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Is Sleep Training Safe?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

As a new parent, the number of questions you'll have are, to put it mildly, staggering.

Newborns don't come with instructions. Even after nine months of research into what to anticipate when the baby arrives, there's an undeniable sense of unpreparedness after we're released from the hospital with our children.

After all, every baby is different so no guidebook, set of instructions, or amount of coaching from friends and family will be enough to effectively prepare you for your child. We feel a huge responsibility to get it right since raising another living person is one of the most essential duties a human being can have.

Unfortunately, no practice swings or dress rehearsals are available. Your first run-through is, in a sense, the final performance, which only enhances our commitment to solving problems before they arise.

And because babies basically eat, poop, cry and sleep, we're naturally fixated on those four things.

In and of itself, deciding what to feed babies (breastmilk or formula) is a contentious topic for some. But nutrition and bowel movements aren't what we’ll be covering today.

Sleeping and Crying

I’ve done extensive study into sleeping and crying because one of the most common hang-ups among parents considering whether or not to sleep train their kids pertains to crying.

Specifically, parents want to know if crying is necessary, and whether the crying will be harmful for their baby health-wise, or affect the way their relationship with their child develops.

To answer the first question upfront- yes sleep training has to involve crying. At its core, it involves changing a baby’s means of falling asleep (a habit if you will). And if your baby is used to falling asleep with the help of a bottle, a pacifier, or by you rocking him, then when we change that such that he falls asleep with no help, he won’t like it.

After all, even adults can be resistant to change, or to new experiences foisted upon them. And really, if you think about it, your baby’s only way of communicating that resistance is through crying.

With that out of the way, I’ll deal with the other two questions, which are basically risk questions: 1) will my baby feel abandoned during sleep training because I’ve left him there to cry, and 2) will my baby suffer irreparable damage if he cries for too long.

Q1: Will attachment suffer?

Before we cover this question, it's important to address a misconception I think a lot of parents have: which is the impression that sleep training implies leaving your baby without any support during this period of change.

While there is definitely this option– often referred to as the Extinction or “Cry-it-out” method- where parents leave a child in the cot never to return again to the room– this is not the only way.

There are equally effective methods like the "Graduated Extinction” method - in which you come in at increasingly long intervals to check on the baby, or the “Extinction with Parental Presence” - which involves staying in the room but letting the child cry with your support nearby. Studies have shown that both of these methods, if used correctly, can produce positive outcomes that last for 6 months or a year (source).

The art comes in choosing the right fit from these methods, and the countless more available. And the right fit will depend very much on your child’s/your needs and temperaments. A good sleep trainer will be able to help you figure this one out.

But methods aside, does all that crying impact upon parent-child bonding? The evidence would suggest no:

In this Swedish study, researchers investigated whether leaving newborns to cry at night made them less attached to their parents during the day. After randomly allocating 95 families to a sleep-training program that included some form of sleep training method (whether extinction, graduated extinction or extinction with parental presence etc) researchers discovered that infant security and bonding improved following the "cry it out" intervention. The parents of the infants also reported improvements in daytime conduct and feeding.

Also in this American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) study where thirteen different protocols were implemented by the parents, researchers’ findings were that "(a)dverse secondary effects (including irreparable impact upon parent-child relationships) as the result of participating in behaviorally based sleep programs were not identified in any of the studies. On the contrary, infants who participated in sleep interventions were found to be more secure, predictable, less irritable, and to cry and fuss less following treatment."

Q2: Is crying too long bad for my baby?

If you’re asking this question it’s probably because you’ve encountered some information about how letting your child cry a few nights causes elevated levels of cortisol which would rewire your child’s brain and affect long-term health.

This view is a little simplistic, as, frankly if you think about it: stress is not always bad. Stress comes in many forms- as this AAP report suggests.

A positive stress response is one that is “brief and mild to moderate in magnitude” and is necessary for a child to learn to cope with, with the assistance of a caring, responsive adult. Examples include getting up in class and making a speech, or your child going to his first day of school. These are uncomfortable, but learning to deal with them is for the child’s benefit.

Then there’s a tolerable stress response which covers non everyday sort of events like death in a family, divorce or a natural disaster. Again, this stress is more than unpleasant, but it's tolerable to a child if they have the continuing support of an adult, and often it can be turned around.

Finally, there’s toxic stress and this is the sort that changes brain chemistry. It is caused by “strong, frequent or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of a supportive adult relationship”. Examples would include children being raised in poverty or war zones when the threat to health and safety is unrelenting.

From this you can easily see that letting your child cry for periods of time does not fall within the category of toxic stress which is chronic.

Put another way, if your child was going to chew his way through your car keys and you stopped him by taking those away, he’d cry long and hard so as to cause cortisol to build. But that wouldn’t stop you from doing what was good for him, would it?

A final caveat…

Before I close I want to just acknowledge that for every article that suggests sleep training has no harmful effects for your child, you’d probably be able to find another article countering it. At the end of the day, you just have to make a decision without perfect data. However, it would be in my view, myopic and incorrect to claim that not sleep training is not “safe”.

Sleep training works and is proven by the research I have cited to be “safe”. And since sleep is a wonderful, revitalizing, and fulfilling experience for you, your infant, and the rest of your family, why not make it a commitment today?

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