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There are parenting books, stores, catalogs, and an endless array of websites and blogs dedicated to providing parents with the very thing their tiny, sweet newborn doesn't come out with: an instruction manual. Many parents find themselves desperate for guidance in the wee hours of the morning, with a wide-eyed infant on their lap and the promise of a restful night's sleep a fantasy. While the books and blogs can be helpful and validating, parenting is a completely personal journey, and helping our little ones learn the basics of sleep is a hot topic with no shortage of debate. Today we feature two local moms who share their experience with the passionately debated ‘to cry or not to cry’ approach to nighttime parenting.
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Point: Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits
Each parent has his or her own comfort zone when it comes to getting their little ones to sleep, but what ultimately worked best for me was the “cry it out” or CIO method. CIO is a sleep training tool that allows babies to cry before a parent goes in and comforts them. It is based on the idea that learning to fall asleep is a skill and must be acquired through practice.
The first night we did CIO with my oldest son, I sat on the bed crying as I listened to my 7-month-old baby cry through the monitor. As I sat there, I didn’t know how I would endure the crying, but my husband kept me going. After three nights, it was as if fireworks went off in our house: our baby slept through the night from 6:30 PM to 7:00 AM the next morning without waking up even to nurse!
As our little one grew—and we grew more experienced as parents—we learned that a schedule was very important. We became the family that left nearly every social event early because of our son’s all-important 6:45 PM bedtime.
Chapter two in our parenting lives brought another baby boy. We felt as though we had the hang of this sleep thing. As some of you undoubtedly have learned as well, the second child can have an interesting way of being completely different than the first. We were back to square one.
Our second child was demonstrating colicky symptoms for the first ten months of his short life, which complicated matters. He was up between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM while we burped him, walked laps around his bedroom, and tried anything and everything to get him to fall back to sleep. We consulted his pediatrician to make sure that he did not have acid reflux; we used gripe water to alleviate gas pains; and we prayed each night for a few hours of sleep. By month nine, we were waking up about every two hours going through the same routine.
After a pediatrician visit, we were referred to Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. Our son would be examined by the Division Chief of Pediatric Pulmonology ten days later. His diagnosis was that our son was completely normal and we needed to try CIO once again. The sleep specialists and doctors were strong advocates of the CIO method. With this new found reassurance, our little man was sleeping through the night within three days. Again, we were reminded that a strict schedule was the key to sleeping bliss for everyone.
I’m a believer in the cry it out method because it works. For the short-term pain of hearing your little one cry, you gain a lifetime of healthy sleep habits. It’s not for everyone, but if you can be consistent and follow through, there will be a happy, restful ending.
Counterpoint: Sleep Training with Compassion
A baby’s cry: it can rattle one’s nerves, particularly in the middle of the night. More often than not, however, our initial reaction to hearing a little one wail is to respond, comfort, and soothe. These are our instincts, innate behaviors that benefit us and our children. An infant’s cry is a way of communicating that perhaps he is cold, wet, hungry, hurting, or simply does not feel safe because he is alone. It is baby’s instinct to be near us, and it is our instinct to respond.
As a mother of two, I understand the despair that is felt by a sleep-deprived parent. I can also attest to the fact that gentle sleep training methods—other than cry it out—work. As a scientist, it was important to me to research the evidence and expert opinions behind CIO and other methods before embarking on a particular path.
When we answer baby’s cries swiftly, we are building trust—the very foundation of a positive and secure attachment. Research has shown that the early development of a secure attachment has a significantly positive impact on an individual’s relationships and emotional well-being later in life. Of course, we don’t need science to tell us this—our instincts do that for us when they urge us to tend to a crying child.
If, however, baby’s cries are not answered, a disturbing pattern emerges. Baby will first cry more intensely. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that during this time, baby’s heart rate, blood pressure, and cerebral blood pressure increase and her oxygen level decreases. Her brain is flooded with cortisol, a stress-related hormone that in excess can stunt or destroy connections in critical areas of the brain. Baby is at risk of cardiac dysfunction, aspiration, and brain injury. Eventually she may stop crying. This is not because baby is no longer upset; rather it is because she has given up hope that her caregiver will provide comfort, according to attachment theorists.
Alarmingly, some parents are being instructed to let their babies cry themselves to sleep. While they contest that such a method is safe, few “cry-it-out” (CIO) studies have ever been conducted on infants under 6 months of age and the long-term affects of CIO have not been properly studied. What is known is that a baby’s sleep cycle is biologically very different from an adult’s. While it would be convenient for them to sleep without waking us, it is not natural.
We teach our children to be compassionate, so it goes without saying that we should model this behavior from the start. There are gentle ways to teach your child to sleep through the night - methods that do not cause your child fear, frustration, physical distress, and anxiety. My children were not born good sleepers, but with a bit of effort and some helpful books, I lovingly helped them learn to sleep through the night without ever leaving them alone to cry. No-cry methods are effective, and while they may require time and patience, I am sure you would agree that every child is worth the exercise in compassion.
*For a complete list of references, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Which side do you agree with? How did you solve the sleep issue? Leave your comments below.