When you make it your mission to help parents get their children to sleep, sooner or later someone will ask you about your stance on “cry-it-out” (following as CIO).
Usually, my first response is that I have yet to encounter a sleep training method that involves precisely zero crying. No matter if you approach it via an unmodified extinction, modified extinction, chair or pick-up-put-down technique (with the latter being the most non-cry one, but also the most limited in scope age wise), any sleep training method will produce some crying, even if brief.
My second response is that sleep training which allows for crying is safe and efficient for addressing sleep problems in babies and children.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not want your child to cry any more than you do. I too prefer if the crying is kept to a minimum. But I want to be honest and tell you that for the vast majority some crying will be involved no matter what.
If you are uncomfortable with listening to your baby cry- I get it. He or she is your child after all! That doesn’t make you a weak person, just a normal human being. Crying is one of the first signaling mechanisms a child can utilize. It only makes sense that it will stop us as parents in our tracks to evaluate what’s going on.
Some people go on to tell me that they could never embark on a regimen that causes their baby to cry, that it’s barbaric, parent-self centered, lazy parenting, etc. It will take you exactly 0.2 seconds to find opinions matching these sentiments once you enter “sleep training” or “crying-it-out” into Google.
So what is a weary parent to do? The first line of defense is prevention by establishing healthy sleep habits from the get-go. This includes, but is not limited to, avoiding the formation of sleep associations like nursing or feeding to sleep for instance.
But life doesn’t always work that way for a thousand reasons. And then you find yourself in a dilemma: you either accept sleeplessness, erratic patterns, a cranky baby, sleep deprivation for an unpredictable amount of time or you do something about it and sleep train your child.
Most people then turn to Google to find out more and the above mentioned happens: along with some general information you will find a gazillion differing opinions- some quite militant; a lot of them with seemingly good, meaning scientifically-backed, reasons for their viewpoint. Good luck to leaving the battlefield with less confusion than when you entered it bleary-eyed and worn out at 2:30 in the morning!
When completing my training to become a certified sleep consultant, I was required to research both sides of the debate. After all, how could I in good conscience go on to prescribe a course of action to parents if it had the potential to harm their children?
Once I was done with my research, and you are welcome to read my paper on it here, I concluded that sleep training done right doesn’t have any adverse effects but leads to a host of positive ones.
When kids learn to sleep better, their attention span improves, they are more balanced, some start to eat better during the day, they are more pleasant to be around, etc. and the whole family reaps its benefits. Parents start to sleep better, making them better rested, less of a hazard when driving a car or operating machinery, less likely to experience depression, and they are also generally more pleasant to be around.
I found it hard to ignore how CIO opponents like Dr. Sears in a chapter of his Baby Sleep Book, presumably to shine a scientific light on his concerns about the damaging nature of sleep training over and over cites research that doesn’t even pertain to sleep training at all. Like using a study about the detrimental effects of child neglect and abuse done by Kaufman and Charney in 2010 that is sure to catch a reader’s attention but is misplaced in its application here.
I have no problems with parents or people, in general, choosing different philosophies on how to raise their kids or live life. But I do think it dishonest if someone resorts to a misrepresentation of the facts to appear morally superior. In our case here even claiming that “no study has ever been done to determine what degree of the CIO method is safe,” (Dr. Sears, The Baby Sleep Book, p.213) when in fact a meta-study to that very effect was published in 2006 and then served as the basis for an American Academy of Sleep Medicine commissioned recommendation on practice parameters.
To say it another way, if sleep training isn’t for you because it doesn’t fit your parenting philosophy, I am totally fine with it. But I don’t want parents that need and want to find a solution to an unsustainable situation feel put down, shamed, guessing and worrying that they are doing irreparable harm to their child because there is no scientific evidence to support the purported detrimental effects.
An often heard suggestion to combat lack of sleep without sleep training is to practice co-sleeping, specifically in the form of bedsharing. Alas, bedsharing with babies under the age of one isn’t safe. Even if we think we can do it safely, we can’t be aware of what happens when we drift off to dreamland.
Another frequently made suggestion is to simply enlist more help from family and friends to be able to take naps to make up for lost night sleep. Trust me, I’ve personally felt the virtual slap in the face from that one having nobody around to just call up to do so. Not even to mention that some people have to go to work where taking a nap is out of the question. Lastly, co-sleeping isn’t a fix-all- while some may sleep better that way I know of many people that don’t.
I am not arguing that sleep training will cause a child no stress. It most certainly does. But as Amy Kiefer so eloquently explains on her blog (please head on over if you want the full write-up): not all stress is created equal. Short-term stress has been shown to lead to enhanced memory and learning whereas the detrimental effects of stress come from long-term stress.
Any sleep consultant worth their salt will never tell you to keep with a regimen that has your child bawling for weeks on end. Usually, if things haven’t significantly improved within a few days, it’s time to reevaluate the situation.
But just as properly done sleep training causes short-term stress for a child, too little sleep, sleep deprivation, erratic patterns, out-of-control behavior etc., cause long-term stress for children and parents alike. And along with this come very real negative consequences, a higher risk for post-partum depression and post-partum anxiety are only two.