Making the Best Sleep Choices for my Family

by Amber Strocel on September 17, 2012

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This week someone got in touch with me to talk about a new study in the journal Pediatrics, which suggests that there’s no long-term harm associated with certain methods of sleep training. These methods use controlled crying in order to encourage babies to fall asleep on their own. They followed two groups of babies at seven months – one of which used sleep training techniques, and one of which didn’t. They followed up with these groups at six years old, and found no statistical differences. Their emotional health, behavior and sleep problems were the same. As well, the mothers’ levels of depression and anxiety were the same.

Many of the newspaper headlines around this article suggested that this means that sleep training is okay, or recommended. These two methods, when practiced with seven-month-olds, don’t appear to cause brain damage, so why not use them?

I have two children, who are now four and seven years old. The days of being up all night with a baby are currently behind me. I remember them all too well, though. And I remember how I handled them. One of the eight principles of Attachment Parenting International is ensuring safe sleep, physically and emotionally. I tried to do that, by keeping my babies close to me at night, and responding to their needs. I didn’t do this because I was afraid of causing them brain damage, I did this because it’s what worked best for my family.

Day 16

The truth is that many, if not most, parents go through periods where they’re not getting enough sleep. We all handle this in different ways. This is as it should be, because every baby is different, and every family is different. Each child will learn to sleep independently on a different timeline. Even with my own two children, I’ve seen very different temperaments and developmental paths. As a result, I don’t believe there’s any single answer when your baby is keeping you up at night, including sleep training.

I also don’t believe that I should do something simply because it isn’t harmful. There are many things that simply aren’t right for my family, even though they’re safe. For example, I have rules about not eating food on the couch. This isn’t because my children will be damaged if they eat on the couch, it’s because I don’t want to clean it. In the same way, I have always known that I didn’t want to let my babies cry themselves to sleep. It’s not about avoiding harm, it’s about making the choice that I feel is best for my family. Listening to my babies cry wasn’t best for me, or my family.

As well, I think it’s important to point out something about this study. It looked at two very specific sleep training methods, used with seven month olds. It did not look at all methods, and it did not look at four month olds or two month olds or even younger babies. We can say that there aren’t any apparent negative long-term effects in this case, but this doesn’t mean that would be the case for any sleep training method with any baby.

There were hard nights as the parent of an infant, but looking back I can honestly say that I’m happy I didn’t let my babies cry it out. It wasn’t for my family. And one study can’t change that.

What methods have you found effective to help everyone in your family get enough sleep, other than using “cry it out”? And do the results of this study change your opinion on the method?

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Amber Strocel (29 Posts)

Amber is a hippie mama to two, a writer, a dreamer, a student, an erstwhile engineer and a lover of chocolate. She lives in suburban Vancouver with her family and one very cranky tabby cat. Keep up with her on her blog at Strocel.com.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Janine September 17, 2012 at 7:30 pm

I love it when I read your posts on other sites (not your own blog) and don’t realize it’s you until the end. When I read your site, I think I start off agreeing with you simply because I ‘know’ and respect you. :)

On this post, I disagree only on the idea that CIO could be OK for some families. There’s a quote I saw this week that basically says, “Breastfeeding many not be the best option for all mothers but it is the best option for all babies.” That’s basically how I feel on the sleep issue too. Do I sometimes question my sanity and wish that I had sleep trained my son when I’m nursing him back to bed for the 6th time in one night? Sure. But that would make it the best choice for ME. My son wouldn’t necessarily be any better off.

I agree that the study also wasn’t conducted well. They don’t look at what sort of sleep methods were in place prior to 7 months and from what I read, some of the parents did sleep training where they stayed in the room with the child. That’s different than CIO where you just don’t respond. I have laid in bed with my child while he cries and I try to pat or talk him to sleep – I definitely don’t consider that sleep training.

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Kim McCabe September 18, 2012 at 1:17 am

I believe that settling in the evening and getting a good night’s sleep is one of those important life skills. How many adults do you know who do not do this easily? For this reason I would like to equip each of my children with the self-knowledge to sleep easily and well, most nights anyway.
Every family will develop their own bedtime routines to wind down and soothe in preparation for a good night’s sleep. Learning how to cry yourself to sleep, especially if left alone to do it, cannot be a good way to establish good sleeping patterns.

I agree with the previous comment however, in families where both parents work and a bad night’s sleep cannot be so easily weathered then a decision to take care of the parent’s needs ahead of the child’s may be considered preferable for that family overall.

Establishing good habits is a life-time gift that you can give to your children. Bedtime can be such a special, nurturing time and I wish for my children that this will always be so, right into their adulthood.

http://ritesforgirls.com/a-good-nights-sleep/

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Margie Mars September 18, 2012 at 4:19 am

I have to admit, when I read about this on another site I write for, I almost cried. The mom was very in-your-face…”ha, I knew it was fine” and went on to talk about how wonderful it was to have her 3-week-old baby *want8 to sleep through the night and ‘she doesn’t even cry anymore’. Sorry, mom…she doesn’t *want* to, she gave up. With 8 kids, I have done a lot to get sleep, none of it involved letting my baby cry it out. I know I have to be more open-minded for other moms…but…but…

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Jill Mathews September 18, 2012 at 7:08 am

As a mother, I believe that nurturing our babies is our job. I never felt comfortable letting my babies CIO. Crying is a baby’s way of communicating something it needs. Upon going to bed, if my babies expressed a need by crying, I listened to my baby’s cues and responded mindfully. Sometimes, it was just rocking them to sleep, other times, it was just falling alseep next to them and cuddling, other times it was just giving them reassurance they were safe and mommy was there. I just gave what I intuitively felt was needed and it worked very well.

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Sarah @ ActivityHero September 18, 2012 at 7:13 am

This is a great post. While CIO may work for some families, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It breaks my heart every time my baby cries. Luckily he started STTN at 5 months which was a huge surprise especially being breastfed so we never had to deal with the sleep training discussion.

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Lisa September 18, 2012 at 8:08 am

I think this statement is key:

“They followed up with these groups at six years old, and found no statistical differences. Their emotional health, behaviour, and sleep problems were the same.”

Some proponents of sleep training that I have had contact with say, or imply at the very least, that sleep training is beneficial because it can prevent sleep problems and therefore improve behaviour, concentration and/or quality of life for the child. But this study seems to have completely disproved that belief. Differences between children were not found.

So… If you had two choices that led to the same result, and one was slow, but calm, and the other was quicker, but caused your child to become very upset, which would you choose? It isn’t that hard a choice for me.

Honestly, when my son was wakeful in his first two years, the most exhausting things about it were a) people telling me that it shouldn’t be happening, and b) me trying to ‘fix’ it. Accepting it, and getting the support I needed to be able to wait for my son to develop at his own rate were the things that really helped in the end.

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Tamy September 18, 2012 at 6:01 pm

My daughter will be three in January and I haven’t slept (through) since I got pregnant – that’s a long time. When I first read about sleep training (when baby was about five months old), I was horrified at the thought, but at first I could only find supportive descriptions of it, or rather of different methods of controlled crying, mostly involving some presence in the room (for example, sitting next to the cot, then a couple of days later sitting next to the door, sitting at the other side of the open door, &c.). Still, instinct recoiled. Then I found books and websites that warned against letting baby “cry it out,” in any form. Attachment Parenting websites were only one of these sites. I was sooo relieved. As with much of the advice given by AP books and sites, I feel just reassured that what I would do naturally isn’t wrong after all – whatever standard books and of course advice from my own parents, colleagues, &c. might say. How often was I told what damage I would do if I picked the baby up as soon as she cried!?. I also kept reading that NOT training a child how to soothe themselves to sleep will make them unable to go to sleep properly ever, that sleep rhythms have to be learnt because it is culturally different (one article I read mentioned different ideas of siestas &c. round the world). Well, now being told, in effect, that it wouldn’t have made a difference if I had been able to sleep through for all these already long years…. I wonder how I would have reacted if I had read about this new research a year or two ago. As it is, I do hope sleeping through might be an option one of these days again. At the moment, I’m co-sleeping with my 2 1/2 year old and she wakes countless times (sometimes 4 times, more often 6-8 times, and sometimes it seems all the time) to night-nurse back to sleep. She’s in daycare on some days (has been there since she was 7 months old – I would have lost my job otherwise, and we couldn’t afford that) and naps there. On days that she is home, she also nurses to sleep. I sometimes get worried – will this just resolve itself, I hope.
By the way, one convincing article on sleep training (which was fairly neutral in its description of the various methods) highlighted that even Ferber says that mothers who do not spend the whole day with their babies (i.e. are working full or part time) should not use his method. I think that’s often completely elided.

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Jessica September 24, 2012 at 8:51 pm

This is all so relevant, and soothing for me to read, as I scroll through all the other websites dedicated to “self-soothing” and (essentially) controlled crying techniques suggestions to have my 14-month-old sleep through the night. Not to mention the other mothers, grandmothers, colleagues who keep telling me, “it’ll only be 3 terrible nights of crying and then he’ll sleep through.” I just don’t like the thought of leaving my boy to scream. All at the same time as feeling so exhausted from getting up 2-5 times a night for him, and wishing it could be different. We give him a bottle each time he wakes, as he cries out and bottle soothes him fairly quickly back to sleep. I’m pretty sure he’s not hungry, or ‘needing’ nutritional nourishment, but it always works. Should I try to leave the bottle out of it, and rely more on touch, patting, calm talking? Will he just naturally grow out of it?

I would appreciate some of your collective wisdom around this, as he is my first and I would love to know that I’m not leading the path for continued night bottle time till he’s 25!

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Amber September 25, 2012 at 1:20 pm

I didn’t bottle-feed, so I don’t know a lot about that situation. However, I night nursed both of my kids beyond their second birthdays. Today they’re 7 and 4, and they both go to sleep on their own. So I doubt that offering a bottle will set him up for a lifetime of dependency. He’ll eventually grow out of it, it’s only a question of when, and whether things are working for your family.

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Jessica September 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Nice to hear Amber. Thanks for your reply. My son self-weaned from the breast at around 8 months, and since then has loved his bottles. With everything else, I have confidence that he’ll move on to more independence when it’s right for him, so I need to trust this will be the same. Thanks again for the support!

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Rita Brhel October 20, 2012 at 12:47 am

My first two kids were on bottles at 14 months old, and I switched them to water overnight so they could still suck but didn’t have the fears of tooth decay that formula can sometimes do with kids who are genetically prone. Also, I want to add that with my first, I did try CIO for a short time (before I fully embraced AP) and it backfired badly. She never stopped crying at night and regressed mightily during the day, clinging, whining, separation anxiety, potty-training regression, etc. Not saying this happens to all kids, but it did for her–and it took years to get past this, even after I gave up CIO.

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How to parent a child October 11, 2013 at 3:03 am

I have been reading your posts regularly. I need to say that you are doing a fantastic job. Please keep up the great work…..

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