In December, the social media world of parenting went ablaze after the blog post, “The Dangers of Crying it Out” was published on Psychology Today’s website. In her post, Dr. Darcia Narvaez warned of the dangers of traditional sleep-training methods, such as the popular practices of crying it out, also known as extinction. I sleep-trained both of my daughters, and yet it took a good month for me to be able to finally sit down and read the piece. The problem? Lingering guilt about my decision to let the girls cry it out. Would this article prove that I had done irrecoverable harm?
Both of my girls were lousy natural sleepers. The firstborn was one of those kids who took exactly 45-minute naps and woke up cranky and inconsolable for the next 30 minutes. Up until nine months of age, she was a frequent night-waker ready to start the day at 5:45AM. At this point, I decided to stop all nighttime feeding, hoping that this would solve the majority of the wake-ups. The babe was a healthy weight and given plenty of love and affection in the daylight hours. She needed to sleep, and I needed at least 10 hours a day for my body to belong just to me.
On the advice of my pediatrician, I read Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and eagerly adopted author Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s views on the importance of sleep for the welfare of the child and family. Using the extinction method, in which the baby can cry it out indefinitely at night and for an hour during naptime, the baby was sleeping through the night within a week. Yes, it was agonizing, but I don’t remember those particular cries. (My firstborn was a colicky baby and cried a great deal, no matter the situation).
Maisy, our second daughter, was also a terrible sleeper, even though I rigorously applied all the usual recommendations for nurturing a child who slept well. She, like her sister, napped in short increments and wanted to feed at all hours of the night. I realized that I couldn’t handle any more sleepless nights. During my pregnancy with her, I’d developed brutal depression, which resulted in a crippling case of insomnia. It was with my second daughter that I realized that unless my most basic sleep needs were met, I couldn’t be an active and patient parent.
The day Maisy turned six months old, we said goodbye to all nighttime feedings. With a gentle kiss on her forehead, I bade her good night.
Even though my own encounters with crying it out had successful results — most importantly, making me a well-rested, focused parent — I still question my decision and worry that I selfishly put my own needs ahead of an innocent baby’s. And that’s why reading Dr. Narvaez — who asserts that sleep-training is selfish and archaic — was so difficult for me.
In order to gain a sense of balance against Dr. Narvaez’s view, I went back to the advice that helped me all those years ago — that of Dr. Weissbluth, one of the country’s leading experts on childhood sleep habits. I needed to know that my parenting choices hadn’t harmed my kids.
It turns out that Dr. Narvaez and Dr. Weissbluth disagree on almost all of the common assertions associated with crying it out — and children’s sleep habits and needs, in general. Here were some of them:
1. Fostering independent children:
- Dr. Narvaez argues that “ … forcing ‘independence’ on a baby (such as requiring them to sleep independently and self soothe) leads to greater dependence. Instead, giving babies what they need leads to greater independence later.” She cites anthropological reports on studying hunter-gatherer communities where a child’s every need is provided for.
- Dr. Weissbluth claims that there is a great distinction between training a child to sleep better and forcing independence. He cited one study that showed the infant-parent bond actually strengthening over the course of extinction-based treatments of sleep disturbances.
2. Damaging brain cells:
- Dr. Narvaez: “When the baby is greatly distressed, the toxic hormone cortisol is released. It’s a neuron killer.” Narvaez speculated that this sort of stress may lead to both emotional and physical problems later in life.
- Dr. Weissbluth: Most studies that link neuron death as a result of stress were conducted on rats, non-human primates, and cases of child maltreatment and colic, he says. He asserts that these do not correlate to controlled sleep-training.
3. Effect on stress after infancy:
- Dr. Narvaez: “Disordered stress reactivity can be established as a pattern for life not only in the brain with the stress response system, but also in the body through the vagus nerve, a nerve that affects functioning in multiple systems.” In other words, when a child is in great stress, many bodily systems are damaged. In addition, Narvaez states that trust and self-regulation are undermined.
- Dr. Weissbluth: Most chronic stress studies looked at abused children from violent situations, suffering from post-traumatic stress. He asserts that we must be careful not to compare these situations to sleep-training. He also cites a study from the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics that found no link between the extinction method of sleep-training and a lack of security felt by the infant.
4. Effect on the caregiver:
- Dr. Narvaez: “A caregiver who learns to ignore baby crying, will likely learn to ignore the more subtle signaling of the child’s needs.” Narvaez argues that babies cry for a reason and that when the caregiver ignores the needs of a child, permanent damage to his intelligence, empathy, and self-regulation may be formed.
- Dr. Weissbluth: A mother’s mental health, which sleep plays an important factor in, is crucial to the welfare of the baby and the family. According to the Journal of Pediatrics & Child Health, “It is likely significant numbers of mothers diagnosed as having postnatal depression are suffering the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.”
It’s certainly mind-boggling (though not surprising) how one parenting practice can generate such polar opposite views. But the problem is that little research is done on actual human babies in controlled settings, so we don’t have definitive insight into the effects of sleep-training. My own children, now five and three years old, are both good sleepers and are in no way lacking in maternal bonding. Still, I would be insincere in saying that the sleep-training process was easy, or even felt natural.
Part of me feels that Dr. Narvaez’s article is unhelpful to parents trying so hard to do what’s “right” for their babies. The assumptions she makes are severe. There’s little room left for parents to make the decision based on what is best for them and their families. Must there be a “correct” method for all things baby, or can there be wiggle room for us to find our own paths — especially if there isn’t conclusive evidence one way or another?
While I want to believe Dr. Weissbluth and the studies he cites, reading Dr. Narvaez’s article left me feeling guilty that my past decisions were self-centered and anxious that side effects may surface later in life. Still, after a troublesome second pregnancy crippled by insomnia, the importance of a good night’s sleep became tantamount to my sanity and my ability to be a capable parent.
If we have a third child, would I apply the same extinction strategies I employed with the first two? If getting my children to sleep will help me be a calmer, more effective mother … probably. — Rhiana Maidenberg
Rhiana Maidenberg is a freelance writer, escaping her two young daughters by writing in various San Francisco coffee shops. In her blog, Married With Toddlers, Rhiana explores the challenges of raising toddlers and husbands in the current super-mommy, super-wife, super-everything environment.
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