233. ’Mothers may breastfeed their children two complete years for whoever wishes to complete the nursing [period]. Upon the father is the mothers' provision and their clothing according to what is acceptable. No person is charged with more than his capacity. No mother should be harmed through her child, and no father through his child. And upon the [father's] heir is [a duty] like that [of the father]. And if they both desire weaning through mutual consent from both of them and consultation, there is no blame upon either of them. And if you wish to have your children nursed by a substitute, there is no blame upon you as long as you give payment according to what is acceptable. And fear Allah and know that Allah is Seeing of what you do.’