Is Sleep Training Safe?

by | Mar 6, 2019

Saying that parents-to-be and parents of newborns have a lot of questions is the understatement of the century. Parents spend nine months doing endless research on what to expect when their little bundle arrives but inevitably, when we’re sent home from the hospital, there’s an unavoidable feeling of unpreparedness.

The old saying that babies don’t come with instruction manuals is evidenced by the fact that every baby is just so different. So, no manual, no set of instructions, and truly no amount of advice from your well-meaning friends and family is going to prepare you for your particular child. And since raising a child is just about the biggest responsibility that a human being can have, we certainly feel an incredible obligation to get it right! My dad frequently says that he is truly a different parent to my youngest sister than he was to my oldest brother and that’s because our “practice run” as parents is actually something like a “final performance” so to speak. There really is no dress-rehearsal

Babies spend their days eating, sleeping, crying, and pooping so most of the questions I get from new parents center around these issues. As a pediatric sleep consultant, breastfeeding specialist, and child-development scholar, I’ve done extensive research on all of these issues. But for today, I’m going to focus on the sleeping & crying aspect of infancy, because the most common question I get from parents of infants who are considering sleep training is, “Will my baby cry?”

Note: Before continuing, I want to make it clear that I do not “sleep train” newborns. While I do work with newborns to establish healthy sleep habits and lay a foundation for good sleep, many newborns will not be ready for longer periods of sleep until they are older and have matured physically and developmentally.

When parents ask, “Will my baby cry?” I’ve found that they aren’t really asking that question – because, of course, babies cry all the time and if a baby did not cry, it would likely be cause for concern. Rather, what these parents are getting at is, “How much will my baby cry? Will I be able to provide comfort if they do? Am I doing any damage by allowing crying for any length of time? ”

Crying is a major concern for parents, especially new parents. No one likes to hear their baby cry, but there has been an uptick of misinformation circling the cyber-world that claims that if your do not respond immediately when your baby cries, you could actually be harming them. So let’s break this down a little bit – as I mentioned, I’ve researched this topic extensively.

Is Crying Harmful?

Concerns about harming your baby by not responding immediately was not always such a contentious issue. When I was a baby in the 80s – and in fact up until the early 1990s – letting a baby cry for a reasonable amount of time while you were cooking dinner, at bedtime, or during night wakes was a common parenting practice. While unpleasant, there were no concerns that this was unsafe. In 1993, Dr. William Sears introduced the concept of Attachment Parenting which warned against sleep training citing that prolonged crying causes brain damage and trust issues. Once Sears’ The Baby Book was published, a generation of new parents began to cling to the idea that this practice was ineffective and dangerous.

This claim is certainly frightening when taken at face value, especially because it appears like Dr. Sears has evidence to support his theories. However, a deeper dive into the research shows that the information Sears is basing his theories on is full of its own issues.

The data from the studies used to support Dr. Sears’ claims comes from a small sample of babies who were exposed to chronic abuse & neglect and raised in orphanages without strong attachment figures (very much unlike the household in which you are raising your baby.) In fact, the Yale researchers who conducted one of the studies Sears used to make his claims responded to Sears’ use of their results by saying, “Our paper is not referring to routine, brief stressful experiences but to abuse and neglect. It is a mis-citation of our work to support a non-scientifically justified idea.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Dr. Sears’ conclusions came from looking at the results of abuse & neglect. NOT the standard level of crying that all infants experience.

To be clear, I strongly support many attachment parenting practices including breastfeeding, baby-wearing, and being attuned to your baby, I just respectfully disagree with his stance on sleep training, especially since it is not backed by very strong data and discourages parents from addressing sleep issues that may be negatively impacting the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of their entire family. (It is also important to point out that attachment theory is not the same as attachment parenting – you can raise a baby who is securely attached without prescribing to all the attachment parenting practices.)

So, the argument against the original suggestion that started this whole movement if built on falsely-interpreted data, but its supporters will inevitably (and justifiably) ask, “Where is your evidence to the contrary? How do you know it’s not harmful?”

Is Sleep Training Safe?

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 study that followed a group of 226 children, measuring mental health, sleep, stress regulation, parent-child relationship, maternal health, and parenting styles. Five years later, she followed up with these families to see if the 1/3 of the children whose parents employed some type of sleep training method had experienced any of the terrifying and damaging side effects that Dr. Sears had warned of.

The result…they had not. In fact, 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.” 

Nevertheless, critics continue to try to poke holes in the evidence. Some claim the sample size was too small. Many say that the study need to be replicated and/or more studies need to be carried out. Then in March of 2016, the journal Pediatrics published a new peer-reviewed study that showed sleep training to be both effective and safe.

Regardless of the research, there are still going to be parents out there who posit that any type of sleep training goes against their parenting philosophies – and you know what? That’s just fine. If sleep training is not for you & what you are doing is working for your family, I applaud you! However, when families are unhappy with their current sleep situation, seeing the negative impacts of sleep deprivation on themselves and their little ones, it is important for them to know that there is a safe and effective solution.

Sleep Peacefully, Everyone!

For those new parents who have been bombarded with misinformation and hearsay regarding the safety and efficacy of sleep training, please know that there are many scientific studies out there that show that establishing and maintaining healthy sleep habits is important, safe, and beneficial to your entire family. Because there is one thing that everyone can agree on, no matter on what side of the argument you fall: a good night’s sleep is important for both mother and baby.

So the long-winded answer is, yes, sleep training is safe. Sleep itself is glorious, rejuvenating, and so, so important for you, your little one, and your entire family. Focusing on your child’s sleep habits is something you can feel good about and a commitment that will pay off exponentially and last a lifetime. You (and your baby) can sleep soundly knowing you made the right choice.

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If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!

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