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.
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?