Is Sleep Training Safe?

_DSC2002-2As a first-time mom, figuring out how to get my baby to sleep was a mind-boggling task. Advice from my mom and mother-in-law was confusing. They never had issues with their babies sleeping, they just slept. Maybe they no longer remembered their struggles, or maybe times have changed so much that we parent in a completely different way today.

Today, we debate, question and over search everything with raising children. Sleep training, or teaching a baby older than 6 months how to self soothe to sleep, is a highly debated and theorized topic. In a new study from American Academy of Pediatrics in which 43 babies were tested to see how different sleep training techniques affected their stress levels, the babies were separated into three groups: graduated extinction, where babies are allowed to cry for short periods of time over several nights; delayed bedtimes where bedtime is moved by 15 minutes later every night thus making the baby more tired; and a control group. The babies were tested for a full year by checking the cortisol levels in their saliva both in the morning and at night. At the end of the study, they were checked for parent-child attachment and checked over behavioral and emotional problems.

The study showed that none of the babies had any emotional or behavioral issues. The graduated extinction and delayed bedtimes groups showed lower levels of cortisol later in the day, where the group who received no training had higher levels.

(Editor’s Note: It is important to point out the difference between graduated extinction, which is bouts of crying punctuated by bouts of comforting by a parent, and total extinction, which is what most parents associate with cry-it-out. Total extinction is no contact with baby until he or she stops crying. This is not what the study covered and is unequivocally harmful to an infant’s normal development. The sleep training method covered in this study was graduated extinction.)

Sleep is such an important thing for both babies and parents–both for development and growth but also for an emotional and coping time for parents especially. While the babies in the study showed normal levels of cortisol, the mothers in the studies showed lower levels of stress when their babies slept consistently. Having been an extremely sleep-deprived mama, I remember the stress from exhaustion in those early months and how it affected my family. Sleep benefits everyone.

The learning curve as new parents is as steep as it gets, yet it is reassuring for parents who wish to sleep train to learn that it is safe to do so. In our family, sleep training is a way of life–in fact I revel in the fact that my boys are all decent sleepers. Trusting our gut instinct as a parent is key, and having the knowledge and ability to choose our family’s well-being and mental health is so important.

Pia Watzig is a mom of three boys who lives and works in Portland, Oregon. 

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