Sleep Training: Is It Safe & Effective? [Fact Sheet]

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*Scroll to the end of this post to download the complete sleep training fact sheet.

Sleep training fact sheet part I

Fact sheet: Is sleep training safe & effective? Current research

There is probably no parenting topic quite as controversial as sleep training (ok, vaccinations would be right up there!).

In case you’re not familiar with the term, sleep training is essentially when parents intervene to help their baby learn to fall asleep independently.

There are many different sleep training methods available, including:

  • Extinction (“cry it out”)
  • Controlled crying (“Ferber”)
  • Bedtime fading
  • Camping out or the “chair method” (The Sleep Lady Shuffle is one version of this)
  • Pick up/put down
  • Soothing ladder
  • Routines

Probably the most well-known method is extinction (usually just called cry it out), which involves establishing a bedtime routine, then letting your baby learn to soothe him or herself to sleep.

However, the term “cry it out” is often mistakenly used to describe all forms of sleep training, even the more gradual methods that involve a lot of parent support (e.g., sitting beside and soothing your baby).

Why is sleep training such a hot topic?

The controversy over sleep training stems from a number of different factors and beliefs. Following are four of the most common concerns parents have about sleep training (particularly the cry it out method).

Belief #1: Sleep is developmental

Some parents and experts believe sleep is entirely developmental and therefore parents shouldn’t intervene. They believe babies will sleep through the night when they’re ready and able, but that parents often feel pressured by the common western belief that babies should conform to a certain pattern of sleep at an early age (e.g., sleeping through the night by four months). They would encourage parents to learn about normal infant sleep so they have more realistic expectations.

Belief #2: Sleep training is incompatible with Attachment Parenting

Founder of Attachment Parenting, Dr. Bill Sears, has been a long-time critic of sleep training – and of the cry it out method, in particular. Attachment Parenting promotes the idea that parents should be highly responsive and in close physical proximity to their baby at all times in order to maintain a healthy mother/infant attachment. AP strongly encourages babywearing, co-sleeping, breastfeeding, never leaving your baby to cry, etc.

Belief #3: Sleep training causes high levels of cortisol (stress hormone) that results in harm to the child

Obviously no parent wants to subject their infant to stress if they don’t have to. However, some parents and experts believe that allowing a baby to cry during the process of sleep training causes both short and potentially even long-term increases in cortisol. This belief is, in part, based on a well-known sleep training study – sometimes referred to as the Middlemiss sleep training study.

Belief #4: Sleep training causes damage to the mother/infant attachment

Some parents and experts believe sleep training causes the baby to fundamentally lose trust in the mother, resulting in harm to the mother-child attachment. They believe that rather than learning to “self-soothe”, the baby simply resigns herself to the fact that no one is coming for her. A popular Facebook post from 2016 is often used to illustrate this belief. It recounts babies being left to cry in orphanages for so long that they simply stop crying (give up). The Middlemiss study above is also often cited as evidence that stress hormones remain high even after a baby has stopped crying following sleep training.

So, are these beliefs wrong?

To be honest, I don’t entirely disagree with all of the points above. I do believe sleep is developmental (to some extent), and I do believe the cry it out method of sleep training doesn’t “fit” with the Attachment Parenting philosophy (notice I didn’t say with attachment, but with the AP philosophy. These are two different things).

I also believe that we do often have unrealistic expectations of how our babies should sleep, and that sometimes we just need to let babies be babies, and adjust our expectations.

I also believe that it’s entirely possible that cortisol levels do temporarily increase during sleep training, although research doesn’t appear to support this belief (at least to this point).

I’m not a supporter of leaving an infant to cry for hours without any parental intervention. While I do believe it often works, and I doubt it does any lasting harm (especially if we’re talking one or two nights), I also believe it can be unnecessarily stressful for the parent and for the child; especially when there are other methods you can use that don’t involve unattended crying.

Finally, I don’t believe any parents should have to use sleep training if they don’t believe in it or if it feels wrong to them. There are many ways to help babies sleep that don’t involve sleep training (e.g., co-sleeping, feeding to sleep, etc.), and if these methods are working for a family, they should never feel pressured to use sleep training.

What does the research say about sleep training?

In an effort to find out what the current research says about the safety and effectiveness of sleep training, I’ve put together this fact sheet – Sleep Training: Is it Safe and Effective. 

It outlines the most current research on sleep training and attempts to answer questions like:

What is sleep training

Is sleep training effective? 

Does sleep training result in increased cortisol?

Does sleep training cause long-term harm?

What are other potential benefits of sleep training?

While every point on this fact sheet is backed by current research, this doesn’t mean the sheet is completely unbiased. As hard as one tries to be completely objective when looking at research, we are all obviously influenced by our own thoughts and beliefs.

Even the selection process for the studies that are included in the sheet are somewhat biased; for instance, I could have chosen to include studies that are often used to debunk sleep training, including ones using rats, ones that show the effects of long-term neglect on infants, and ones that show the benefits of holding and responding to our infants.

In any case, I feel confident that the sources I chose are the most current and reliable ones directly related to sleep training. 

I hope this fact sheet helps you as you make the important decision whether sleep training is right for your family. If you have any questions related to this sheet, please feel free to leave a comment on our Facebook page.

Click here to download full size pdf: sleep-training-fact-sheet

 

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Wondering if sleep training works for fussy or high need babies? My ebook, Sleep Training & High Need Babies , walks you through exactly what you can expect if you decided to take the plunge. Filled with personal stories from parents who have successfully sleep trained a high need baby, this ebook offers comfort and support to anyone figuring out the next steps in their journey toward healthy sleep.

Check out High Need Babies & Sleep Training now!

Holly Klaassen has been running The Fussy Baby Site since 2007. Inspired to start the site after giving birth to her second child, the site aims to provide support and information to parents of fussy, colicky, high need or 'spirited' babies and kids. The main message of this site? You are not alone! When Holly isn't writing for The Fussy Baby Site, she can be found writing for other businesses on topics related to digital marketing, social media, business, and of course, parenting.

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Category: Sleep, Sleep Training

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