I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about infant sleep. Though I write about a lot of things, this topic comes up more than any other. One of the things I have struggled with recently is trying to understand why so many people speak about the need to turn to cry-it-out (CIO) or controlled crying (CC). It’s as if there are no other options available to them, though clearly there are and I’ve shared gentle sleep resources here. In pondering it further, I start to wonder if those of us who speak out against sleep training may be inadvertently setting families up to fail. Hear me out…
Imagine, if you will, a mom who knows she has to go back to work at 3 months (or 6 months or a year or whenever). She is dealing with the sleepless nights because she can nap during the day. She’s up with her baby, cuddling and enjoying the strange new clock that’s been set for her. A little tired, yes, but she manages as all new parents do. Then at 3 months, she returns to work. Suddenly the demands of work mean her brain is functioning in a different way than it had been when she’d been home with her baby and the lack of sleep at night isn’t being made up for in naps or even just relaxing days at home on the couch with her baby. Add to this, her baby is having to adjust to the separation and is more stressed than usual, leading to more fussiness. Books have told her that her baby should be sleeping through the night by now but her baby isn’t, so she’s waking at night for feeding sessions and cuddles, then struggles during the day, with a cycle that just gets worse and worse as the week goes on. On weekends, she can catch up a bit, but there are still tons of things that need to get done and so it doesn’t really help and by the time Monday hits again, she’s still exhausted. She looks for help and is met by well-meaning people who say, “Just wait it out – it’ll pass” or “Don’t worry, all babies do this, but you have to just plow through – I did!” So she keeps going and going until she simply can’t anymore.
Too many parents end up in this cycle, or one similar to it. They persevere through it, week after week, with the stress, tiredness, and resentment building up until eventually they simply can’t take it. Something has to be done. And it has to be done now.
This is where those gentle options many of us preach go out the window. They take time. And when parents are at the end of their rope and can’t handle any more night wakings, they want whatever fix will work now, regardless of what it may include. So doctors and friends and family say you need to use CIO or CC. One week, a few days and you’ll have your sanity back. Who can argue with that? And so they do it and sometimes it works (sometimes it doesn’t) and they become the ones to recommend it to everyone because finally they have some sleep and can function again.
But let me propose something different. What if instead of waiting until one is at the end of their rope, we encourage parents to try gentler methods that will take longer when they know they either need a certain schedule or start to show signs of frustration, anger, resentment, etc. towards their child over the sleeping situation? What if we told them that it was okay to start working on guiding sleep before they hit the wall? And that by starting it earlier, they could do it in a way that better respects their child and won’t leave them feeling awful as they listen to their child scream and cry for them? And what if they knew that these gentle methods don’t ignore their child’s needs and most won’t end with a baby sleeping 10 hours uninterrupted at night (because that’s often not biologically normal unless forced via other means – though some parents do have these deep sleepers) but may reduce the wakings from 10 a night to 4?
I do fear that parents keep going with something that isn’t working because they think there’s no alternative and so they keep looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, not knowing that light may still be a couple years away. In line with the vicious cycle idea, parents don’t think of gentle alternatives and don’t want to use the harsher ones (e.g., CIO) so they keep going with something that isn’t working until they feel they can’t. And then they turn to the methods they wanted to avoid earlier because that’s all there is and when it “works” they become ones to support it and recommend it to other parents in this situation.
If we keep only telling parents “It will pass” without being honest that sometimes that time can be a long time and sometimes it might not work for them and their family, we’re setting them up to hit a wall and resort to the one thing we’re trying to put an end to: non-responsive sleep training. Although many of us would prefer to see families use the wait-it-out method and let children find their sleeping pattern in their own time, we also have to be practical that that isn’t going to work for all families. As such, we need to not only offer gentle alternatives, but make sure families know about them with the time needed to do something about them and the fact that they will make things better but still include that you respond to your child’s needs so that attachment isn’t compromised.
So if you see a family starting to struggle, it’s okay to suggest they look into something to help them as a family. In fact, by presenting this option earlier than “necessary”, you may be saving a family from dealing with the heartbreak that often accompanies our modern sleep training practices.
If you are struggling with sleep issues and are interested in gentle sleep resources, you can see a list of options here.