Another baby expert in Australia is making headlines talking about his method of helping over 10,000 families over 30 years reach a full night’s sleep (or as it was reported). That method? Get your baby ready for bed, put them in their crib in their own room by 7pm, shut the door, then don’t open it until 7am. Walk away and ignore the crying, even if the child is crying for hours (unless baby is sick). If your child is older and trying to get out of the room, hold that door shut and don’t let them out. I don’t know this doctor as I’m not in Australia and there seem to be conflicting views on how much he in particular promotes this (some say they have been to him and been told this very advice, others not; update: I have now had personal email conversations with him and this is definitely a good representation of what he suggests as the “ideal” method, though he offers more moderate ones for families who don’t want to do this). This isn’t about him though.
This method isn’t new. This has been promoted by various sleep trainers or baby experts for years. Not everyone is as blunt about it, but let’s face it – whether you do it all night or just at the start of the night, crying-it-out is all about ignoring your baby. Many say they would never support ignoring a baby in distress, but then preach that crying doesn’t mean a baby is in distress.
I feel like sleep trainers are like a mythical monster where every time you cut off one head with science and reason, two more take their place that are even more dangerous than before. In the last few months alone, the media has highlighted this method of locking your child in a room for 12 hours a day under the guise of “helping” your child and a method of sleep training newborns by not feeding them at night.
I have written on the science around sleep training here, the fact that most of it doesn’t actually work as planned at home here, the myth of how not crying means a child is okay here, and how science doesn’t support the notion of teaching a child to self-soothe here. I have covered it. In detail. Over and over and over.
Clearly these people don’t care. Nor does the media that only shares these magical solutions at the expense of children.
I don’t know what happened in their lives that have led them to promote such cold, inconsiderate practices. To hold such little value for the lives they supposedly care for. To call babies who are behaving normally “nightmares”. To suggest parents must neglect their children in order to “help” them.
It must have been horrible.
Unfortunately I don’t believe much of anything will change their mind because they are too invested in this cold world they’re creating. They make too much money for one, but also for every family they convince to do as they say, they reinforce the notion that parents are to pit themselves against their children, and once a parent heads down that path it is ever-so-hard to come back. The more it is reinforced, the more they are justified in spreading these hateful methods. Methods that would be clearly seen as abuse for older children, our partners, the elderly… pretty much anyone that can speak up for themselves.
So instead I speak to you parents.
I understand you’ve come to a fork in your path. You have been struggling along and fearing you aren’t doing what you should be doing to help your child sleep. You hear over and over that it is the most important thing you can do, that any child that is waking regularly is bad, and that this is a reflection of your failure as a parent. It doesn’t help that you’re tired and expect that you shouldn’t be. So you face two roads and must choose: The easy one or that other one?
Your friends, the media, even doctors are telling you that you just need to take the easy path. That it’s best for you and it won’t harm your child, despite having no evidence to support any of these claims. They tell you that you’ll walk along it and before you know it, you’ll be at the end with a child that sleeps hours on end. What they don’t tell you is that as you head down that path you’ll pick up seeds of insecurity, fear, and abandonment. For your child will feel lost, scared, and left alone when you shut the door and walk away. Your child who has always felt that you will support and love her suddenly finds herself in that strange, dark world, only this time she’s all alone.
Your child will scream for you and you will ignore it because you have been told it doesn’t matter, and in ignoring it you will not be teaching your child essential life skills. If the fields of epigenetics and neuroscience tell us anything, it is that you will be changing the way your child views this world and may even change the very basic building blocks of their life, and it won’t be for the better. When you come out the other side there will be the foundations of a wall between you. Perhaps slight, but that bond that you had before – the feeling that you two were in something together, that you were in sync and could understand each other – is weakened.
You’ve started setting the stage in which you pit yourself against your child, making it easier to view them as the “bad guy” later on. No one is saying that your child will be forever damaged or turn into a rotten, unhappy child, but rather that you are changing the dynamic of your relationship, and so much of how your child responds will be dependent upon factors out of your control. You can argue that you turned out “fine”, but as we know more about why people respond in the easy way, we see it’s not because they turned out “fine” but because, even in some small way, they didn’t. You can argue that your sleep allows you to be warmer to your child during the rest of the day, but we know that unfortunately warmth doesn’t actually replace responsiveness nor does it negate the risks when we are unresponsive.
The degree to which that seed of separation grows will depend on so much more, but once you take the easy path one time, it becomes much harder to stand up for what is right over what is easy later on. The question you should ask is: Is it worth it?
If you choose the other path, know now that it will likely be harder and longer. (Though the degree to which it’s harder actually is debatable as research doesn’t actually support how “easy” the “easy” path is.) You will embark on this path with your child by your side and you will have to first forget everything you think you know about infant sleep. You will have to realize how our culture has set expectations and judgements about sleep that have nothing to do with your child’s biology or even human biology. You will also have to accept that the individual differences between babies are so vast that they will each develop on their own timeline, and that’s okay.
Once you’ve forgotten and relearned, you’ll have to decide if your child’s sleep is truly problematic. If it is outside the realm of “normal”, you’ll embark on a journey to discover why, having to accept that sleep problems are almost never sleep problems, but rather serve the role of canary in the coalmine, warning us that something else is wrong. As a parent on this path, you’ll start to slowly figure things out, trying different things to determine what is wrong, getting frustrated and at times feeling helpless, but it will be worth it. Just as you, as an adult, hope for doctors who will treat your problem instead of only a symptom and sending you on your way, it is up to us parents to do the same for our children, even when they can’t speak up for themselves. It can take time, but if you discover what is wrong (you can look here for ideas as to where to start), you will be able to look back at having truly helped your child through something hard and painful, and know you have reinforced the idea that you are always there for him.
What if you can’t? What if it seems there is no reason for the hourly wakings? Then at least you can know that by comforting your child in times of distress you are helping them not only in the short-term by preventing cortisol from flooding their developing brain, but to help them long-term with respect to empathy, social skills, emotion regulation, and relationships. Not only that, but if you have a child that is the one that seems to be more “difficult” or “reactive”, these are the children for whom responsiveness is essential for their growth and well-being.
At this stage, you are likely questioning how much of a martyr you have to be and looking longingly at that easy path. How much do you, a parent, have to sacrifice when others seem to have it so easy? This last part is what is often forgotten when telling parents about this path: There are gentler ways to help guide your child’s sleep. It doesn’t involve shutting the door and walking away and it won’t give you 12 hours, uninterrupted alone. Why? Because that’s not biologically normal, but you can get enough sleep to feel good and function. You will continue down this path, hand in hand with your child, until one day, maybe at 12 months, maybe 18 months, maybe not until 3 years, but one day you go to sleep and wake up eight hours later to discover you’re there, and you made it there together without seeing the other as the enemy.
For those of you that took that easy path and wish you could turn back, you can. All is not lost and as parents we will all make choices we regret, but so long as we work to change things, our children and our relationship with our children will be stronger than ever. For those of you who took the easy path and have no regrets, I wish you well. I know better than to not expect a barrage of people claiming that this fuels mommy wars and that I’m only trying to make people feel bad. I’m not, but I can see how speaking up for children can make it seem that way in our parent-centric world.
There will always be the devils sitting on our shoulder trying to get us to choose the easy way. We just have to be stronger and listen to our hearts until there are no shoulders left for them to sit on.
 Holliday R. Epigenetics: a historical overview. Epigenetics 2006; 1: 76-80. (Also see: http://discovermagazine.com/2013/may/13-grandmas-experiences-leave-epigenetic-mark-on-your-genes)
 Gunnar MR. Social regulation of stress in early childhood. In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds.),Blackwell Handbook of Early Childhood Development (pp. 106-125). Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
 Middlemiss W, Granger DA, Goldberg WA, Nathans L. Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early Human Development 2012; 88: 227-32.
 Leerkes EM, et al. Antecedents of maternal sensitivity during distressing tasks: integrating attachment, social information processing, and psychobiological perspectives. Child Development 2014; in press.
 Siegel DJ, Hartzell M. Parenting From the Inside Out. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2004.
 Loutzenhiser L, Hoffman J, Beatch J. Parental perceptions of the effectiveness of graduated extinction in reducing infant night-wakings. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 2014; http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02646838.2014.910864.
 Cassels T, Ockwell-Smith S, Middlemiss W, Kendall-Tackett K, Stevens H, Narvaez D. Is your baby’s sleep a problem? Or is it just normal? In W Middlemiss & K Kendall-Tackett (Eds.) The Science of Mother-Baby Sleep (pp.171-192). Amarillo, TX: Praeclarus Press, 2014.
 Gunnar MR, Brodersen L, Krueger K, Rigatuso J. Dampening of adrenocortical responses during infancy: normative changes and individual differences. Child Development 1996; 67: 877-89.
 Grusec JE. Socialization processes in the family: social and emotional development. Annual Reviews in Psychology 2011; 62: 243-69.
 Kochanska G, Aksan N, Joy ME. Children’s fearfulness as a moderator of parenting in early socialization: two longitudinal studies. Developmental Psychology 2007; 43: 222-237.
 Belsky J, Pluess M. Beyond diathesis stress: differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin 2009; 135: 885-908.