Parents wonder how to get their newborns’ days and nights figured out. They ask when to use pacifiers. They question when the baby is going to sleep through the night, what to do with sleep regressions, teething, growth spurts…the list goes on and on. But the overarching question that parents really want to know is how to improve their infant’s sleep. Around four to nine months, parents often ask, “Is crying it out OK?” The question behind the question….”How do I achieve the rest my baby needs and the rest that I as the parent need?”
This question has been asked for years and has been answered. I tell parents the answer on an almost daily basis in my office. We all need sleep. We all want to do what’s best for our child. We don’t want to put them in harm’s way but we don’t want to “miss out” on getting good rest and setting our child up with good sleep habits. I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of parents, implemented strategies to have four in a row AWESOME sleepers under my own roof, and reviewed dozens and dozens of current, reputable, evidence-based studies on the topic of sleep training.
First of all, you, as a parent, need sleep. That fact is simply indisputable. As a spouse, as a coworker, as a boss, as a friend, and with any other hat you wear, you require rest to be recharged, remain engaged, and do your best. However, you also know that as a parent that you want to do what’s right for your baby. This often results in actions that compromise our self-care “for the sake of the baby,” even when the decision may not really be best (or necessary) for both parties. There must be some happy medium between tending to every child need and taking care of one’s self, right?
I’ve never really shared my thoughts on sleep training with my online audience, though I offer it to parents in my office every day without hesitation. I tell them what they can look forward to when their baby is a good sleeper: not just getting the rest they need, but also becoming the parent they always thought they’d be because mom & dad are getting the rest they need, too.
Well-rested parents are able to connect, get stuff done, and enjoy parenthood. They look forward to bedtime. They don’t dread it, push it off, or have heart palpitations about what bedtime will be like, or worry about how many times baby will be up at night. Instead, these parents are excited about the evening routine: the cuddles, the feeding, and then going down to bed. They can connect, check tasks off their to-do lists and catch up on Netflix with peace of mind that:
- They’re doing best by their child
- They’ve got confidence and consistency on how the rest of the night is going to go, and
- They’re getting the rest they need.
Now I didn’t just make this sleep training stuff up. I’m a physician and first as a scientist, so if I’m not sure what is best I turn to those that have studied it.
Lucky for us, there’s been a lot of research on sleep training.
Is it safe? Does it work? Does it cause medical problems with the heart, brain, and lungs? Does it cause any short-term psychological problems? Any long-term problems with development or attachment?
It’s all been looked at and the bottom line is this: letting a baby cry under the appropriate circumstances is just fine!….totally safe and totally harmless.
In fact, not only does the evidence support that “crying-it-out” doesn’t cause any short-term or long-term problems; the research shows that kids who undergo sleep training are as good or even better off in both their physical and emotional health. Further, their parents are healthier, both physically and emotionally, because they’ve got a good sleeper in their home.
So if you need permission to get good sleep as the parent of a young child, keep reading – I’m here for you.
Here’s a study that looked at 5-year follow-up of infants that underwent sleep training. Researchers studied over 300 families. (Which is a large sample to keep track of for that long!) They look at everything from children’s emotional, behavioral, and psychosocial functioning to stress regulation, and also at the child-parent relationship, maternal mental health, and parenting styles. In all this, they found no difference in children that underwent sleep training versus those that did not. They concluded that parents can confidently (and I can teach you how to do it confidently) use sleep interventions to improve the burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression. In sum, over the course of 5 years, there was no harm.
Another study looked at the impact of poor sleep on families as a whole. Bedtime problems or night wakings can shorten total sleep time, resulting in increased irritability, temper tantrums, and behavior problems in young children. Unlike adults who become exhausted and somnolent when sleepy, young children are more likely to become hyperactive when sleepy….ever had an OVER-tired toddler? Ugh!
Overtiredness can decrease total parent sleep time by over an hour and contribute to increased daytime sleepiness, decreased concentration at work, drowsiness while driving, and an overall negative mood. This study also talks the downward spiral: parents avoid bedtime because of the stress, so kids stay up later, shortening total sleep time for the child and parents and the negative cycle gets worse and worse. This study also notes that without a reinforcement schedule, ideal behaviors are reinforced in unpredictable ways and are more difficult to extinguish later.
Yet another study shows that poor sleep problems in infants and children contribute significantly to maternal and paternal health, even in moms without a history of depression. Parents have worse mental health issues– especially depression and anxiety– when infant sleep problems persist.
You can see that we have a lot of evidence that it doesn’t hurt the baby to cry and undergo sleep training and that we have a lot of studies that show the subsequent harms to parents’ mental and emotional health when infant sleep is not consistent. But, if you still feel guilty or unsure about letting baby cry, let me share with you some information about the benefits of a good sleeping baby. . .
Not only does getting good sleep make for happier, healthier, more engaged parents, it also leads to healthier babies. There was a study published in the past few months that looked at how to prevent childhood obesity in young children: what interventions actually make a difference, including a dietary counseling group, exercise group, and a group that learned sleep training interventions. Researchers taught parents of infants several different strategies and then looked at the children 2 and 5 years later. Educating parents about proper food choices, exercise and parenting strategies to avoid eating issues had no significant impact on childhood obesity. . . It didn’t register at all. But, the sleep group– the parents that learned how to teach their child how to sleep well through sleep training techniques– was the group that yielded fewer obese children. That’s right, teaching parents how to get good sleep for their infants cut the risk of obesity in half!
Another study looked at daily sleep duration of infants…those that got less than 12 hours of sleep during infancy were at risk for overweightness and obesity as preschoolers.\
Another benefit of good sleepers? Mood! Guess what – babies and adults are similar in that their moods – not just subjectively but objectively evaluated are BETTER when they get good rest. Babies are easier to approach, less frustrated, and more adaptable to their environment and new experiences.
Many, many studies show babies that undergo sleep training develop just as well, have the same or even fewer stress hormones in the first year of life, and have the exact same emotional, conduct, and behavioral outcomes as those who do not.
The real difference between babies that take hours to go to bed then wake+feed all night and those that fall asleep in a consistent, predictable pattern? You. The Parent. You get the rest you need AND the confidence in your parenting skills.
If those studies aren’t permission enough, let me talk about parental worry and guilt. I see so many parents that in a hushed voice disclose to me they’ve got a great sleeper – like it’s a crime or they’ve done something wrong because their friend’s babies are waking up three, four, five times per night. I hear so many parents worried that it’s selfish to want to have a baby that sleeps well. Let me tell you: it’s not selfish. It’s self-care.
Worrying about and taking positive, healthy steps to improve your own sleep is not selfish. You can’t be the best mom or dad for your baby on awful sleep. Your job as a mom and dad is too important to burn that candle at every end…..and in the process run the risk of developing a load of health, emotional and psychological if you don’t care for yourself. Not only that, but it’s baby and parent-friendly to help your baby to sleep well. I will repeat this over and over: it truly is beneficial to the entire family when baby gets good rest.
If you still feel guilty letting the baby cry, do your best to put that guilt aside. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated with the studies here, you can have a say in how your baby sleeps.
Sleep training under appropriate conditions is safe. It’s effective. It’s not harmful, and your baby will likely be better off in the short and long-term because of it. You have such an important job as a parent. You need rest and to be healthy so you can be there for your family.
I understand that dropping the guilt, is easier said than done. An easy first step is to join a community of parents who will support you in this endeavor, who allow you to drop the shame and the notion that you have to be beholden to your baby’s sleep schedule. I’ll be there with you along the way, encouraging you as you go. My passion is teaching parents how to get the sleep they want, the sleep they’ve dreamed of, and to help parents raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted infants & toddlers.
If you want to learn how to use my evidence-based method- I’ve made it easier than ever. All you need is about an hour of learning and a few nights to implement the methods in your home and I guarantee you will be sleeping through the night in a week’s time.