I often get some rather accusing replies whenever I write on, well, anything. People read judgment in just about anything and some people seem to not really read much at all, just rush straight to getting offended. This is particularly comment when I write on sleep training – extinction sleep training to be specific (this includes crying-it-out and controlled crying). I often try to reply either via email or in comments (depending on how the comment came in), but I thought I’d publicly write some answers to those who publicly comment. If I’m going to say something on this, I might as well do it once and refer back instead of having to repeat myself over and over and over and over. So without further ado, I welcome you to a comment and response section on extinction sleep training, one I hope to update as more comments come in!
Found on “Shut the Door and Walk Away”, a piece dealing with the advice to shut your child in a room, leave them to cry, and don’t go back for 12 hours.
WOW…what a judgmental, obviously biased opinion!!!
I TOTALLY disagree based on loving experience! I “sleep trained” my son and he is the sweetest, most caring, loving child I know! We have a amazingly connected relationship and everyone compliments his wonderful temperament, which I give a great deal of credit to his happy, healthy sleep habits!
I did not read any mention above on the importance of consolidated sleep!?? It is just as important as food for growth a development!!!!! Would you let your child eat a whole bag of chocolate because he cried of you didn’t!?
Children need structure, routines, boundaries and to be taught healthy sleep habits. It is unfair to let children be in control of their sleep…of course they do not know what is best for them…that is our job as parents!
To each their own, but do not blanket judge other loving mothers!
BTW…I never once refused to feed my son during the night when he was hungry. I also breast fed him until he was over 2 years old…”easy route”…I think not!
ONE LOVING MOMMA HERE!!!!!!
Dear One Loving Mamma,
I have no doubt you love your child or that your son is sweet, caring, and loving. As I wrote in the piece, extinction sleep training (specifically the method mentioned which was to leave a child for 12 hours, not responding to cries or calls) does not condemn a child to a life of misery or sadness – there are tons of factors that influence our children’s development. I find it interesting that you believe his temperament has to do with happy, healthy sleep habits as temperament is actually defined as the part of our personality that is not influenced by other behaviours and factors. It’s important to be clear here as temperament is one of the factors that would influence how a child responds to parenting techniques like extinction sleep training. In fact, I also don’t know what kind of sleep training you engaged in given you mention always nursing during the night when your child asked for it (which immediately contradicts the 12 hours of non-responsiveness which was the focus on the piece here).
You wonder about the importance of consolidated sleep and I should be clear that there is NO evidence that it is necessary or even positive for young infants into the toddler years. In fact, the work we have on consolidated sleep and its importance is exclusive to older children, adolescents, and adults. Night waking in infancy and toddlerhood is not only biologically normal, but actually essential for infants and some older children to ensure proper growth. Even when we get to older ages, only recently have we humans started sleeping in large chunks. Until the advent of electricity, sleep was a two-chunk process with shorter sleep durations, so the “importance” of consolidated sleep exists only in a Western vacuum. It is not a biological need, but one that has become an issue because we simply don’t have the times to sleep outside this one chunk at night. As such, no, consolidated sleep is not nearly as important as food for development.
Similarly, your idea that children need to be “taught” healthy sleep habits and that it’s unfair for them to be “in charge” of sleep is again a Western-centric view with no basis in history or science. Children throughout time have been in charge of their sleep and not taught specific sleep habits with zero negative repercussions. They have followed their circadian rhythm and the natural day/night cycle when possible (e.g., Native Canadians in the Yukon would not base their sleep on the sun given the long periods of dark or light, depending on the season). Again, in our society we have created schedules and expectations that are based on a specific, narrow view of sleep. In this, children may need guidance to match society’s expectations of what their sleep should look like, but as is being discovered by researchers, this doesn’t actually mean it’s best for children. Where we will also have to strongly disagree is the idea that our babies and children inherently do not know what is best for them biologically-speaking. In a society where we override what is best for our bodies on a daily basis, I would argue our children have a far better grasp of what they need biologically than we do.
You ask if I would give my child a bag of chocolate chips if she cried for them. Here I find your misunderstanding of an opposition to extinction sleep training to be most clear. First, let me say that I say no to my child many times and she gets upset. Being upset does not mean I change what I am doing, but it also does not mean I ignore her distress and refuse to comfort her; quite the opposite, I acknowledge her feelings while holding the boundary (see the chart to your right). In extinction sleep training, the entire method is based on refusing comfort when a child cries out for you – that IS the entire definition of crying-it-out and so if you are not doing this, you are not engaging in extinction sleep training. At no point have I ever advocated that parents stick with an unsustainable situation. However, there are many gentle methods that are based in responsiveness that allow parents to (try to) change sleep patterns that are not working for the family (one whole post on gentle sleep resources can be found here).
You end by saying I have blanket judged other mothers yet I can see no place in this piece in which I have said anything judgmental about mothers. I have spoken about methods and choices and the risks associated with some choices. If you read someone pointing out that there was possible risk in a decision you made as “judgement” then I ask you do some soul-searching about what you are really looking for from strangers on the internet.
Tracy of Evolutionary Parenting
Found on “Shut the Door and Walk Away”.
I couldn’t disagree more. I pandered to my first child’s every cry. She was a most unhappy child. Slept little and I wasn’t just a tired mum, I was distraut and sick. if you look at the science of sleep, people have natural sleep cycles. No-one callously just shuts a door on a baby. Babies naturally resettle when waking between sleep cycles. Random comments of ‘just walk away’ have no foundation. Read the book or go and see the sleep doctor in person. He says it straight because he knows it works. But there’s more to it than that. I wrapped up my second two children and laid them down to sleep independently from birth. That’s was after, feeds, nappy changes, cuddles and singing. But, when the the sleep cue came, which starts as a little whimper or fractious grizzle I knew from the science that my infants were ready for sleep. Following their cue, I settled them into bed and walked away. They happily lay their in there familiar surroundings and contentedly fell asleep. Distraut parents of unhappy babies who cry all the time visit the sleep dr or read his book and yes have work to do. Their infants are used to parents returning to there recurrent cries and have developed a habit. These babies are not happy because the poor lambs never get enough sleep. They’re not happy, neither are their poor parents. So they go to the sleep dr in desperation and he teaches what he knows works; how to help your baby have good, long, solid periods of heavenly sleep the are so desperately lacking. The method may seem confronting, but brings beautiful results of a happy, well rested and healthy baby and equally so are the parents. Time with baby is no longer fractious and spent resentfully, but enjoyable. Parents are still tired and baby’s are still babies, but this continuous attendance of a baby who never settles habitually day in and day out, night in and night out is eleminated. I spent time settling my first child and introducing the sleep doctors practices at a pace I felt comfortable with and in time her happiness was evident in a baby who whilst she learned to settle independently, gained a far more restful sleeping pattern not relying on being constantly disturbed by her own anxieties.. As a result we were all less anxious. The experience I’ve had of poor mothers constantly attending a baby who doesn’t sleep well is that they and the child are both stressed and anxious.
Dear Sleep Doctor Fan,
I am first very sorry to hear you had such an unhappy first child. I find it odd that you seem to attribute this unhappiness to your “pandering” to her every cry as that may have actually made her experiences better than what they would have been otherwise. I hear you on the fact that she didn’t seem to sleep much and you were beyond exhausted. No one – especially not I – is suggesting you should have just continued with this; however, if you had come to me, I would have sat down with you to first find out if you had the support needed to get your own sanity back before focusing on trying to ascertain what was wrong with your child. For you see, sleep is rarely a problem in and of itself, it often reflects other problems such as feeding or health issues and as such should be seen as a symptom and not a cause of distress. However, I know how hard it is to actually accept that when you’re beyond exhausted.
Everything you describe about your own anxieties and the stress surrounding your first is part of a larger problem of parental lack of support and expectations about infant sleep. You were happier because you eliminated the stress from your life and your child stopped calling out to you. You can say your child needed long stretches of sleep, though no science or history supports that as an actual “need” at young ages (see my response above). You see a child who is responded to as simply having a “habit” yet I see a child who realizes parents will be there during periods of distress. Something that is essential to building healthy emotion regulation later in life. You spend a lot of time describing your own experiences and to that I can only say that if your second two happily lay down after a feeding and fell asleep, consider yourself lucky. That is not all babies and to assume that all are the same is truly problematic.
As for the science you seem to want to discuss, I would like to correct a few things. First, not all babies naturally re-settle between sleep cycles. This is the entire point of responsiveness and how it helps babies to re-settle. Some require feedings, some require close contact, and so on. Second, your suggestions that the sleep doctor leads to better results (including happier babies) doesn’t actually hold up in his own research which I have read. In his large-scale findings, infants using his method sleep 1 hour more per day, but cry the same amount as infants who did not use his method. This means that proportionally, they are actually crying more during their awake time than those who are not undergoing the extinction sleep training he recommends. (I also will add that I have had personal conversations with the sleep doctor and this view of shut the door and walk away is actually rather reflective of his method, though he admits to offering less extreme versions for families unwilling to follow this bit.)
I don’t doubt that you and the doctor have families’ mental health in mind. The problem is that the infant’s mental health is being ignored with these methods. No one wants unhappy, stressed out parents, but there are many ways to achieve better sleep as a family than extinction sleep training. Even in Australia, Dr. Pamela Douglas and her Possums Clinic offer evidence-based, cue-based care for families, helping them understand the reasons behind the sleep disruptions and anxieties so they can tackle the real issues instead of the symptoms. I recommend checking her book out (a review here) to understand more of what cue-based care entails.
Tracy of Evolutionary Parenting
From “Sleep Training is a Feminist Issue (Just Not in the Way You Think)”, a piece responding to the claim that extinction sleep training is feminist as women bear the brunt of nighttime care and this is a method that helps them.
The irony, of course, being that you ARE ignoring your children’s needs at night. Because a child’s (and adult’s) primary biological need during the night… is for SLEEP.
Have you had a chance to look at the mountain of irrefutable evidence showing how much physical and psychological harm is caused by chronic sleep deprival? In both children AND adults? Women are not, as you say, “designed” to handle night wakings any more than men are.
(My reply: You’re conflating research on adult sleep deprivation and natural, normal night wakings in infancy and toddlerhood. Longitudinal research shows they are very much NOT the same thing. Plus, as the article states, there are LOTS of ways to handle changes in sleep when necessary that don’t involve extinction sleep training.)
Okay, let’s for one moment accept your assertion that chronic sleep deprival (past early infancy) does not cause problems for toddlers and children. There is no disputing that it is harmful to adults (i.e. these children’s mothers and fathers). I fail to understand how you can place so little value on the mental and physical health of the very people responsible for raising these little humans. Moms matter. What is best for baby is to have happy, healthy (ergo well rested) parents. Period.
There are really two main issues to address here with you: (1) What biologically normal sleep looks like, and (2) The mental well-being of the family and how to achieve this. The first issue is paramount to explain as you seem to conflate normal night wakings with chronic sleep deprivation. Yes, there are extreme cases (especially in countries where parents are expected to return to work immediately) where demands on parents are so great that they suffer severe sleep deprivation from normal infant night wakings. We need to tease these apart though because the infant is often not sleep deprived (a point I made in my first response) and behaving in a biologically normal manner, one that is ideal for his/her development, but society – especially a patriarchal society – does not value this or the type of care required for this developing child. Typically, infants will wake, nurse, possibly play (until the discovery and widespread use of electricity, even adults didn’t sleep in these long, consolidated sleep patterns), and then return to sleep when tired again. This is normal and may even be optimal for these children’s individual development.
That said, there are infants and toddlers for whom sleep deprivation is an issue, yet even here, extinction sleep training should not be the go-to for parents. As mentioned above, actual sleep problems in infants (not parental problems with infant sleep) are almost exclusively symptoms instead of being a sole problem. In these cases, discovering what the cause is should be the primary focus of any treatment.
The second issue is about the mental well-being of the family. There are two fallacies in your response here. First, you assume that to be against extinction sleep training is to not value the mental and physical health of parents. Not true. It simply means I also value the mental health of the infant. This is why I will always offer gentle suggestions on changing sleep patterns, but only ones that are based on responsiveness to the individual child. If you fail to respond to your child, you are not being considerate of their mental or physical well-being.
The second fallacy is this idea that all that matters to infants is that their parents are healthy and happy. Sorry, life does not work that way. Infants have needs that go beyond a happy caregiver. Most notably, infants need lots of contact, comfort, and responsiveness. Time and again we find that responsiveness is one of the most important elements of parenting and thus if removing responsiveness is what makes mom or dad happy, it most certainly does not mean the infant is getting what is best. I recommend you read up a bit on the period of hyporesponsivity and the role of comfort in the development of emotion regulation to better understand the integral role of parental responsiveness in child development.
As always, there are better methods than extinction sleep training that can respect a child’s biological development and the mental health of the entire family, infant included. Being against methods that disrespect the infant and their development is not contrary to feminism in any way, shape, or form.
Tracy of Evolutionary Parenting
If you are in need of individualized parenting help with sleep or other areas, I offer science-based, gentle, and attachment-focused help via email, Skype, or phone. You can find out more here.