I'm getting many emails from clients and friends asking me if I’ve seen the latest research that letting a baby cry while sleep training will not cause damage. Yes, I have! While there has been a great deal of commentary already, I thought I would weigh in with my thoughts on the matter as well.
The latest study, which followed 43 Australian children, found that using cry it out methods to allow a child to fall asleep on their own did not cause any more stress than using gentle or no methods at all. One group used graduated extinction, one group used later bedtimes (fading), and one group was given only information about sleep. The finding? The babies that cried to sleep fell asleep faster and woke up less. There were no differences in the stress levels in any of the groups of babies.
As I scoured the internet yesterday, I saw tons of responses in the positive category. “Hooray! We didn’t damage our child!” I also saw many that were critical of the findings who said that using cry it out was wrong and cruel, and that “people shouldn’t be parents if they are going to let their children cry”. This study was not about whether parents had to use cry it out as a method. It wasn’t telling parents that if they wanted their children to sleep better, it was the only way. What it did show, was that if you are going to use a form of cry it out, you are not causing more stress to your child. Since many parents feel extremely shamed and guilty for using methods that involve crying, this is good news, but it is not a decree that “all children should be left to cry.”
The work I do with parents involves laying the ground work to help bring success to whatever sleep training method they choose to implement. If the basics of sleep hygiene are not put in place (conducive sleep environment, correct biological timing, consistent routines) no method is going to work well.When they are, the end result is often less crying (even without cry it out methods) and a higher chance of falling asleep faster.
I have two children. We sleep trained one with cry it out (after months of exhaustion and literal hallucination from holding him so much while he slept) and the other learned to fall asleep on her own without crying. They are two different children with two different personalities, temperaments, birth stories, and experiences. I can attest that they are both well-adjusted, loving, funny, caring, attached, “normal” kids and whether they were sleep trained has nothing to do with that. The structure of a loving home has helped foster those things.It also doesn’t hurt that they are well-rested and get the sleep they need.
Research is a powerful tool to help families make decisions, but it’s important to understand what you are reading and the context. It’s easy to get sucked into a media headline on Facebook, which is written to lead one to click, and in many cases, we miss the point, and just start yelling at each other. The point of this research and other sleep research, is to bring more understanding to the world of sleep. Nobody is telling you how to raise your child or whether you should sleep train; that is a personal decision. In this study, it is showing that it’s okay if you do sleep train. The choice is still up to you. Be confident that the choices you make are right for your family and seek help if you are overwhelmed or unsure.There will likely be more studies that cause us to go back and forth as we learn more about sleep, but in the meantime, trust your gut, moms and dads, and I hope your family gets the sleep they deserve!