Sleep Training Study Findings Not Final Word
Our need for sleep and the struggle to get enough of it when we have babies and young children are paramount. Our need drives a burgeoning baby sleep training industry as parents rightly seek help in establishing and maintaining sufficient amounts of sleep. Attachment Parenting International (API) and other researchers encourage parents to reject the pervasive notion that parental sleep can only happen, or best happens, when we purposely and repeatedly ignore and dismiss the distress calls of our babies and children at night. (see API's archive of responses on healthy alternatives to sleep training).
A recent Pediatrics study on "behavioral infant sleep intervention," looking at a practice known as "baby training," made headline news for its report that 173 children who were sleep trained in infancy were found at age six to display no symptoms of extreme, irresolvable stress, concerning behavioral problems, or troubling relationships with their parents.
Despite the breathless media reports proclaiming benefits of sleep training, parents are rightly cautious of these overconfident claims that have been perpetuated as a result of the study. This study provides only the first scientific peek at school-aged children who were sleep trained with only the crudest of evidence about the children's well-being and capacity to succeed and flourish in life.
This evidence does not support general assertions or implications that sleep training is "good" or "all right." Parents who strive to provide their children with something more than the most rudimentary functioning will rightly continue to regard sleep training with skepticism until robust evidence of well-being becomes available. Further studies are necessary to build a clearer picture about the effects of sleep strategies for children that support a standard of care that most families desire--and all children deserve.
Attachment Parenting International has long held that prolonged and uncomforted crying is unhealthy for infants, children and their parents. Volumes of research in early child development overwhelmingly demonstrate the importance of parental and caregiver responsiveness and sensitivity in caring for children. Neuroscientific research confirms that repeated experiences of being comforted and cared for in an emotionally attuned relationship provides for a child's adaptive capacity to respond with resilience in times of stress.
Responsive and emotionally available parenting is the basis for establishing a lifetime of health and well being. Sleep training established the opposite conditions. Sleep training aims for the parents to be unavailable to the distressed child while leaving the child to cope on their own with the distress of being alone and without a caring adult to help.
API Advisory Board member and Editor of the Journal of Attachment Parenting, Kathy Kendall-Tackett, PhD, reviewed the study and revealed these important concerns with the infant sleep training study, including limitations in the design, as well as the "dose" and variation of the sleep training, the control group's undefined application of "normal" sleep strategies, the potential for a placebo effect, and the lack of sensitivity of the measures. Noted researchers in the field of infant sleep James McKenna, PhD, Wendy Middlemiss, PhD, and others join in voicing their cautions regarding the lack of a randomized controlled trial (RCT) and as well as other serious concerns.
In sum, in spite of sweeping headlines like "Can Let Sleepless Babies Cry It Out" (ABC) and "Infant Sleep Training has No Long Term Effects" (Reuters), this research cannot be generalized by anyone and everyone.
Dr. William Sears, pediatrician for more than 30 years and student of maternal-infant sleep, as well as a member of the API Advisory Board, has long cautioned parents against baby training and cry-it-out methods, and this recent study's findings affect no changes to this wisdom:
"Ever since parenting books found their way into the nursery, sleep trainers have touted magic formulas promising to get babies to sleep through the night – for a price and at a risk. Most of these sleep-training techniques are just variations of the old cry-it-out method. And technology has found its way into nighttime babycare by providing tired parents with a variety of sleep-inducing gadgets designed to lull a baby off to sleep alone in her crib: oscillating cradles, crib vibrators that mimic a car ride, and teddy bears that "breathe." All promise to fill in for parents on night duty. Be discerning about using someone else's method to get your baby to sleep. Before trying any sleep-inducing program, you be the judge. Run these schemes through your inner sensitivity before trying them on your baby, especially if they involve leaving your baby alone to cry. Does this advice sound sensible? Does it fit your baby's temperament? Does it feel right to you?"
Attachment Parenting International