You’re not the only one whose brain hurts when your baby cries. Mounting evidence suggests that not responding to a baby’s cries can damage their developing brains. Most recently, parenting expert and author Penelope Leach has come down hard against the cry-it-out method of sleep training.
Sorry, sleep trainers. More and more experts are siding against you on this one.
I’m not, though. After six years of attachment parenting, I’m starting to think a good night’s sleep might be worth a little baby brain damage. I can count on my fingers the number of nights of uninterrupted sleep I’ve had since I was pregnant with my first daughter. Who will be six next month.
We started off as blissful, idealistic co-sleepers. Those first weeks of blissed out, milky mother-baby fugue state were fabulous. Things got more complicated after that. The baby sprouted teeth and learned to crawl. Suddenly our nights became a blurry, sleepless wrestling match.
By the time I was burned out enough to try something different, the kid could walk (a trick it only took her 7 months to learn). Clearly it was too late to put her down alone to cry. She’d just get up and come after me.
We took the long, hard slow road. We taught her to sleep on her dad’s side of the bed, then on a uton mattress with me on the floor. Then, like more hippie parents than would care to admit to it, we slowly snuck her bed out the door and down the hall to her own room.
The first time she slept on her own, in her own room, she slept for five or six hours without interruption. It was the first time in her life she’d slept for more than hour at a stretch. I cried with joy.
This child had sleep problems that I don’t think were caused or helped by cosleeping. Some kids just have a rough time with the sleep thing. At five, she sleeps beautifully every night in her own bed.
Her sister has been parented exactly the same way, and has always slept well, waking once or twice a night to pee and nurse or drink some water. Now that she’s almost three, her dad and I would like to be off the hook for the night wakings, but she’s getting healthy sleep.
I still encourage my friends to co-sleep, and I’d do it again myself. I think it’s better for the babies and helps new moms develop a great bond with their nursing infants. I’m not going to judge anyone else’s methods though.
I’m acutely aware that, in our house at least, it came at a cost. Ultimately, there are health consequences for me and my husband to weigh against our ideals as parents.
Nearly everyone has chosen sides in the Baby Sleep Wars . I feel like whatever works for you as a parent is what you should do.
Proponents of sleep training have a simple, powerful message: It works. It’s more likely to work if parents are consistent about it and feel good about doing it. In other words, if articles like this one aren’t rattling around your brain plaguing you with guilt while you’re listening to your little one cry in the next room.
Opponents of the practice deride it as cruel and unhealthy. Some even consider it abusive. Instead, they tend to favor gentle methods like baby-led weaning, co-sleeping and a more gradual process of teaching the new baby to sleep at night and play during the day.
While babies do typically stop crying and learn to fall asleep on their own, mounting scientific evidence suggests that being left to cry and getting no response from a caregiver causes an influx of stress chemicals to the brain. These chemicals can create a kind of toxic soup, which Leach and others have said can cause developmental problems and brain damage.
One plus side for those taking the road less slept upon: a truly sleepless night can boost a depressed new mom’s mood.
What do you think? Did your kids cry it out or co-sleep? Is there a better way to help babies sleep? I know this is an issue you have strong opinions on. Let’s here ’em.
Photo: Sean McGee
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