New parents are faced with an impossible dilemma: respond to your baby’s cries throughout the night and endure the torture of prolonged sleep deprivation; or, sleep train your baby with some form of cry-it-out, and feel like a heartless monster—albeit one who doesn’t weep at the thought of how much effort it will take to get dressed.
Now new research is showing that both options, as well as a method that’s a combo of the two, are just fine. According to a study published in Pediatrics, the outcomes were similar among babies whose parents used gradual extinction, letting baby cry for increasingly longer intervals before going in, and those who used bedtime fading, where a child is put to sleep at the time he usually dozes off, while the parent stays in the room. (A control group simply received information on infant sleep; total extinction, where parents shut the door and don’t go in again until morning, was not studied.) Among the 43 healthy six- to 16-month-old Australian babies in the study, the CIO sleep training cohort fell asleep faster than the control group, as did the fading group. The infants in the CIO group slept longer overall after a week and woke less overnight than babies in the other two groups. The attachment between parent and child didn’t seem to be affected either way. And here’s the surprising kicker: measurements of cortisol, the stress hormone, were found to be lower in sleep trained babies than in the babies who weren’t sleep trained.
Previous Pediatrics studies in 2006 and 2012 found CIO sleep training to be effective, without any long-term effect on emotional development or mental health. But critics of the method point to a 2011 Early Human Development study that noted elevated cortisol, even after a baby has learned not to cry. And you don’t have to google far to find someone who calls letting your baby cry child abuse.
I’ve written before about sleep-training my son Julian at five and a half months, at the strong urging of my paediatrician. I should note my husband and I lived in the US at the time, where CIO sleep training seems to be more common than it seems to be in Canada, probably because sh*t gets real fast when your maternity leave is three months or less. While I didn’t follow either the total or gradual extinction method to the letter (how much crying I could take was a sliding scale), it worked anyway, and it didn’t take long. Julian never seemed to hold the previous night’s tears against me, greeting me in the morning with smiles and happy squirms. We all felt better getting more rest. Julian, now 6, has been a steady sleeper ever since.
No parent should make a decision that feels, in their gut, wrong. But for me, and I suspect for a lot of desperate parents out there, it’s a comfort to know there’s a bit more proof that there are a lot of healthy ways to achieve sleeping through the night; it’s up to you to figure out what’s right for your baby.