Dr. Bill Sears discusses current research on the best methods for sleep training your child.
Recently I was a speaker at a parenting conference at Notre Dame University, where an always hotly debated issue sleep training was a major topic of discussion. As always, its important to be discerning about using anyone else’s techniques to get your baby to sleep, especially sleep-trainers who tout variations of the old cry it out method. Remember, sleep is not a state you can force a baby into. Successful nighttime parenting means setting the stage for baby to peacefully go to sleep and stay asleep.
Problems with sleep-training
Keep in mind that every parent is different, as is each situation. In my 48 years of pediatric practice, here are the problems I have observed with the let baby cry it out advice. Mothers and fathers of multiples experience a unique time with sleep-training. I always tell my patients to remember that your babies need a happy, rested mother, so do what works to achieve that goal.
It can desensitize parents to the cues of their baby. The sleep-training regimens that involve baby crying can pose some issues to parents. It’s easy for someone else to advise you to let your baby cry it out. They are not there at 3 a.m. Some mothers tell us, “I just can’t do it.” That’s because mothers are biologically wired to respond to their baby’s cries. Consider what science says. In laboratory studies of mother-baby pairs, when a baby cries, the blood flow to mothers breasts increases, accompanied by a biological urge to pick up and comfort her baby. Mothers are made that way. Sleep-training interferes with this biological design and can create a distance between mother and baby. Also, most babies who are left to cry it out don’t cry less, but they cry in a more disturbing way, cling to parents more and take longer to become independent – just the opposite of what sleep-trainers say it will do. Doctors who have thoroughly researched this subject have given it the name glucocorticoids neurotoxicity (stress hormones interfering with brain development of baby).
It can cover up hidden causes of night-walking. Sleep-trainers claim that baby is waking up because of poor sleep habits. Be careful about that assumption, as it can keep you from uncovering hidden medical causes of night walking, such as gastroesophageal reflux. Another hidden medical cause of night walking is food allergies, such as an allergy to formula or to foods such as cows milk in a breastfeeding mothers diet. Nighttime is scary time for little people, so be careful about using methods that don’t feel right to you.
Time-tested ways to get your baby a peaceful nights sleep
Develop a healthy sleep attitude. Instead of putting your baby down to sleep, think of parenting your baby to sleep. Think of your role as creating restful conditions that allow sleep to overtake baby so that he goes to sleep more willingly and stays asleep as long as he needs to. Remember, the ultimate goal of your nighttime parenting is to instill in your baby a healthy sleep attitude: that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a fearless state to remain in.
Feed baby to sleep. The sucking rhythm, a parents warmth and closeness, and warm milk filling the tummy will help baby drift off to sleep peacefully.
Get behind the eyes of your baby. When your baby awakens and you’re confused about what to do, immediately put yourself behind the eyes of your baby and ask yourself, “If I were my baby, how would I want my parents to respond?” You’ll always get it right. If you were a baby, would you rather wake up disoriented and alone in a dark, quiet room and be forced to cry it out back to sleep, or awaken securely close to familiar people you love and be quickly comforted back to sleep by the caregivers you trust?
Establish a consistent bedtime routine. Babies who have reasonably consistent bed times and going-to-sleep rituals usually sleep more predictably at night. We like to use the less rigid term routine rather than schedule. When baby begins the night with a set routine, such as rocking, wearing down, walking around the house, a relaxing bath, a bedtime story, back rub, or whatever ritual works, the child is set up to expect that sleep will follow this routine. A bedtime routine helps your child learn to associate the sequence of events with feeling relaxed and sleepy.
Closeness aids in sleep-training. Babies love to be rocked to sleep. This isn’t all that surprising since baby was used to being rocked in the womb. As bedtime approaches, put your baby into a carrier and go for a walk outside. The gentle motion of your walk and your hand on his back are all familiar cues to relax.
Whatever nighttime parenting style you choose, keep in mind the sleep advice I give tired parents in my pediatric practice: Your baby needs happy, rested parents – do what you need to do to achieve this goal.
I wish you and your baby a restful sleep.
Safest place for baby to sleep
If babies could talk they would shout close to mommy! The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the same room but not in the same bed as parents, at least for the first year. Many families sleep best by putting baby to sleep in a bedside co-sleeper bassinet that attaches securely to the side of the parents bed. Baby and mother then sleep close to each other for easy feeding and comforting, yet they have their own separate sleeping surfaces.
Bill Sears, M.D., is a father of eight and the author of 42 books on family health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood. A practicing pediatrician for over 40 years, he is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Dr. Sears is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a fellow of the Royal College of Pediatricians (RCP).