By Caroline Fleck
The Sleep Training ControversyUploaded: May 23, 2015
Few topics are as controversial or polarizing amongst new parents as sleep training. It has become one of those issues, like bottle feeding, or childcare, that seems to draw a line in the sand of parenting separating those who do from those who don't.
I was actually blissfully unaware of the sleep training controversy until I had my daughter. As some of my readers may know, I have multiple sclerosis (MS). Like many with MS, I have found sleep to be a critical ally in my efforts to stave off the exacerbation of symptoms and the disease's progression. In other words, prolonged periods of sleep deprivation or sleep disruption could spell disaster for me.
The first 16 weeks after my daughter was born, we were blessed with a sleep fairy (aka: my mother in-law). She took the night-duty and slept in my daughter's room so that she could feed and attend to her as needed.
But really, how sustainable was that? As comforting as it was to know that my daughter had round the clock coverage, I hated putting my mother in-law through those grueling night shifts. The guilt was killing me; we needed another approach.
I spoke to some colleagues of mine who specialize in child psychology, and they were unanimous: sleep training.
By "sleep training," they meant the "Ferber Method" (named after the researcher who popularized it) - a way of helping children 6 months or older sleep through the night. This method entails some degree of "crying it out," (allowing the child to cry for an interval of time before providing soothing). The Ferber Method has parents check-in on their child at scheduled intervals throughout the night. Other sleep training approaches have derived from this method and use a similar schedule of spacing out the intervals at which you comfort your child until they sleep through the night.
Although I trusted the recommendations of my colleagues, I wanted to research sleep training myself. It wasn't long before I was overwhelmed by the controversy. Consider the following headlines, both published in the Huffington Post: "Baby Sleep Training Method Safe for Infants," published in 2015, and "Cry it Out: The Method That Kills Baby Brain Cells," published in 2012.
Unfortunately, I found that many of my friends and family members were as polarized as the headlines on the issue of sleep training. Some suggested that the approach would jeopardize my daughter's ability to trust and depend on me; others thought a lack of sleep training set her up for a lifetime of sleep problems and an inability to self-soothe.
Despite the controversy, I did not find compelling data to suggest that sleep training is detrimental to children. I did find a decent amount of research to suggest that sleep training is safe and effective (in recent years researchers have even gone so far as to advocate for an increase in parent education regarding the benefits of sleep training). Following the results of a 5 year randomized control trial in 2012 the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that, "behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects (positive or negative). Parents and health professionals can confidently use these techniques to reduce the short- to medium-term burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression."
So yes, we ultimately decided to sleep train our daughter.
Because she was still feeding throughout the night, we used the Sleepeasy Solution to help wean her off these night feedings (after of course clearing this with her pediatrician). The method involved feeding her an hour before she would normally cry out for food so that if and when she awoke in the night, we knew she was well fed. We would then provide comforting every 5, 10, or 15 minutes for 30 seconds without removing her from her crib.
To be honest, I think our daughter did exceptionally well with this method and I don't know if her response was typical of other children, though I've heard other parents report similar outcomes. The first couple nights were tough, but she was sleeping through the night (11 hours) by the fifth night. She was 6 months old and hasn't had any problems with sleep since.
Now, at 16 months, she never cries before going down for the night or for a nap. She'll sometimes play with her dolly in her crib for about 10 minutes before falling asleep (we spy on her with a camera), but she isn't upset or distressed (though she does jibber jabber to herself from time to time).
So what are my thoughts about sleep training? For this parent, it was invaluable. I have never been a good sleeper and take tremendous solace in knowing that my daughter has developed healthy sleep habits.
That said, I am certain that this approach is not for everyone. Specifically, you should discuss sleep training with your pediatrician before undertaking it to ensure that your child is of sufficient height and weight to abandon night feedings. I also would not use this approach with children who have been exposed to trauma, or are extremely anxious. And if your gut tells you this is not the right approach for you or your family, I would trust your instincts.
If you have decided to use this approach and cleared it with their pediatrician, I highly recommend doing it exactly according to protocol. This is not a method that lends itself to improvisation. I also have several friends who gave up on it several days in and, again, I'd really encourage you to stick it out for at least one week once you've committed to trying it.
For those who practice co-sleeping, I'm honestly not sure how the sleep training methods described above are adapted for this arrangement, so if you have experiences or thoughts on this matter, do share. I encourage folks to contribute their thoughts and experiences with sleep training generally as well.
If you find that you are really polarized on this issue, I HIGHLY recommend this Youtube clip for some comic relief.