Friday, October 17, 2014

Rushing in where angels fear to tread (my two cents on sleep training)

I am a member of a secret Facebook mommy group (the sort where you only join when a member adds you) that most consists of working Indian mothers living abroad, and a few in India as well, and some non-Indian moms as well. I cannot put my finger on why this particular group is so useful, but I think it is just the sheer density of very smart, very resourceful women on there: I've learnt many things on there, and I'm usually the one dispensing information like candy, whether people want it or not.

So, in this very,very useful and mostly positive group, I was taken aback to see a spate of articles making sleep training (specifically, CIO) sound like child abuse (there was one rather ridiculous one about a letter written by a baby undergoing sleep training, not going to share the link). Since there seemed to be almost a 50-50 split between moms who sleep-train and moms who stay far away from it, the battles were fierce, with both sides making preposterous claims about the results of both parenting styles.

Having spent a few of my initial sleepless nights aimlessly browsing what the "experts" say out of sheer curiosity (what I did in the end was totally based on instinct), I was familiar with the arguments made by both sides, and I decided to offer my own commentary on what they said, to try to offer some rational perspective that took a hard look at the arguments offered by both sides

My commentary was pretty well received and nobody came after me with pitchforks, and I figured since I spent so much time on it, it should be out here as well:
  • First, there is no such thing as a baby expert or a sleep training expert, IMO. People claim to be, but they are really just people who make stuff up as they go along, and want to produce enough talking points to fill a book. Anybody who claims they are “baby experts” are charlatans IMO. Trying to say that sleep training produces “better behaved, better-adjusted” children is part of the charlatan-speak. Finally, sleep is developmental, not behavioral: this basically means your baby’s brain needs to develop and mature till the point arrives that he/she can sleep 6+ hour stretches.
  • Why did sleep training come about? When did parenting go from an instinctive, intuitive thing that never involved ignoring your baby’s cues to a training and schedule-driven process? It did not come about as a “eureka” process to improve baby behavior. It came about to compensate for the fact that people no longer parent in an extended family. And that, the stopping of parenting in an extended family, IMO, is the true tragedy. There is now a very real need to reduce the burden of parenting, because parenting went from something the entire extended family did to something two individuals or even one individual had to deal with alone. So yes, some people need to sleep train just to keep going. 
  • The “experts” on the other side who talk about sleep training resulting in disassociated, disconnected individuals more often use parents who ignore their baby’s cues constantly as examples. I've seen articles talking about how sleep training produces disconnected children reference orphanages in Romania, which is just ridiculous. People who sleep train may practice dissociative parenting (where you do not respond to your baby’s cues) only at bedtime. The rest of the time, most sleep-training parents here WILL respond to their child’s cues, and the children do come to trust their parents and bond with them through this associative parenting
  • On the flip side, let us also talk about that new study which showed that babies were stressed (high levels of cortisol) even when they were no longer crying and had seemingly adjusted well to the sleep training. This is a black and white, no-frills point that shows very clearly that what is going on the surface is no indicator of what is happening inside. I read that study, and I wanted to know how long that cortisol elevation lasted. Was it still there a month into sleep training? Six months? Cortisol can mess with neuronal growth, so this finding is not good. However, what is the true impact of this? I refuse to believe that sleep training alone can produce mal-adjusted individuals. Can seemingly well-adjusted, successful, happy individuals be mildly affected by periods of stress during their babyhood? It is possible. Can you measure how much they have been affected? No. How much more healthier would they have been if they had not been sleep trained? Would they be more trusting or have had better relationships with their parents had they not been sleep trained? No one can tell. It is not possible to measure or extrapolate. It is possible sleep training has some mild to moderate psychological effect, depending on too many factors to enumerate, including the parenting style used the rest of the time, but it is impossible to figure out. However, I find it difficult that this prolonged elevation of cortisol at sleeptime could be too deleterious. It is also important to consider the effect of a perennially stressed parent, and the effect they could have on the child if they are stretched too thin. All of life is a balance, after all  
  • Finally, to bust some myths about what may happen if you do not sleep train: one can get a baby who sleeps through the night early without sleep training. Cosleeping and responding to your babies cues does not automatically spell misery for the parent who chooses it, or result in a maladjusted, cranky, child who cannot sleep at all. I cosleep with Gauri and respond to all her cues. She usually sleeps through the night (at 5-6 months of age). She does not spend all night kicking me (saw this a lot  in the case against cosleeping). She chooses her own schedule (no matter what I tried, she goes to sleep around 11:30 and wakes up at around 10 now, with an awakening at around 7:30 am for a feed). Rocking her to sleep is a waste of my time. After a bath+massage, I tuck myself in bed with her and just wait for the point that her own brain signals that it is time to sleep (usually 11:30 pm). We actually have some fun interacting in this time, where she crawls around, babbles at me, wails occasionally, wants to play, etc. It is not purgatory for me, and I do not begrudge her the time I have to spend doing it. Importantly, I know that the method I use to get her to sleep will keep evolving as she grows older, because she is also evolving. Finally, despite the lack of sleep training, and lack of scheduling of naps, she is not cranky during the day and naps adequately, if not at the same time every day. 
  • What I am trying to say is you can raise a happy well-adjusted child no matter what you practice. Which method you choose depends on multiple factors. Sleep training may not be suitable for high-needs babies, babies who get very upset when their needs are ignored (the ones who cry for a long time/ throw up, etc), or very young babies (sleep training a two-month old is not advised), because the risk that it can be detrimental is much higher in all these cases. IMO, it should not be chosen to improve behavior or because of the mistaken belief that it results in better-adjusted children, but it can be used safely in many cases when parental exhaustion is a problem, and many children may be fine with it.
I hope this is actually useful to somebody, and does not put anybody's back up. I cosleep and attachment parent, and the results are amazing for me, but I am also lucky in that I have a child whose brain maturation vis a vis sleep has been seemingly rapid. Even if this was not so, I am also lucky in that I would have had help if she continued to keep waking up at night.  Nonetheless, a very important take-home point I want to drive home is that every child will differ in when they acquire the ability to sleep through the night and self soothe, and that cannot be rushed, whether you wait it out or cry it out



  1. Very well said. I think it is so important that parents learn that what works for them may not work for another's child & vice versa. Just because someone decides to parent differently than I do doesn't make my parenting wrong. CIO didn't work for me but that doesn't mean I think CIO is wrong. My friend refuses to cosleep but that doesn't make me wrong for doing so.

  2. So true! I have twin girls that are very different sleepers. I think parents try to take too much credit for something that is so developmentally based.