is sleep training safe? studies say yes!

Is Sleep Training Safe?

As the parent of a new baby, the number of questions you’re going to find yourself asking are, to put it mildly, astronomical.

The old saying about babies not coming with instructions is repeated over and over for a good reason. Even after spending nine months doing endless research on what to expect when baby arrives, as soon as we’re sent home from the hospital with our little ones, there’s an unavoidable feeling of unpreparedness. Plus, the nonchalant comments from the nurses at the hospital wishing you luck because you are never going to sleep again do nothing to help us feel confident in our new role taking care of a tiny human. 

Every baby is different, after all. So no manual, no set of instructions, no amount of coaching from friends and family, is going to prepare you for your child in particular.

Raising tiny humans is pretty much the biggest responsibility that a person can have. So it is understandable that we feel an intense obligation to get it right.

Unfortunately, we don’t get any practice swings or dress rehearsals. Your first run-through is the final performance, so to speak. This only increases our dedication to trying to solve potential problems before they spring up.

Babies only do four things

Babies basically eat, poop, cry, and sleep, so we’re naturally very focused on those four things.

What to feed baby is often a contentious subject on its own. (My thoughts on the subject are: do whatever works for your family. Don’t worry about anyone else or what they think.)  Then we often find ourselves with a sudden fascination in poop that we didn’t realize we had. Parent life is awesome!

Which leaves us with sleeping and crying. As a Baby Sleep Consultant, I assure you, I’ve done a lot of research on both.

The biggest question I get from parents when they are determining whether or not sleep training is the right decision for their family is, “Will my baby cry?”

The crying question

babies cry, but does mean sleep training isn't safe?

As we all know, babies cry a lot. In fact, if a baby didn’t cry, it would be cause for concern. So, the truthful answer to this question is, “Yes, your baby will likely cry to some extent.”

However, parents really seem to be asking is, “How much will my baby cry, and will I be able to provide comfort when they do?” The answers to these are first, I honestly don’t know because every baby is different and reacts to changes differently. Second, I don’t ask parents to ignore their children’s cries all night long. Which is what many parents fear when they hear someone utter the words “sleep training.”

The issue I really want to focus on is the reason why the idea of letting their child cry is a major concern with new parents. Naturally, no parent likes to hear their baby cry. Hearing baby cry without doing anything or having a response plan feels unnatural. I get that. I’ve felt that and completely believe it is true. Ignoring your baby’s cries for long periods of time without checking to make sure their basic needs are met or offering parental support and comfort isn’t necessarily the best approach. However, there is now a wealth of easily accessible misinformation that claims if you don’t respond immediately when your baby cries, you could actually be harming them.

Why ‘is sleep training safe?’ such a common question

This wasn’t always such a contentious issue. Things changed in 1993 when Dr. William Sears came out with his Attachment Parenting theory. Prior to this, parents were reasonably comfortable with the idea that leaving a child for a period of time when they woke in the night, even if they cried, was safe, although maybe a bit unpleasant.  

Once The Baby Bookwas published, a generation of new parents began to cling to the idea that this approach was not just ineffective but was causing brain damage. Sears cited studies to back up his claim. However, those studies looked at babies who were suffering from colic and a condition known as persistent crying. Both of which are a far cry from a child crying for a few minutes.

The argument has raged on for nearly 25 years now. Attachment parenting advocates accusing sleep training advocates of willfully neglecting their babies for their own convenience. 

The evidence

If we were really causing our babies brain damage by allowing them to cry, even for a short period, you would assume this would be common knowledge. The pediatric and scientific community would be providing new parents with an extensive amount of help and advice to avoid this kind of brain damage if it really was a cause for concern. 

Dr. Sears’ claims didn’t provoke an immediate and widespread panic or investigation. One reason is because the claims were hugely misleading and not truly scientifically backed. The Yale researchers who conducted one of the studies his research pulled from responded to his use of their work by saying, “Our paper is not referring to routine, brief stressful experiences, but to abuse and neglect. It is a miscitation of our work to support a non-scientifically justified idea.” Abuse and neglect compared to routine, brief possibly stressful experiences – I think most people could determine that comparing these two situations is not an apples-to-apples comparison. 

Another went so far as to actually note in the study’s own conclusion that, “Our findings provide evidence that the quality of maternal behavior appears to be unrelated to this effect.” So, the mother’s response or lack of it to the condition of persistent crying was inconsequential. 

That’s the argument against the original suggestion that started this whole movement. However, its supporters will undoubtedly question this and ask, “Where’s your evidence? How do you know it’s not harmful?”

Scientific studies on the safety of sleep training

Well, back in 2012, Dr. Anna Price, a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Centre for Community Child Health in Melbourne, Australia, conducted an extensive studythat followed a group of two hundred and twenty six children. It measured mental health, sleep, stress regulation, child-parent relationship, maternal health and parenting styles.

Five years later, she followed up with the families to see the if the one-third of the children whose parents had employed some method of sleep training had experienced any of the terrifying side effects that Dr. Sears had warned of.

The result was that any sleeping training done had not had any of the side effects Dr. Sears claimed. To quote the study, “There was no evidence of differences between intervention and control families for any outcome. Behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects.”

But critics continue to try to shoot holes in the evidence. “The sample size was too small,” is a common complaint, no matter what the size of the study might be. “We need further study,” is another, assuming that further study supports their position, which, as of yet, it hasn’t.

One of the key components to Dr. Sears’ theories is that the stress of sleep training causes so much cortisol (the stress hormone) to flood the brain and then alters the brain and its development. Alice Callahan, Ph.D., spent many years researching fetal physiology and has a lot of knowledge about how babies and children respond to stress. She provides a wonderful in-depth explanation about the stress response in infants and children and how it applies to sleep training here.  Then, in March of 2016, Pediatrics published another peer-reviewed study that showed sleep training to be both effective and safe. It still didn’t change the mind of Dr. Sears or followers of his theories.

Making sense of all the information

For those new parents who have been bombarded with misinformation and hearsay regarding the safety and efficacy of sleep training, the many studies refuting the claims that sleep training is harmful provide continued assurance that you can feel confident in the fact that getting your child to sleep through the night is safe and beneficial to your entire family. 

There’s one thing that pretty much everyone can agree on, and that’s the fact that a good night’s sleep is beneficial for parents and baby alike. For babies and children, consolidated sleep is essential for brain developmental, learning, attention span, and mood. For parents, consolidated sleep is linked to reduced irritability, increased patience, and improved mood. That is just the beginning of the benefits of sleep for families.

So, is sleep training safe?

To answer the question we’ve been talking about: Yes, sleep training is safe. 

Sleep itself is glorious, rejuvenating, and beneficial to you, your baby, and your entire family. Focusing on helping your child develop healthy sleep habits is something you can feel good about. It will pay off exponentially for both you and your child. Now, you, your baby and your whole family can sleep soundly. You can all get the sleep that you need, want and deserve with confidence.  

Even with these questions answered, sleep training can still be tough. You might not be sure if sleep training is the right solution for your family. If so, I would love to chat with you more about what it could look like for your family and your specific situation. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I offer free evaluation calls to learn more about what is going on with your child and answer questions for you. Then you can have the information you need to make the best decision for your family and child. Get your specific questions answered by setting up a time to chat with me here!

Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!

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