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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sleep Training Part I - What's the Problem?

This is one of a four-part series of posts that explores sleep training. I'll talk about why pediatricians push for it, my own experiences with it, and I'll conclude with a post that pulls together facts from actual studies.

 At Little M’s six-month well visit, the nurse asked me all the typical questions:
“Has he started solids yet?”
“Yup, he’s had some.”
“How often is he nursing?”
“Oh, every three hours,” I lied. No point in actually trying to put a pattern on it.
“And does he take both breasts?”
“Not always.”
“How’s he sleeping?”
I laughed. “Terribly! He’s up every hour or so,” I said with a smile. It obviously wasn’t bothering me. My babies’ sleep is like my own inside joke at this point. I have never met anyone whose infants sleep worse.
“And is he sleeping in his crib?”
“Yup!” I lied again.

Fast forward. Doctor comes in. Checks out Little M. Everything looks good. Looks at the chart. “You know, six months is a great time to start sleep training.”

I get all defensive. When I hear “sleep training,” I immediately assume people are talking about crying it out.
We’re not comfortable with that,” I said. “This is the baby who will scream—at the top of his lungs—on an hour-long car ride, with no indication of quieting.”

“Yeah, it’s hard," the doctor replied. Sometimes you have to let them cry for longer than an hour. But it’s usually only three nights. I had to leave the house when I sleep trained my baby.”

So she was talking about crying it out. She went on to say how much harder it is to let them cry it out when they are two and can actually communicate their needs. It’s much better when they are only six months old and don’t use words, she said.

Better for who?

Here’s the thing: What are doctors so afraid of? Do they really see so many patients who are in their toddler years and have behavioral issues because they don’t sleep enough? She insinuated that babies who aren’t sleep trained turn into toddlers who don’t get enough sleep. But I can’t believe that’s actually true.

Parents are helping their babies sleep

Think about it: Babies (and toddlers, kids, and adults) usually wake up at night because one sleep cycle has ended, and they’re waiting for the next to begin. Kids who are soothed back to sleep by their parents… are soothed back to sleep by their parents. They go back to sleep. The type of parent who soothes baby back to sleep is not the type of parent to suddenly stop doing it, letting their toddler stay awake for hours on end in the middle of the night. So how are kids who are soothed back to sleep getting any less sleep than those who wake anyway and then go back to sleep without soothing?

Self-Soothing sounds so nice, doesn't it?

Here’s the other thing: “self-soothing” is the choice of words that is often used to describe how kids put themselves back to sleep after waking at night. Of course that sounds like a peacefully desirable goal to work towards. But what if we changed the choice of words? What if we said that babies who go back to sleep on their own after night wakings “don’t need their parents anymore?” That makes it a little less desirable, but is relatively neutral, right? Some parents would see that as independence, and others would see it as a little sad.

But what if we said that kids who put themselves back to sleep after night wakings are “exhausting themselves from anxiety?” When moms get together, would they say, “I’m so glad I sleep-trained my baby, because now he stresses himself back to sleep every time he wakes in the middle of the night.”

All babies have different sleep habits

Not every baby who is sleep-trained is anxious or stressed, but not every baby who is soothed to sleep by his or her parents is a poor sleeper or has a sleep disorder. I understand that pediatricians see hundreds of parents who are at their wits’ end looking for the next magical sleep solution, but not every parent is that desperate. And not every baby is the same. It’s annoying to be treated like just another number.

And it’s annoying that many pediatricians don’t have other constructive advice to give exhausted parents. One thing that always concerns me is the number of wakings my kids have every night. I feel like there is no other mom out there whose kids wake up every hour. I hear moms complain that their kids wake two or three times a night, and I get vindictively envious—I want those moms to step in my shoes for a night. But when I asked the pediatrician if waking up that often is normal, she said it was.

So what's the problem?

So if it’s so normal, why is she so quick to recommend that I let Little M cry it out? What would the harm be in soothing him back to sleep?

Stay tuned for more in this series on sleep. Now I better get some myself, before I develop a "problem."

Read the other posts in the Sleep series: 
Sleep Training Part II - Then and Now 
Sleep Training Part III - A Momentary Lapse of Reason 
Sleep Training Part IV - The Data behind the Philosophy


Katie said... Best Blogger Tips

I feel your pain, I can't tell you how many times people have told me to let him cry it out. We tried to put my LO in his crib for a nap (mind you we are living with my patents for a month so it a new place) for three days and let him CIO (to make my dad happy). And now when ever he sees the crib he start to cry and freak out!!! HOW IS THAT HELPING????

I can't wait to read more, I'll let you know how we are doing too. Thanks for stopping by I am now following you back

Katie said... Best Blogger Tips

When my first DD was a baby I had people (in-laws, docs, "friends") tell me that I NEEDED to let her C.I.O.. That she would never "learn" to sleep on her own if I didn't. I worried (a little) that they were right since I was a first time mom, but I just didn't feel right about any kind of "sleep training". She certainly was not the best sleeper for the first couple of years...little stinker woke every couple of hours to nurse until she was 18 months old. HOWEVER, she is now 4 1/2 and is a great sleeper! Has been for the past two years or so. She "learned" how to sleep like that on her own time, with me by her side and I feel great about that. :)

Milk Bubbles said... Best Blogger Tips

My little guy wakes up about every hour if he sleeps in his crib, once we started co-sleeping I stopped paying attention...I have no real idea of what his sleep and nursing patterns are like between midnight and 8am. It's wonderful!

I accidentally let it slip at his ped appt and I know the dr noticed, but he didn't say anything, his wife's crunchy I think, so that' been a big help!

Just found you today and I'm following so I don't miss out on these sleep posts! Good stuff!

mrs green @ littlegreenblog said... Best Blogger Tips

Oh my, this post made me cry just reading it. Especially the line "Sometimes you have to let them cry for longer than an hour. But it’s usually only three nights. I had to leave the house when I sleep trained my baby.”"

??? How could anyone DO that to a child? People don't realise it's a form of emotional abuse - imho of course ;) If an adult was crying, would you just leave them to get on with it for over an hour? Keep up the great work with spreading this message; it's one that needs to be heard over and over until our twisted society 'gets it'.

Frazzled Mama said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi!! I'm stopping by and following from Monday Mob Hop. I hope you'll check out my blog Frazzled Mama at and follow me back.

Hope you have a great week.

Patricia said... Best Blogger Tips

Every baby, every family, every Mommy, every situation... is different. My theory is this. Follow your motherly instinct! If it feels wrong, then it is probably wrong for you and your baby. I have no issue with letting my little one sleep with me - "us", he sleeps in his bed 90% of the time and it took love and nurturing to get him to that point. Sometimes the cry out method is effective, but the situation varies!!

Returning the follow from the Monday Mob Hop. Thank you for stopping by Lemondrops ♥

Patricia said... Best Blogger Tips

I really liked your blog and am excited to announce that I awarded you the Versatile Bloggers Award...

Check it out at

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