Let's Admit It: We Have No Idea if Sleep Training Babies Makes Sense

Let's Admit It: We Have No Idea if Sleep Training Babies Makes Sense

I’m all for science and research and studies. But sometimes I’m also really for when we just sit back and admit we have reached an impasse on something. Today, that impasse is sleep training a baby. Ain’t nobody knows the right thing to do at this point.

There is currently a debate raging in the Internet’s more hallowed parenting halls about whether it “takes guts” to sleep train an infant or not. The thrust of this begins with Motherlode, the NYT parenting blog, where Aimee Molloy offers “Sleep Training at 8 Weeks: Do You Have the Guts?”

In it, she ponders the hotly contested parenting issue of whether or not to sleep train and if so, how young. Molloy and her husband attended their two-month check up at the bustling Tribeca Pediatrics in New York City, presenting a happy baby who was gaining weight, nursing well, and sleeping 6 to 8 hours a night. Molloy writes:

When we told our pediatrician, she seemed less impressed.
“She could be sleeping 12 hours a night,” she said. “It’s time to think about sleep training.”
Sleep training? An 8-week-old?
Our doctor coached us on the recommended technique. Place all 12 hungry, needy pounds of our daughter in her crib at 7 p.m. Close the door and return at 7 a.m. No checking, no consoling and definitely no feeding. She would cry — for hours, possibly — but in about three nights she’d get the picture that nobody was coming to her rescue and would begin to sleep through the night.

Molloy, like all new parents, was seduced by the idea that this was even possible. Hell, rob anyone of necessary sleep, especially new parents, and they would likely peel off their own skin by hand and fashion it into an organic artisanal baby wrap in exchange for one good, guilt-free night’s sleep, no questions asked.

But Molloy also had another common response to the idea of sleep training, especially for a baby so young: horror at a parenting approach that sounds as about as nurturing as Pol Pot. She did some reporting directly to the source, the man who came up with the idea of getting an 8-week-old to sleep like a teenager:

The man behind this idea is Dr. Michel Cohen, who founded Tribeca Pediatrics in 1994. His practice now sees nearly 32,000 patients at offices in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles. “It comes down to this,” Dr. Cohen told me when I called to ask about this approach. “Do you have the guts to do what I’m suggesting? If so, you’ll see it works.” And if not? “Then I expect to see you back at six months, exhausted, asking why your kid is still getting up a few times a night.”

Cohen’s bold, gauntlet-throwing suggestion to attempt sleep training at 8 weeks came after a decade of having suggested to start cry it out at 4 months, but noticing that what could be done at 4 months might just as easily work at 3 months. Or 2 months of age. Not 1 month, though:

“I then began to suggest sleep training at one month, but found that to be too early,” he said. “Parents were too emotional. Nobody was quite ready.”

But, as you guessed already, Like Every Single Thing In Parenting, You Will Find Proponents of All Possible Approaches™. Molloy found them, too. Marques Tracy and his wife Roopa, for instance, went all in for sleep training at 8 weeks and it went over like gangbusters:

On the first night, Aidan cried for about three hours on and off. The second night he cried for 45 minutes, and the third, maybe 20 minutes. Aidan has largely slept through the night ever since. “I’d say it worked like a charm,” Marques said.

Others who dared try sleep training say it worked like a charm alright—a charm comprised of rusty spikes pierced directly into their hearts. Says “Manali” of her experience trying to sleep train her now 7-month old son:

On the first night, he cried for two and a half hours. On the second, more than five. “At four in the morning, I gave up and went to get him. I held him and cried my eyes out, wondering if I had traumatized him.”

Molloy notes that sleep researchers say there is no research supporting the notion that letting your kid sleep through the night is damaging in anyway (attachment issues, brain damage) but that “science and logic may not always be enough to reassure parents trying to endure the agony of listening to their baby cry for several hours in the middle of the night.”

In the end, she says, they just didn’t have the guts to do it. Too soft to reap the sweet rewards of good, happy, healthy sleep. Or smug superiority!

But in a counterpoint by doula and wellness trainer Amy Wright Glenn over at Philly Voice, we are asked to imagine what we would think if this very approach were recommended at, say, a nursing home in the care of the elderly—to feed and hydrate residents by 7 p.m. and refuse to answer any calls of thirst or care until 7 a.m. unless a resident is actually ill. Glenn writes that it would be preposterous:

Even healthy adults in midlife often don’t sleep undisturbed for 12-hours straight. We wake to pee, drink water, and reach out to hold a loved one. We cherish the freedom of responding to our own physiological and emotional needs. The vulnerable amongst us are unable to do this. They depend on us. They depend on us to wisely use our freedom to kindly nourish, nurture, and love them.
Molloy’s post created quite a stir. Lactation consultants, psychologists, birth professionals, parents, and pediatricians weighed in to condemn the proposed sleep training of such a young baby.

I would add here that the sleep needs of children are totally different than the elderly, but that aside, she cites some valid issues, like a commenter on Molloy’s piece who couldn’t figure out how you would still nurse a baby you weren’t supposed to disturb, and why you would suffer through engorgement and discomfort for 12 hours to do so. Another commenter Glenn cites is a self-identified social worker who argues that leaving an infant unattended for 12 hours is, basically, abuse.

Glenn adds:

Personally, I was sickened by Molloy’s account. Having devoted many hours to researching the effects of various sleep-training methods on babies and toddlers, I advocate for gentle sleep training techniques and condemn both the modified and unmodified forms of cry-it-out (CIO). In my work, I’ve heard from parents who have lost their babies because they practiced CIO. How is this possible? When abandoned for hours, it’s not uncommon for babies to vomit out of duress. If they can’t turn over, they are at serious risk of aspirating on their own throw up.

I know that most proponents of cry it out will note here that you do go in under signs of duress like vomiting, but this is perhaps proof that cry it out needs better PR.

Glenn deeply questions the notion that it takes “guts” to sleep train. It takes guts, she writes, to change the federal maternity leave system. “It takes “guts” to be present and respond to a baby who isn’t physiologically wired to “sleep through the night,” she adds. “It’s healthy for babies (and toddlers) to wake and breastfeed and connect. It’s normal.”

So, as someone notes in Molloy’s piece, does this make proponents of sleep training monsters or geniuses?

Actually, neither. It’s a trick question, because it kind of depends on your kid. I submit that the biggest crux of parenting is figuring out not the most correct theory about best practices, but rather, figuring out what works with your kid, within reason, all the asterisks, yadda yadda. It’s an art, not a science. It’s easy for every parent, myself included, to gloat in retrospect about a successful parenting strategy. But in large part, many of us have simply gone with our instincts or the path of least resistance and either gotten lucky, or ended up doing something that was probably just as good as another approach, but due to its success, assigning to it a confirmation of our own biases.

The best thing in the world might be breastfeeding, but if your kid doesn’t take to it, what’re you gonna do? Formula is what. And when your kid turns out fine, you’ll probably conclude that there is no real difference. Best thing in the world might be Spanish language classes at birth, but if your kid has a learning disability? Best thing in the world might be organic formula, but if you’re poor? And so on.

The entire problem with these debates is that there is some illusion of objective knowing, some ridiculous idea that we can actually figure out what is right and true and good and then the only issue will simply be spreading the good word, so that others will dutifully follow.

But it’s never that simple. I’ve easily read three to five dozen essays, studies, reported pieces, op-eds, and the like about this issue over the years that argue both sides. And here is the thing: None of them changed what I felt already about the approach, which was that regardless of whether it would have, in fact, given me months of extra sleep, it was not for me. And looking back, we got through somehow. I don’t know how. But we did. And now it’s all fine.

Looked at in this light, I think what really takes guts here is not whether or not you sleep train, but whether or not you can refrain from being an asshole about this or any other parenting issue. The research on that is still definitely lacking, but the anecdotal evidence is not leaning in our favor.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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