For most new parents, sleep quickly becomes an obsession, their most precious commodity. Parents of a newborn will happily trade exercise, sex, and time with friends for 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.
But I was determined to stick this out, to get it done. Doing it halfway was worse than not doing it at all, I reminded myself over and over. If I were to give in, I could teach my son that crying for 30 minutes was what it took to get mommy to pick him up.
That night, he woke two more times, but never again cried more than 15 minutes. The next night, he cried for 10 minutes at bedtime, conked out, and slept until morning. That morning we greeted each other with a smile, and for the first time since his birth, I really felt like smiling at his freshly woken little face.
Although by all appearances, sleep training went well for us, some critics of cry-it-out methods would contend that I was an inadequate parent who had permanently harmed my son by leaving him alone to cry.
The Cry-It-Out Controversy
“An emotionally available parent would probably not let their baby cry it out,” claims Dr. Teti, a researcher at Penn State.
Dr. Narvaez writes in Psychology Today:
“Letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons.”
When someone tells you that you have permanently damaged your child, it’s hard to shake off, no matter how much happier you and your baby seem once you start getting some solid rest.
Thankfully, as someone who has studied the effects of chronic stress in animals and in people, I knew that claims like Dr. Narvaez’s are not supported by data and instead rest on a fundamental misreading of stress research.