The Great Baby Sleep Debate (2)


The evidence does not lie! Adding to the confusion of sleep-deprived parents are the contradicting studies supporting both schools of sleep training.

On one side, some studies claim that ignoring baby cries during sleep training is linked to all kinds of problems later in life; ADHD, antisocial behavior, and even lower IQ. At the root of these claims is the idea that the stress of crying and the absence of a responsive parent release intense levels of chemicals—namely stress hormones such as cortisol—that alter a child’s brain development.

The work of UCLA researcher Dr. Allan Schore is often cited as evidence to support that the cortisol released during intense crying damages nerve cells in the brain, leading to unhealthy attachments and psychological disorders. Shore demonstrates how a repeated pattern of unmet needs disrupts a child’s stress-regulating system and can alter the way his limbic structures process emotion.

However, Schore’s research is in fact about how trauma, chronic neglect, or abuse affects a child, not about implementing the “cry it out” technique against the background of a caring and responsive parenting atmosphere. His data is mainly collected from grossly neglected children, often using Child Protective Services cases for reference.

On the pro-sleep-training side, a recently published Australian study followed 326 children with parent-reported sleep problems at seven months. Half the babies were placed in a sleep-training group—using a form of a “cry it out” technique—and the other half in a that did not use sleep training.

Five years later, researchers followed up with the now-six-year-old participants and their parents. The children in the two groups showed no significant differences in terms of emotional health, behavior, IQ, or parent–child bonds. As a result, the researchers found no harm in permitting children to cry for limited periods of time while they learned to sleep on their own.

Other contradicting research includes a study conducted at the University of North Texas observing 25 infants aged four to ten months in an inpatient sleep training program. Researchers monitored levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the babies who were left to cry themselves to sleep without being soothed.

The scientists measured how long the infants cried each night before they fell asleep. By the third night, the babies were crying for a shorter period of time and falling asleep faster. However, the cortisol levels measured in their saliva remained high, indicating that the infants were just as “stressed” as when they were crying.

What the researchers thought was concerning was that, although the infants’ internal physiological distress levels had not changed, their outward displays of that stress were extinguished by sleep training.

To Cry or Not to Cry

The good Dr. Spock advocated decades ago that parents should be skeptical of all the parenting “methods” and trust their own instincts, since no single approach works for every baby or every situation.

“The American Academy of Sleep Medicine” is in agreement with this advice. After reviewing sleep-training strategies, including crying-it-out and no-cry approaches, their conclusion was that there is no single, best approach for solving your baby’s sleep problems. Each baby is different, and parents should choose what is best for their particular situation, provided they follow one simple rule: consistency.

It has been five years since I let my baby cry herself to sleep, but I still remember the sound of her crying like it was yesterday. I remember sitting alone in the dark arguing with myself, holding myself from rushing to her rescue, and it still tugs at my heartstrings every time I think about it.

I also remember that it worked like magic. In a matter of days, my baby, whose previous bedtime ritual lasted for tedious hours, and who never once slept for more than one hour at a time, was falling asleep on her own within minutes, and sleeping ten to twelve hours straight every night.

During the day, she was also a happier child; gone was the frequent fussing and crying, and all the milestones she had previously missed she quickly achieved at lightning speed.

At the time I decided to go with the cry-it-out method, I had read every book and studied every research, and tried every no-cry method to no avail. As miraculous as it may seem, the cry-it-out method is not for everyone. While I do not really believe I have damaged my baby’s brain or caused her everlasting problems by resorting to this route, I would have preferred to teach her the sleeping skills she needed without the trauma associated with this method, even if the trauma—and guilt—were only mine to bear.


Richard Ferber (2006) “Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems”, Touchstone

*The original article was published in SCIplanet, Human Health (Spring 2014) Issue.

**Read part one of the article from here.

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