Take Back the Night: Rethinking "Cry-It-Out" and Your Approach to Sleep Training
'Tis the season for coughs and colds and seeing our patients visit the office a little more frequently than they did just a few months ago. I am also seeing plenty of moms who are run down and battling colds and fevers as well. I will then ask about the quality of mom's sleep since getting a restful night sleep is a key in allowing the body to recover from illness. In more instances than not, the response I get is a smirk, an eye roll, and a defeated answer of, "we normally don't get sleep in our house since my child is a poor sleeper anyway."
Scientists are gathering more and more evidence that sleep is a critical factor in our ability to function normally while we are awake, impacting everything from cognition and decision making to overall physical health and well being. Sleep helps our brain remove toxins and it helps our bodies recover from the myriad viruses and bacteria that bombard our immune systems on a daily basis. Restorative sleep improves our overall mood and outlook on life, it gives us the energy to exercise our bodies and reap all the benefits of the increase in endorphins, it allows us to be more focused at work and at home with our families, and it provides the foundation for being an awesome parent who is fully present for our children.
If there is one aspect of life where we should be selfish it is getting a good night sleep. That is why it is so important to help our babies learn to sleep early and effectively--so we can sleep, too! Why, then, are so many parents having trouble getting their children to sleep well? I think the answer might be that parents, and moms especially, are putting their own needs on the back burner by allowing their desire to be a "good" parent and not harm their baby by letting the baby cry-it-out overshadow their own need to take care of themselves.
I just read an article entitled, "Stop Shaming Women for Teaching Their Babies to Sleep" where the author cited a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics that found that sleep training DOES NOT cause long-term harm to babies. The study refutes a 2012 study wherein the authors concluded that allowing a baby to cry for extended periods raised stress levels. No parent wants to cause their child discomfort or worse, raise their stress levels, but chronic sleep deprivation suffered by both parents and their poor sleeper inevitably affects the family's entire life and that I promise raises everyone's stress levels.
Parents ask me about sleep training on a very regular basis--let me correct that--parents complain to me that their child is a terrible sleeper on a very regular basis and tell me they have read all the books and have gone on every website, blog, and Facebook group forum, but nothing seems to work. When I respond that the best way to help your child sleep well is to let him learn to self-soothe and, yes, cry it out, I take a deep breath and brace for the negative reaction. Unfortunately, I am often met with, "Oh no I'm not ready to let him cry like that" or "we tried it and he just cried the whole night so we didn't keep trying" or more often, "I have to get up in the morning and go to work and I am already exhausted". In our current society, both parents are working and, yes, it is much easier to feed a baby or bring her to the parents' bed when she wakes in the night crying since everyone gets back to sleep faster...but that quick fix each night creates a habit that can last for months and years and the lack of restorative sleep definitely adds up.
After committing to a week (or even less) of allowing the baby to cry or by redirecting that night time visitor back to his own bed without any interaction or stimulation, parents regularly report to me that they can't believe they didn't do this sooner since it actually did work! They find that their consistent and predictable response during each night wakening created a new pattern that taught the child to figure it out without the help of an adult. How empowering is that?! The paradigm shifts from feeling selfish (I need my sleep) to selfless (I gave my child an incredibly valuable tool that will benefit her for the rest of her life) and then the ripple effect begins...better sleep leads to happier family members, more productivity at work, more energy to be the best parent possible, and an overall improvement in the parents' physical and mental well being.
I would never pretend that there is a quick fix to sleep training since every baby is different, every parent is unique, and every family dynamic is blissfully complex in its own way. However, once parents face the reality of their situation and tease out the excuses from the fears, they find the strength to take back the night and help their sometimes very stubborn, willful, and hard-headed child learn to figure it out and get some rest. As my very wise husband always says, "If you can't take care of yourself, then you can't take care of the people who depend on you." Children depend on their parents to be their role model and when families prioritize sleep they are fitting another piece into the right place in the puzzle of parenting. Sleep well!!