For most new parents, sleep becomes an obsession, their most precious commodity. They will happily trade exercise, sex, and time with friends for just a shot at catching some Z’s–kind of like how a rat with ad libitum access to cocaine will happily forgo food.
Last week, I wrote a post about sleep training and stress, in which I argued that everything we know about stress suggests that sleep training is not harmful.
In response, some people objected that sleep trained babies continue to experience elevated cortisol and significant distress, even after they have stopped crying. In their view, sleep training teaches babies that crying does not help. They haven’t learned to self-soothe or to fall asleep on their own, they’ve simply given up.
What a heartbreaking thought. And one that surely strikes fear in the heart of many parents.
So it’s important to realize that this claim comes from a single small and deeply flawed study of 25 babies, led by Wendy Middlemiss, a researcher at the University of North Texas’s College of Education.
Because whether or not to sleep train can be such a fraught decision for new parents, I wanted to share my sleep training story, and to explain why, given everything we know about stress, the argument that sleep training causes long-term harm doesn’t hold water.
Sleep Training My Son
When my son was 4.5 months old, I decided to sleep train him. Even by baby standards, my son was not much of a sleeper. He’d snooze for at most 4 or 5 hours, and then wake up every hour like clockwork, wanting to nurse but not wanting milk, popping on and off my breast and screaming in frustration.
I had gone back to work a month earlier, so napping to catch up on sleep was out of the question. Worse, I was commuting an hour to the office each way.
By then, I had reached the end of my sleep deprivation rope. I was so tired I could barely string two thoughts together. I had to coach myself through even mundane tasks like checking out at the grocery store. Say hello to the cashier. Take out your credit card. Pick up the grocery bags. Leave.
I was terrified every time I got into my car to head to work that I would nod off at the wheel and kill someone, quite possibly myself. I joked with coworkers that driver’s licenses should be temporarily suspended for new parents, but the situation really wasn’t funny.
So there I was the first night of sleep training, dripping sweat as I listened to my son’s cries. Minutes ticked by, each seeming longer than the last. I pondered whether the Ferber method included soothing every five minutes just so that you would realize only five minutes had passed.