A reader’s question triggered this rant and I’m grateful for it

There are so many mixed feelings about sleep training (guilt, strident confidence, defensiveness, desperation, resignation, and so on) and I think, in part, it's a reflection of more general parenting philosophies. There are some of us that started out thinking that we'd be exceptionally responsive to our baby's needs and we'd give up taking care of ourselves for the privilege of taking care of an innocent baby. There are others of us who vowed to keep our own personal and professional lives while making reasonable compromises for our new baby. And still some of us went into this parenting thing with no clue that we'd have any "parenting philosophy" whatsoever until we saw that horrid woman with her sweet child and she… <you fill in the blank>. Somehow, many of us become so wildly committed to the paths that we chose explicitly or stumbled upon. Despite the wildly controversial issues that parents (mostly mothers) feel compelled to fight for (breast or bottle, daycare or SAH, CIO or co-sleep), the truth is that not much of it makes a reliable difference in the futures of our children. Short of flat-out abuse, neglect and SERIOUS conflict in the family context, most parenting is "good enough." And I for one am so grateful for that empirical fact.

I recently received the following question from a reader:

"We are new parents to a 3.5 month old baby girl. She is a delight,
but sleep (hers and ours) has been the biggest concern and biggest
challenge. As we consider what might be best for our daughter, we are
very curious to know if there are benefits to sleep training, or if
sleep training is merely not detrimental.
Our daughter goes down easily for her morning nap, semi-easily for
the mid-day nap, and sometimes will not go down for her p.m. nap
despite being tired, and sometimes exhausted. Once we let her cry on
and off for 45 minutes. It wasn't fun for us or her, but we
experimented to see if it might help her understand the concept of
Night sleep usually begins between 6:30 and 7 a la Weissbluth,
with a wake up between 1 and 2, and another between 4 and 5. She sleeps
in a co-sleeper and we're hoping to transition her to the crib at age 6

My short response is: you're doing everything right, your baby is following very normal sleep patterns, and I hope that the 4-month sleep transition doesn't make things harder. This really is a description of the average sleep pattern many 3.5 month olds experience. In response to the main question about whether there are benefits to sleep training (and not merely the lack of detrimental effects), no, there is no well-designed study that can answer your question. But researchers and consumers of research can use the data as they like. So… yes, good sleep has been consistently associated with better performance on complex problem-solving tasks, better memory, improved mood (decreased risk of depression) and better physical reflexes. But many babies suck at sleeping and this "suckiness" has NOT been proven to be associated with long-term negative outcomes. More to the point of the reader's question, being a "well trained" sleeper as a baby has not been shown to lead to any BETTER outcomes. That's because it is almost impossible to design the right study to answer this question rigorously. I'll save you the research methodology course that I suffered through, but suffice it to say that to really establish that there are actual long-term, IMPORTANT benefits to having been sleep-trained, you'd have to randomly assign parents to either sleep train their child or not, no matter their actual parenting philosophy, their own upbringing, their child's temperament, the amount of support they had in their lives, the necessity for parents to go back to work early in the child's life, and so on. In short, there's no ethical way to run such a study. So… what we're stuck with is a bunch of studies that look at some families that DO sleep train and some that DON'T. And guess what? These families don't only differ on whether they sleep trained or not. They differ on all the other variables that I just mentioned: parenting philosophy, family history, support, family structure, child temperament, and so on. And those factors have a complex, interactive effect on child outcomes. Some children's temperaments are easier than others and this makes some children easier to sleep train for some parents. For other parents, they don't feel the need to sleep train these children with easier temperaments. Both families and children fair well. You can see the problem when you then add all the other variables that I mentioned. In short, there's no ethical way to do this kind of science to answer the question absolutely.

So… what we do know is being a sensitive, responsive parent while at the same time setting reasonable limits matters for the long-term developmental outcomes of our children. So does being personally happy, emotionally resilient, financially secure, and happily married (or in a secure, non-conflictual relationship). And if we're none of those things, if we're financially stressed, a single mom, bouncing back and forth between depression and "ok-ness", we are STILL likely to bring up our children to be thoughtful, loving, resilient, motivated, successful adults. All the research I have read (way too much to link to here, but see the books I reference in the sidebar), reviewed, and conducted myself has led me and many others to the same general conclusion: We need to screw up BIG TIME to really put our children at serious risk for long-term negative outcomes. Oh, and BTW, we can also do everything "right" and still have children who take drugs, have unsafe sex, get arrested or end up sad and lonely at the end of their life.

Sleep training matters in the day-to-day way that parenting always matters. But we're all trying to do our best, working with what instincts we have and compensating for what we don't with as much reading and surfing the web as we can fit in. Most of us will muddle through because we care enough to do our best (yes, it sounds like a commercial and I am SO cheesy sometimes). And chances are, our kids will be just fine, no matter if we Ferberize, co-sleep, CIO, use "no-cry" strategies, or say to hell with all of this sleep training.

4 thoughts on “A reader’s question triggered this rant and I’m grateful for it

  1. THANK YOU! We’re in the middle of sleep training because it just got to that point where I don’t know what else to do. We’re seeing good progress at night, naps are just so-so, and I’ve heard lots of crying this week. It’s so easy to feel so guilty and like a bad parent… I keep telling myself that there’s so much more to my relationship with my son in the long-run than this stage of crying. We did CIO with my daughter when she was a baby… she cried a LOT. Now she’s 2 and is the sweetest and most affectionate kid who gets hugged and kissed all the time and is VERY aware of how loved she is. I keep telling myself that we’re gonna get to that point with my son. That it’s about all the rest of the years of his life, all of the kisses and conversations and the being there that’s gonna matter. For all I know, I could’ve cried every night as a baby, but I don’t remember that and I have a great relationship with my mother because of everything ELSE that happened in my life with her. These are the things I’m trying to daily remind myself of as I listen to my baby cry, knowing that I’m doing the only thing I can do right now in our situation, and pray that it’ll all even out in the end.

  2. This post is very relevant for me as well, I have a 3.5 month old baby exhibiting the same sleep patterns as the person that asked the question. Also, its comforting to know there are no long term effects of bad early experiences re: CIO or whatever method you use. I read Weissbluth w/ my first baby and was incredibly stressed that she’d be a miserable person if she didn’t get enough sleep. I did all I could to get her to sleep more (she was colicky) but it was impossible! Now she is a happy, well adjusted, incredibly smart 2 year old so I couldn’t have screwed up too badly. :)

  3. One of my least favourite parts of parenting in the online community is getting stuck in the middle of the attachment vs CIO parenting wars. There’s a lot of judgment out there. It’s hard to take when all you want is to love your child and the outside chance of a couple of consecutive hours of sleep so you can continue to do so.
    What always bothered me about the anti-CIO* sentiment was the argument that it somehow destroys the attachment bond between parent and child. As I read the studies on secure and insecure attachment, so long as a parent responds to the child’s needs in a consistent and predictable way, the attachment relationship remains secure. It seems to me that if you choose a strategy for settling your child based on your child’s temperament (ensuring you are attending to the baby’s needs) and your ability to ‘stick with it’, you will be serving your attachment bond well. The parent who co-sleeps and responds to every night call will cultivate just as strong a bond as the parent who follows a Ferber-type strategy, provided that each are consistent in their approach. One does not trump the other in the attachment stakes.
    Am I right Isabel?
    (*And by ‘CIO’ I mean the timed withdrawal model, not the ‘shut the door and don’t go back until morning’ model.)

  4. Thank you for this! I keep getting the crazy looks when I explain to them that I’m happy enough with my current sleep situation with my 6 month old (multiple night nursings—but they’re the only thing keeping my supply intact). I’ve been overloaded with sleep training philosophies, and it’s nice to hear that the no-philosophy philosophy is at a minimum not detrimental. Thank you!

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