What are your thoughts on sleep training or letting your baby cry it out at night? I’m going to be a new mom soon and I’ve heard a lot of mixed information.
Mother-to-mother: First and foremost, congratulations on your impending arrival! Allowing a child to “cry it out” is a highly debated topic, and has been for a while. Let me start out my answer by repeating the BAYM’s mantra: There is no one or “correct” way to do anything. When it comes to getting some sleep when you have a young baby, let’s just put it this way… If it was possible to sell uninterrupted sleep to parents of infants on the black market, the drug trade would go out of business.
This is an actual excerpt that I copied from the diary my daughter kept as a newborn:
Day 45 on the outside
3:52am. I have just woken up for the third time tonight, and once again I am somehow back in my small pink and white prison-cage. They dangle strange objects that move in a circular motion above my cell to try to distract me from being in here… I will admit I enjoy them immensely. The one who calls herself “mom” is nowhere to be found. I can’t see, hear, or smell her. I am on my back wrapped in my wonderful warm safe-burrito, but I still feel upset that she’s gone. On the inside I always slept during the day, and now I’m expected to sleep during the time I used to attend my Zumba class?! Why are things so confusing on the outside? Oh my God, I just realized it’s been almost two hours since I last ate! Must get the attention of the big ones… TIME TO SING THE SONG OF MY PEOPLE.
My husband and I tried to “sleep train” our daughter when she turned five months old by allowing her to cry for one minute intervals before soothing her. That trial lasted for a grand total of about 15 seconds. I personally could not stand to hear my child desperately cry for me and not immediately attend to her. So at this point I guess you could say she’s currently sleep training us.
All joking aside, sleep is a very personal thing; and severe lack of sleep is not to be taken lightly. You need to do whatever works best for you and your family, which you will come to figure out once baby is here. At the same time I think it’s also important to be informed of the most current research, and where infants are at developmentally before making that decision.
On the developmental side: To better understand infants, we look to developmental theory. According to Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development, infants fall under the stage of “trust vs mistrust.” What this means, is that infants come into this world looking to create a trusting relationship with those who care for them. They have to learn to trust their caregivers will be able to effectively figure out and meet their needs, whatever they may be. This trusting relationship is achieved by the infant being taken care of by (you guessed it) sensitive and responsive caregivers. If an infant’s needs are ignored or not met, the child may develop a “mistrust” within their relationships or how they view the world.
Now, to try understand why infants wake up at night, we have to try to be empathetic to what it must be like to be an infant. According to DeHart, Sroufe, & Cooper’s Child Development: Its Nature and Course, infants are the ultimate sensory creatures. Their world at this point is completely experienced and understood through touch, taste, smell, sight and sounds. The right combination of these senses is usually how we can help a newborn to achieve self-regulation… Which is why we hold babies close, rock, feed and sing to them. As newborns evolve into infants, they begin to learn how to self-regulate and soothe themselves. The only way an infant can communicate at this point is crying, which can potentially mean a plethora of different things. When they wake up at night they could be hungry, cold, scared, hot, have gas, a dirty diaper… The list is endless. A baby crying is a cry for help, because they cannot yet help themselves.
Now that we have covered the basics of infant development, let’s get down to the research. A famous research project called the ACEs Study found a positive correlation between the amount of toxic stress encountered throughout a person’s life and an earlier death. In other words, stress literally can take years off your life.
There was also a study done that followed children who were being sleep trained using the “cry-it-out” method. Researchers found these children experienced high levels of cortisol (stress hormone) during the time they were being “trained.” Shockingly, they also found that these same children continued to experience high levels of cortisol even when they stopped crying themselves to sleep. In short, though these children did not cry anymore at bedtime, they still silently remained highly distressed. You can read more about it here.
A relatively new research study found that if caregivers chose to “sleep train” their child, it can be done without increasing the child’s cortisol levels by practicing the “graduated extinction” method. Instead of leaving an infant to cry-it-out alone, the graduated extinction method gives specific minute intervals in which to wait before comforting your child again. You can find the step-by-step instructions here.
Yale’s Pediatric Sleep Center director Dr. Craig Canapari recommends starting sleep training at six months of age, but no earlier than four months of age. You can read more about his sleep training tips here.
In the meantime, here are some really useful resources for soothing infants. You might not end up needing these, but there may be some readers out there who would like extra resources! (the 5 S’s is far and away my favorite for helping soothe newborns):