Sleep Training and Learned Helplessness


Around the world, some parents are high-fiving baby sleep ‘trainers’ for giving them some much-needed shut-eye. Typical newspaper headlines include:
‘Sleep trainer cured my baby’s insomnia – and saved my sanity’ – The Telegraph.
‘When Lullabies Aren’t Enough’ – The New York Times.
‘Letting babies cry rather than rushing to comfort them is secret to longer sleep (for infants AND parents)’ – The Daily Fail.
‘Study highlights controlled crying benefits’ – ABC News.
Yes, without a doubt, controlled crying has benefits – for parents. Yes, controlled crying ‘works’. The baby does indeed shut his ass up and communicates less at night. However – and it’s a big HOW-EVER – at best, this is because he has been trained not to do so, rather than understanding that it is night-time and therefore he must be tired and should sleep. Physician and legend Dr Sears coined the phrase ‘shutdown syndrome’ to describe what may potentially be happening in this scenario. Shall I explain? (You: Bring it on mofo).
Essentially, depressed babies shut down the expression of their needs, and they become children who don’t ever speak up to get their needs met and eventually become the highest-need adults. Shrinks calls this behaviour Learned Helplessness.
Learned Helplessness:
— n
the act of giving up trying as a result of consistent failure to be rewarded in life, thought to be a cause of depression (
To illustrate this concept, I call upon the animal kingdom:
In India, when elephant trainers catch a baby elephant, they tie one of its legs to a post with a rope. The baby elephant struggles and struggles but it can’t get free. For days the elephant pulls and strains at the rope. Gradually it learns that struggle is useless and it gives up.
When the elephant grows up, the trainer keeps it tied to the same rope in the same way. And even though it can now break the rope and get away, it stands passively and waits for the trainer to come and get it. It has developed Learned Helplessness. It has learned that the struggle is useless as a result of repeated failure earlier in life, the elephant has learned a self imposed limitation.
Likewise, why do sleep-trained babies stop calling out? Perhaps because it is futile for them to continue crying. Why cry when nobody comes?  This knowledge hurts your soul when you consider that a baby’s cry is their first attempt at communicating. Through it, the baby establishes his status as someone who deserves something. When the communication is answered, the baby’s sense of positive entitlement as a person becomes stronger. However when their cry is ignored, this sends the opposite message – that they are not worthwhile.
When it comes to sleep training, learned helplessness is the elephant in the nursery.