Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sleep "Training"

Sleep is a wonderful thing. Lord knows I cherish it. I'd rather sleep than do a lot of things. There is nothing like the beautiful feeling of falling into a deep, blissful sleep.

And goodness knows how a sleep-deprived mother misses it. I know. I have been there. So in desperation, I know some parents give in and try to "train" their children into some kind of artifical sleep schedule. I don't want to argue about that with anyone on my blog, as I know opinions about this are varied and passionate. But I do want to share my perspective for anyone for whom it might matter. By sleep train, I don't mean routines. I mean actually trying to impose a sleep schedule on your child through coercive and artifical methods such as cry-it-out (cry to sleep).

Whomever you are, my dear loved one who is considering or starting to do this, I hope you will reconsider. There has got to be a better way to survive your child's early years.

Here are the top ten reasons why I think such a course is usually (I will make no hard line about never, but USUALLY) not such a good idea:

10. Because children need parenting all the time, not just in the daytime. If you fail to parent your child at night, it means neglecting some needs that your child has.

9. Because the person you are really training is: yourself. What are you training yourself to do? You are training yourself to be non-responsive to the messages your child sends you. You are training yourself to ignore your child in his or her moment of need. This is not natural. There is a reason that mother nature has given mothers (and fathers) an instinctual, painful, gut-level response to a baby crying. Everything we are meant to do in the first year or two of a baby's life has to do with a high level of responsiveness. By training yourself out of your responsiveness, you diminish, even if subtly, your closeness with your child.

8. Because even if you can do nothing to soothe your baby's tears, your presence counts for something. It is diminishing to you both to assume that it matters not whether you are there. Have you yourself never been comforted by a loved one, even as you sobbed in his or her arms? Sometimes the ability to stop tears is not the best measure of the difference one person makes in the life of another.

7. Because independence is not a foundational level skill. Imagine trying to teach a child to write before he or she ever sees a letter, to ride a bike before he or she has learned to sit up, or to answer the phone before she or he has ever spoken. Independence is a slowly building skill, and the ability to sleep independently in many children does not develop for many years. While some may be able to train their children to "give up," and to stop crying because those cries go unanswered, this only demonstrates the development of mistrust that one will be cared for. It is a far cry from real independence.

6. Because unaswered cries are stressful for babies. Of course, sometimes some of us will need to put our babies somewhere safe and walk away for a few minutes to get ourselves together. It is hard when a baby cries, and cries, and cries and there is nothing we can do to make it better. But when you choose to ignore your child's needs in order to "train" him or her into some false "independence," you are choosing to let stress hormones rage through your child's body. In the short term, this can lead to vomiting, overheating, and maybe even contribute to risk for SIDS. In the long term, repeated episodes of exposure to stress hormones through "cry it out" could result in permanent changes to your child's neurological system (BRAIN!). These changes can impact memory, attention, and emotion over the course of a lifetime, perhaps even including a predisposition to anxiety and depressive disorders. Also, who wants a child to associate sleep with stress hormones?

5. Because a baby's need to sleep will vary depending on a large number of factors. I am all for routine. Routines help children feel secure, can ensure a child's needs are not unintentionally overlooked when a parent is otherwise distracted, and can increase the chances that everyone will keep their sanity in a family. But schedules, well, they can be good...but are trickier. When you artifically impose a schedule on a very young baby, you will miss those changes in sleep needs that naturally arise from things not limited to growth spurts, work on developmental milestones, and dietary variations. By tuning into my children's needs, I have been much better equipped to recognize when suddenly they need that second nap each day again after not having needed it for a few months, or when they need to go to bed a little earlier or a little later, or when they are too busy learning to sleep and will catch up later. It's a similar thing to following a baby's cues for feedings...in which case you ensure you don't miss a need for more calories (more meals) for a growth spurt, and so forth.

4. Because there is nothing like the times when your baby falls peacefully asleep in your arms. You can't get this time back, when they are little and cuddly and want to be with you. You just can't. 'Nuff said.

3. Because it is a lie that your baby will still need you to go to sleep when s/he heads off to college. I promise. Seriously, your child will grow to want his or her space and you will someday come to miss these years. Whoever invented the myth that whatever you do when your baby is a few months old is what you will have to do *forever* was seriously misguided. My children's sleep habits have changed more over the last few years than I could even describe. These days, they don't like to be touched even (so sad for me). I just sit next to them.

2. Because closeness with parents in the early years is actually a good thing. It helps children develop a solid foundation for many emotional intelligence factors...the ability to empathize, the ability to be comforted and to comfort others, the ability to read the emotions of others, a healthy desire for closeness and intimacy with others, and a sense of confidence through security (and the assumption that the world is generally a good place where needs will be met). These emotional intelligence factors are critical to a successful, happy life.

1. Because parenting is not about what "works in the short term," but rather about what you want to do for your child over the longrun. Hopefully, we all want to have confident, secure children in the longrun. But actually, it is useful as well to know that in the short-term, many times "cry it out" doesn't "work" for even short term parenting goals. When it does "work," it often requires that you do it over and over again. Night after night. And again with each growth spurt. And again any time your child is teething. And again with each major developmental milestone. It is actually often way more work.

There are many different ways that parents address sleep needs without sleep training. If you are interested in ideas and advice, try this: Nighttime Parenting Discussions.

That's my two cents. For what they are worth.


sf said...

She said don't worry!!

Masasa said...

Someone who was already doing it or someone who was thinking ahead? ;-)

sf said...

Someone who was already "doing it" - sort of!!!

Masasa said...

So is she done with it, or does "don't worry" mean, well, when I said cry for nine minutes I really was only doing it "sort of?"

sf said...

Ask Seppie Woo. . .

ogre said...


At this point... I just hope mine go to bed at some point. G'night, guys, I'm going to bed... and the morning is going to be brutal if you say up late.

Consequences that they've experienced.

Lessons they're still learning. But they'll learn them, rather than have them imposed (with marginal effectiveness).

If we'd made our eldest cry it out, it would have been hell. For a long, long, long, long time--and repeatedly. He slept poorly, woke easily.

Simple rules are for simple things--not for highly individual beings, each of whom has different needs. Set a schedule? That would have been insane--one of them's a nightowl of extreme nature, and the other is a lark, really. Applying Procustes' Bed to them so that they fit our (arbitrary) schedule would have been nuts.