The Great Baby Sleep Debate (1)


When I first held my precious newborn girl in my arms, I pledged my life for her happiness, and I knew deep in my heart that I would do anything for her. I was confident that with the strength of love I felt for her, I would conquer every challenge that motherhood has to offer. I was ready to sacrifice every moment of my being just to keep her safe and happy, and I would do so gladly and without a moment’s hesitation.

Admittedly, I was not aware that my sacrifice would involve staying awake for days on end, and that my chronic lack of sleep would soon turn my confidence and strong resolve into desperation. It is the same story of many new parents, faced with the constant sleep deprivation that comes with a wakeful newborn.

While many parents begin to get a better night’s rest as their baby nears his third or fourth month and starts sleeping for longer intervals of time, for some unlucky souls like myself, the baby sleep dilemma had just begun. Instead of sleeping through the night and going to sleep fairly easily, some babies grow more restless as the months go by, waking every hour or less and requiring a long time and effort to be soothed back to sleep every time.

Long, supposedly relaxing bedtime routines do not seem to help; neither does co-sleeping, expensive vibrating cribs, pacifiers, gentle patting, extra bottles, soothing chamomile drinks, or any other common-sense advice given by well-meaning parents of well-rested babies. This is when the sleep-deprived parents start combing the bookshelves for a sleep guru; a professional who will help explain how to get their baby to sleep, preferably through the night.

This is when they begin to struggle with the “The Great Baby Sleep Debate”, also known as the “Cry it Out Debate”, that professionals never seem to settle, which basically means whether we should let our now older baby learn to soothe itself to sleep—and cry its eyes out in the process—or to keep on running to its rescue every time it whimpers in its sleep.

Let the Crying Baby Lie

Experts have completely differing opinions on this issue, and often go into heated debates regarding the best sleep training approach.

At one end of the spectrum, there is the famous Dr. Richard Ferber, Founder of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, and strong advocate of letting babies learn to sleep independently. Since the publication of his book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems in 1985, he has become known as a leading—and controversial—expert on children’s sleep.

Chances are you have heard about Ferber’s method for teaching babies to soothe themselves to sleep—a method so closely associated with him it is often called “Ferberizing”. This method and variations on it are also referred to as “the cry it out” method, although Dr. Ferber refuses to call it that for obvious reasons.

In a nutshell, Ferber says you can, and should, teach your baby to soothe himself to sleep when he is physically and emotionally ready; usually between five to six months of age. This is the age when Ferber believes babies no longer require night time feedings, and are able to sleep through the night.

He recommends following a warm, loving bedtime routine and then putting your baby in bed awake, leaving him—even if he cries—for gradually longer periods of time. Putting a child to bed awake, says Ferber, is crucial to successfully teaching him to go to sleep on his own and for longer periods because it teaches him that he is able to sleep unaided.

Parents are instructed to pat and comfort their baby after each predetermined period of time, usually starting with 5–10 minutes, but not to pick up or feed their baby. This routine is called “progressive waiting”. After a few days to one week of gradually increasing the waiting time, the theory goes, most babies learn to fall asleep on their own, having discovered that crying earns nothing.

Other authors and consultants have since added and subtracted behaviors to create their own formulas of the Ferber method—staying in the room or not, being visible or not, soothing by voice or not, touching or not, gradually increasing time intervals between check-ins or not—though most caution against sleep training under six months.

Advocates of this school insist that it is best for the babies’ health and happiness, as well as the parents’; nighttime rest makes babies more attentive during the day, allowing them to grow stronger and reach their developmental milestones faster.

Many parents swear by the “cry it out” method and how it worked for their sleepless babies, who became good sleepers after they “ferberized” them. However, for some parents, Ferber’s approach is not extreme enough; they choose to resort to a more harsh form of the sleep training program by simply shutting the door.

Most experts disapprove of this extreme approach, including Dr. Ferber himself, who in the second edition of his book, published in 2006, added a preface clarifying the difference between his method and a shut-the-door approach.

Do Not Let the Baby Cry

At the other end of the spectrum, are parents who cannot bear the sound of a crying baby, supported by the “no-cry” experts who consider letting a baby cry for any length of time to be cruel, unnatural, and a betrayal of the trust your baby is developing in adults and the world around him.

The most famous advocate of the no-cry school is the founder of the “Attachment Parenting” movement Dr. William Sears—aka “America’s Favorite Pediatrician”. Sears recommend maintaining close physical contact with a baby 24 hours a day for the sake of bonding. Parents are encouraged to keep the baby next to them at all times in their arms or in a baby carrier, to co‑sleep, and to nurse a child for comfort whenever the baby cries or a toddler asks.

In his book The Baby Sleep Book, Sears emphasizes a nurturing, child-centered approach to sleep and recommends patiently helping your baby learn to sleep in his own time. He encourages co-sleeping, rocking, and nursing your baby to sleep, and other forms of physical closeness to create positive sleep associations now and healthy sleep habits down the road.

He devotes an entire chapter to critique the “cry it out” approach, arguing that it can give your child negative associations with bedtime and sleep that could last a lifetime, whilst teaching him to lose trust in the support of his family.

No-cry advocates admit that the approach can take a while—longer, in all likelihood, than the cry it out techniques—but they maintain that in the long run it is less traumatic for baby and parents alike.

Read part two from here.

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