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Is Sleep Training Detrimental?

The Divisive Debate

It’s the most polarizing question in the world of early childhood parenting: is sleep training bad for children?

It’s also the most confusing. Parents can find millions of posts, articles and discussion feeds on the subject; some based on opinion, some based on science and some combining the two, making it difficult for caregivers to distinguish between facts and beliefs.

In addition to all the information on the internet, parents are often given advice from friends, grandparents and acquaintances on the subject of sleep training. The overload of opinions, options and arguments can overwhelm parents who are trying to decide how to manage sleep in their family. Yes… parents become sleep managers, in the same way that they manage nutrition, education and routine.

Although it’s a complicated question there are basically 2 sides to the debate.

On one side are advocates of baby led sleep philosophies. These experts and caregivers support 100% responsive sleep practices. They argue that sleep training can damage the infant brain and that self soothing is a myth. The crux of their argument is that detachment based sleep training teaches babies to give up because their crying will be ignored. On this side of the argument, significance is placed on the stress hormone cortisol and how it’s levels allegedly soar during the sleep training process. Attachment sleep experts claim that sleep training always includes excessive crying, which will soak the infant brain in cortisol, leading to dissociation from parents and damage to the parent-child bond.

On the other side are advocates of modern sleep training methods that encourage independent sleep. These experts claim that feeding to sleep, rocking, holding, co-sleeping and bedsharing have the potential to doom parents to years of interrupted sleep for the whole family. They refer to these methods as “sleep associations” that will rob the caregiver of free time, peace of mind and quality sleep. There is a focus on the detrimental effects of poor sleep on the infant brain, the safety issues inherent in bedsharing and the mental health problems that can occur in parents who are left exhausted and with no time for themselves.

Both sides say the other side is fear mongering for the purposes of profit.

This blog post is intended to save the reader a lot of time by exploring one question:
Have there been any studies that have analyzed the long term effects of sleep training on children and families?

The answer is no. At least none that I found.

There have been some short term studies on sleep training, meaning that the children were analyzed until they were approximately 24 months. The main result was that children who were sleep trained fell asleep faster but the studies didn’t conclude much else. They certainly did not follow these children into adulthood to see how they turned out.

There have been studies on excessive crying due to colic but again, they were short term studies and had nothing to do with any specific sleep training method. It’s also important to note that most modern pediatric sleep consultants employ gentle sleep training methods that are characterized by age appropriate schedules, implementation of routines and following parental instinct. I don’t know of any certified pediatric sleep consultants who use the cry it out method, in fact they use whatever tools they have available to them to minimize crying.

The other noteworthy conclusion of the short term studies on sleep training is that sleep trained babies and non-sleep trained babies, eventually develop similar sleep patterns. Babies and toddlers eventually sleep through the night and take consistent naps no matter how you get them to sleep.

Some parents bed share to help their children sleep through the night and take restful naps. Some parents implement a sleep training program to help their children sleep through the night and take restful naps. Some parents support their children to sleep and simply wait for night wakings to stop on their own, even if it takes years. Overall the results, no matter what parents do, are the same. Here’s why: no human, especially a parent, can be sleep deprived for several months without doing something about it.

Parents simply have to decide what that “something” will be. They have to decide what family sleep management means in their household. If science has concluded that kids’ sleep eventually consolidates no matter what parents do with regard to sleep and if there haven’t been any long term studies that prove sleep training has a detrimental effect on children, then perhaps experts on both sides of the debate should stop claiming that the other’s approach is detrimental.

My ultimate hope for the pediatric sleep industry as a whole is for us to normalize choices in family sleep management. One thing we can agree on is that quality sleep is good for children.
Limiting choices and bashing each other’s methods because of the personal belief that children will turn out “better” if parents employ a particular sleep method is scientifically unfounded and ludacris.

Each sleep consultant should define herself based on the choices that she offers – not on the choices that she personally doesn’t agree with.

For example – I want my children to sleep in their own beds. I don’t get quality sleep when they sleep with me. Many parents feel the same way I do, so I educate parents on how to encourage independent sleep. Yes, I love cuddling with my children. I relish in embracing them while we watch a movie on a Saturday night or read a book together on a Tuesday evening. But sleeping with them every night is not my idea of family sleep management. In fact, I would hate it. In my house we sleep in our own beds 99% of the time. If either of my children are sick or had a nightmare, they are welcome to sleep in my bed but n

ot for more than a night or two. I simply know myself well enough to know that it would lead to problems in my household.

In the name of good sleep, every caregiver has to make their own decision that is driven by their own circumstances and philosophies. Every parent has to decide what is right for them and how they will execute their preferences. I know many parents who bed share, either because they want to or because they feel they have to and their kids are amazing people. I also know many people who have sleep trained their children and encourage their children to sleep independently most of the time. Their kids are amazing too.

Everyone needs to sleep. Everyone wants to sleep. Let’s stop being so judgy. Let’s stop pretending that we have personally put on lab coats and done our own studies when we haven’t.

Let’s stop pretending we know everything.