Decades ago, Dr. Spock was the leading authority on parenting in American homes. His method of sleep training was to set a child in his or her crib, walk away, and not come back in until after they had slept.
For some children, who naturally learn to fall asleep on their own quickly and easily, this method might work. For an older child who is refusing to fall asleep on their own long after it shouldn’t be an issue, it might be the best method. But too many parents have children who will be more hysterical after an hour than they were after fifteen minutes, or who will scream so hard for so long that they they vomit every time. This method doesn’t take into account health issues like reflux that can make it difficult for a baby to fall asleep.
There are articles all over the place about cry-it-out sleep training, some for it and some against it. The confusion comes with the definitions and ages being spoken of, especially with the articles against it, because many methods of sleep training get labelled as “cry-it-out” even if it’s much milder than Dr. Spock’s method, and the articles against it don’t differentiate.
Let me explain. A lot of the time you’ll read something like, “Cry it out sleep training damages babies who are allowed to cry for extended periods.” The whole article is then based on that, citing sources that are be difficult to find or need to be paid for in order to obtain. But they so rarely define the most important terms.
Cry-It-Out: does this refer to Dr. Spock’s method, or any method that involves crying, even those that allow for frequent comforting or that limit the crying to a short time? It’s not hard to imagine that there’s quite a different between a baby crying for five minutes and then being soothed versus a baby being left alone to cry, perhaps hysterically, until overwhelmed by sheer exhaustion or defeat.
Damages: this is unfortunately the best defined part of the statement, leaving parents stressed out about what harm they may be doing to their baby.
Babies: What hurts a newborn may not hurt a six month old, even though they’re both babies. For instance, I read recently that the Ferber method (a strict method, but gentler than Spock’s) doesn’t damage babies after about six months old. That implies that, in this case, the “babies” it potentially damages are babies younger than six months old, rather than all babies. Virtually any sleep training method is going to be damaging to a newborn. But a few very gentle things can begin to be done very early, like beginning to put the baby down in their own crib once their asleep, or putting them down right before they’re fully asleep and letting them finish falling asleep on their own. The older a baby gets, the more you can reasonably do. Since we shouldn’t give in to a toddler’s demands just because they’re crying, there’s obviously a point where stopping a child’s tears is no longer necessary to their health in every situation. These articles almost always fail to define the age range or development of the children that can be damaged by certain sleep training methods, or define at what point the risk is lower or altogether gone.
Allowed to cry: there’s a clear difference between a baby who’s just complaining or mad because they aren’t getting what they want, and a baby who is truly in need of their caregiver’s comfort. I don’t soothe my eight month old when he throws a fit because I took away something he shouldn’t have, and the fit usually lasts only moments anyways. But I will comfort my son immediately when he’s hurt, anxious, or otherwise truly in need of my comfort. When he goes down for a nap, he’ll sometimes just complain for a few minutes and then go to sleep, but other times the cry will turn to a “Mommy save me, I really need you” cry, which is different. But what kind of crying are these articles referring to?
Extended periods: what is an extended period? Some parents may feel this is no more than five minutes, while others think it’s an hour. So what is it? Five minutes? Fifteen? Thirty? Sixty? More?
Obviously, it can be hard to make decisions about parenting when you don’t have all the available information. A parent who sees this largely undefined assertion, with the only thing being made clear is that babies can be damaged, might be afraid to do anything for a long, long time, perhaps even into toddler stages. They may put themselves under wholly unnecessary stress, and even rob themselves and their child of the ability to sleep better and longer out of fear.
It’s obviously important to not damage our children. But we as parents also deserve the full evidence available, rather than having unreasonable fear instilled in us.
A lot of parents to choose a middle ground, especially with children who don’t respond to longer sessions of parental absence well. Some kids sleep train quickly and easily, but others don’t. Most parents seem to be of the opinion that, at the very least, a child who resists falling asleep should be checked on and soothed at intervals, especially if there’s any risk of the child vomiting. Some sleep train gradually, one step at a time rather than all at once, which still often allows for some crying as sleep props such as being rocked through a nap or nursing to sleep are taken away and as the child is encouraged to sleep in their own bed and to put themselves to sleep. Obviously these methods aren’t nearly as harsh as Dr. Spock’s method, or even the Ferber method, which are the methods I suspect are being referred to.
Most parents also realize that their newborn should not be sleeping through the night, and that there can be many factors that delay sleeping through the night. Many, like myself, understand that maintaining at least one night feeding can be essential to keeping up breast feeding long term, even if the child is technically old enough and big enough to sleep through the night without the feeding. Most parents approach sleep training by what they can do for the child’s age without undue stress on either themselves for their child. This is again not nearly as harsh as some of the more extreme methods out there. I even read about one a few months ago that suggested starting to refuse night feedings to a baby starting at only weeks old. That one made me angry. Most parents instinctively know that such a thing is horrible to do to their baby.
But most parents also know that their six month old shouldn’t need to be rocked through his or her whole nap, or doesn’t need to be nursed to sleep every time, or can start learning to put him or herself to sleep. And sometimes, that involves a few tears.
It would be really helpful if the articles on sleep training would just define their terms or share more of the pertinent details of their cited sources. Instead of causing many parents to feel condemned or making people think that anyone who doesn’t use their extremely “gentle” method is cruel, we might actually be able to get some answers on what actually is best for our children, and what shades of grey between the extremes are acceptable.