Sleep training

New research shows success may depend on your attitude -- and your child

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Having a baby who sleeps through the night is the gold ring for new parents. And many try sleep-training methods based on controlled crying — Ferberizing or “crying it out,” as parents call it — in hopes of ending their babies’ night waking. Some parents succeed in grabbing that gold ring, but for many others it remains elusive. Now, for the first time, research is suggesting why — and which parents are most likely to make sleep training work.

The Study

This story began a year ago. I was wading through some journals researching yet another Today’s Parent article about night waking. It struck me that although there were mountains of studies designed to show what parents should do to teach babies to sleep through the night, I couldn’t find any that looked at what that experience was like for parents.

I contacted Lynn Loutzenhiser, a psychologist at the University of Regina, with an interest in parents’ experiences around sleep, to ask if she knew of any such studies. She hadn’t found any either. I said, “Well, somebody should do one.” Next thing you know I’m a researcher, helping Lynn design a study about parents’ best efforts at treating sleep problems in infants and toddlers on their own.

We asked parents about night waking and their use of techniques that involved leaving their babies alone, possibly crying, to teach them to sleep through the night. But we asked more — questions that, to my knowledge, have never been asked before. How long did you stick with controlled crying? How many times did you try it? Did it work? Was it stressful? We also asked what parents thought of the teach-your-baby-to-sleep advice they get from books, magazines and other media.

We received more than 900 responses, from parents of babies and toddlers aged six to 24 months, including some Today’s Parent readers who learned about the survey in this magazine. We have some very cool data to share with you. I’d say the experts who tout the virtues of controlled crying oughta listen up too.

Our Results

First in case anybody didn’t know, both night waking and the use of controlled crying are very prevalent.

• 73% of our respondents said their child wakes one or more nights a week.
• 20% said their child wakes three or more times a night.
• 43% said their child wakes most nights (for those with babies aged six to 12 months, it was 53%).

So what are parents doing about all that night waking? More than half (53%) have tried a controlled-crying technique.

• 36% said they had tried it before age six months, contrary to the advice of many experts.
• 43% of the parents who’d tried controlled crying said they had started a round of it four or more times.

Most parents also said they used such techniques as a consistent bedtime routine and structured day to promote good sleep habits. In other words, most parents are trying hard to use the techniques advised by experts who promote teaching babies to sleep through the night.

Yeah, but does the advice work? Only for some.

Controlled-Crying

Even though 69% of our respondents believe that controlled-crying techniques work if parents implement them properly, only one in six of the parents who tried controlled crying said it eliminated night wakings completely. Another 26% said it reduced night wakings significantly. That means controlled crying did not work for more than half of the parents who tried it. More than one-third said it made no difference at all!

Given this spotty success rate, it’s no wonder that over 80% of parents said experts make controlled crying sound easier and more foolproof than it is. That’s significant, when you consider that controlled crying is pretty stressful for most families. In our study, 73% rated it as stressful for parents and 63% said it was stressful for the child. Ouch!

So why does controlled crying work for some parents and not for others? While there is likely no single determining factor, statistical analysis revealed that several factors were associated with the effectiveness of this method.

First, parents’ ability to make controlled crying work is linked to their beliefs about infant and toddler sleep and sleep-training techniques. On average, those who believed their child would feel abandoned or get even more upset if they didn’t respond quickly reported less success with sleep training. Conversely, those who believed it was OK to let their child cry at night for sleep-training purposes, and who were able to resist their child’s nighttime demands, tended to be more successful.
Likewise, moms and dads who believed that parents can control infant and toddler sleep patterns were more likely to be successful.

Further, parents who succeeded with sleep training were significantly less likely to say the experience was stressful for them and their baby. And they were more likely to say that others around them supported the technique of controlled crying.

Two findings — that relatively few parents (12%) reported low stress when they tried controlled crying, and almost half said they got little support from friends and family in trying it — offer big clues as to why the technique fails so often.

The baby is part of this picture as well, specifically the baby’s level of distress when he first awakes. Almost 60% of the parents of night wakers said their baby was either calm or not too upset when he first awoke. However, 14% of parents said their child was usually very upset shortly after awaking. About one in six (17%) actually said their babies appeared to be crying hard before they even awoke. And — no surprise — parents of those highly distressed night wakers were less likely to find controlled crying effective.

“I think it may be possible eventually to develop a scale that we could use to predict parents’ likelihood of success with controlled crying and similar techniques,” says Lynn Loutzenhiser. “Some parents, it seems, will need alternative strategies for dealing with night waking.”

Advice

There is a lot more data to crunch in this study. Stay tuned. But in the short term, I think that our research study makes some important points that both parents and the purveyors of sleep-training advice should heed:

1. Many, perhaps most, parents are trying to follow conventional advice about teaching babies to sleep through the night.
2. It only works for some of them.
3. Differences in parent attitudes and baby characteristics are linked to parents’ level of success.
4. A lot of parents feel they’ve been misled about how well sleep training works and how easy it is.

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