Sleep training is cruel. But it seems to be working. On day 2 of the most horrible process we have been through with our son Noah, he fell asleep after 5 minutes of crying, a long shot from the 45 minutes it took the day before. After the storm, comes the calm. After I cried with him outside his door, on day 2 I felt better, reassured that maybe, just maybe, we were helping our baby sleep through the night. Or better yet, we were coming out of his way to let him do his stuff. That day I saw him as such a big man, a big 4 months old mini-man.
After these four months I have learned one thing. There is no right or wrong when it comes to our parenting choices. We are the best parents we can be. But, and there is a big but, we always strive to find reassurance that we are not messing our kids’ lives. So please find below a quick review of the studies out there about sleep training methods.
On the attachment parenting side, pediatrician and author of The Baby Book, Dr. Sears suggested that prolonged crying for weeks could cause emotional trauma and physiological changes in the brain. He did not, however, related these crying spells with sleep training but crying jags in general.
Another voice of the attachment parenting team, Dr. Middlemiss’ study, published in Early Human Development found that while the “cry it out” method works –babies do cry less with time when learning to fall asleep- their physiological stress levels remained very high, measured by a saliva test kit that studied stress markers such as cortisol levels. Dr. Middlemiss said that if infants’ levels of cortisol remained high for continued periods of time, it could result in attention disorders, hyperactivity, anti-social behavior and possibly even obesity. She also noted that babies might not cry even when they are distressed, making difficult the much-needed communication between parent and child.
Feeling bad? Wait. A new study in Pediatrics says that there does not appear to be harm over the long term with these sleep training methods. The study looked at controlled comforting (parent responds to their child cries at intervals) and camping out (parent stays at their child’s room as he learns to sleep. Moving the chair farther away until he’s out of the room and baby falls asleep alone). This study concluded that sleep training is safe and effective since babies do learn to go to sleep easier and stay asleep for longer periods of time.
Thankfully, researchers form the American Academy of Sleep Medicine concluded a major review of the top five sleeping training methods to help your baby sleep through the night. They say that there’s no single “best” method. All of them work, we just have to follow one rule: consistency. Moreover, the study noted that children who went through sleep training were more secure, predictable, fussed and cried less, than those who were not trained.
“We’re fairly certain that sleep training doesn’t have any long-term negative effects,” Mindell says. “If you love your child and are a responsive parent and then let your child cry three nights in a row to teach her how to sleep, that’s fine.”
In short, no expert can tell you what is right or wrong. All babies are different. Choosing a sleep training method is clearly a personal choice. So what’s your take? What would you do you help your baby sleep through the night?
Everywhere I looked I found information about babies not becoming spoiled until 6 months old. I used to think that we had a few months to go before having to go through sleep training but when Noah began needing us to fall asleep for each and every nap things began to change. Not because I don’t like holding his sweet little body, smelling his delicious baby smell, touching his silky-like skin – sorry, got carried away- but because I felt we were doing more harm than good. Whenever he was too tired, he cried inconsolably because he just couldn’t visit the land of the nod on his own. So we began considering what everyone told us: “You have to teach him to fall asleep by himself”.
Not without researching first.
The spoiling myth came about in the 1920’s when experts believed that being “too responsive” would make a child dependent and clingy. Many years later, Dr. Sears, father of attachment parenting, observed the contrary: when we meet our baby’s needs, they see us as a trusted source of comfort. This in turn helps them feel emotionally secure, tolerate separation anxiety and trust themselves, resulting in less crying sprees.
Another study, led by Darcia Narwaez, Notre Dame psychology professor, noted that we bring up kinder, more intelligent and emphatic little people when we give them positive touch and affection during their early years. They found that kids who received appropriate reactions and whose cries received quick responses came to be more empathic. “[Responsivity] is clearly linked with moral development. It helps foster an agreeable personality, early conscience development and greater prosocial behavior,” noted Narwaez.
So what should we do with all this information? Although I do feel scientific studies hold some truth, I also think that there are too many variables. I do believe, as Dr. Sears, that we must respond to our babies’ needs as best as we can, and we also try to react appropriately to Noah’s cries and give him all the affection we have inside us, but I also believe we have to analyze each situation carefully.
Every time Noah had to take a nap we would give him his pacifier, rock him and pat him in the back until his eyes shut and he went into a deep slumber. After doing this for three consecutive months, it wasn’t a surprise that if Noah did not have his pacifier, was in our arms and felt little pats, he would just not fall asleep.
Babies learn what we teach them. If we get in their way of learning to fall asleep by rocking or holding them, they won’t have the opportunity to do so on their own. It’s about teaching them to be independent. It’s not about letting Noah cry it out, it’s about helping him create healthy sleep associations. Once he does, he will sleep for longer periods of time and when he naturally wakes up in the middle of the night, as we all do, he will be able to put himself back to sleep.
As a bonus, learning to self-soothe is a skill that will help him in the long run. Whenever he starts feeling separation anxiety or when life sends him a curve ball, he will know that he has the strength to calm himself down and that the world is a safe place.