As a Pediatric Sleep Specialist, I am often confronted by parents with the question of whether they should sleep train their children. These parents express a strong desire and need for sleep for themselves and their children, but they are confused and overwhelmed as to how to proceed (if, at all). Sleep training, also referred to as "cry it out" (or CIO on the various message boards and chat groups), has been and continues to be one of the most controversial parenting topics. The good news is that there is so much information available to parents about sleep training, however, that is the bad news as well. With the advent of the internet, parents are bombarded with so much information about sleep training, and much of it is contradictory. After many sleepless nights, including 2am Google searches, on how to get their children to sleep, parents end up more confused and unsure about how to proceed with sleep training, and even if sleep training is right for their family. As a Clinical Psychologist, an expert in the field of Pediatric Sleep, and as a mother who successfully sleep trained her sons many years ago, I hope to shed some light on this topic and help parents in their quest for the elusive full night of sleep!
When sleep deprived parents call me to inquire about my services, one of the first things they tell me is how they "want" their kids to sleep and how much they themselves "want" to sleep as well. These statements are almost always tinged with parental guilt. In order to not only educate, but also to alleviate that self imposed guilt, I reassure these parents that their desire for sleep is not just a "want" but also a very important "need". We are all human beings with the basic biological needs to breathe, eat, and SLEEP! Of course we all "want" to be well rested, but we also all physically "need" to sleep in order to function on a daily basis. Some parents have the misunderstanding that it is our job to be up all night with our children and we should resign ourselves to the fact that we will never sleep again. Of course, when our children are newborns this is to be true. However, as our children pass the infancy stage and beyond, it is imperative that everyone in the family get a good night's sleep.
There are two common misconceptions about sleep training that I believe are important to clarify. The first misconception is that "my child is just not a good sleeper". It is true that some children are naturally better sleepers than others. However, all healthy children can develop good sleep habits. In order for this to happen, however, it is up to the parents to be consistent and to follow age appropriate sleep schedules and sleep routines for their children. The most common reasons for unsuccessful sleep training are inconsistency and developmentally inappropriate sleep schedules. It is not beneficial to label children "poor sleepers" and to just give up the hope of a well rested family. The short term sleep training journey to raising a great sleeper will result in a lifetime of longer lasting positive effects on the whole family.
The second misconception is that sleep training is all about the "cry-it-out". It is not the crying (the quality nor the quantity) that teaches children to fall asleep and stay asleep. It is actually the learned behavior of self soothing (which is not innate in most children and must be cultivated by their parents) that allows a child to fall asleep unassisted and fall back to sleep unassisted. The crying (also known as protesting) is just the byproduct of learning the critical self soothing skill, which healthy children can learn to master rather quickly. Furthermore, there are several other central components to a sleep training program, such as consistent and age appropriate sleep schedules including naps, consistent bedtime and nap time routines, and safe and healthy sleep environments, that without, parents will not have the sleep training success they so desperately need, and deserve.
Another common issue that arises for parents during their decision to move forward with sleep training is the emotional component to the sleep training journey. Many parents question their emotional capacity to handle any protesting from their child, as well as question their sleep training decision by perusing the websites that try to convince parents that they are doing harm to their child if they choose to sleep train. Overall, the existing and quite limited negative research studies have actually looked at the overall daily crying response in children in neglectful environments and did not look at children's cry response solely in sleep training settings in loving homes. Children that are allowed to learn how to become independent sleepers and experience the byproduct of a finite amount of protest crying cannot be compared to the infinite crying of children who are neglected throughout the day and night. Furthermore, the parents that I have worked with the past 11 years are, in fact, the exact opposite of neglectful parents. They understand the necessity of sleep for their children and themselves, and they desire a happy and healthy family. I have yet to have worked with a family who has regretted their choice to sleep train. In fact, most tell me they wish they didn't wait so long! If parents want to focus on research, I strongly advise them to focus, instead, on the solid and non controversial research about the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on both children and adults' health, mood, temperment, behavior, cognitive development, and performance in the home, school and work settings. Healthy sleep has only been shown to have positive effects on the physical, cognitive, behavioral and psychological growth and development of all humans. I highly doubt I will ever come across a study that shows the positive effects of sleep deprivation!
Most parents, at one time or another, will question their parenting choices. For the parents who are undecided about embarking on the sleep training journey, I hope I have helped you make an informed decision about if and how to proceed in getting your family well rested. We all have the same end goal - a happy and healthy family. No matter what roads our parenting journey take us down, I hope we all reach our end goal!