A new study led by Michael Gradisar from Flinders University in Australia states that sleep training methods graduated extinction (yes, crying may be involved) and bedtime fading can provide improved sleep with infants, with no adverse stress responses or long-term effects on parent-child attachment or child emotions and behaviour.
The purpose of this study was to conduct further research on an ongoing debate and concern for parents who wish to sleep train their child and worry of the consequences of using a method involving crying. The evaluation studied the effects of behavioural interventions on the sleep/wakefulness of infants, parent and infant stress, and later child emotional/behavioural problems, and parent-child attachment.
Methods used were graduated extinction (similar to a Ferber style interval check), bedtime fading (where baby’s bedtime would get pushed out later and later in the hopes that baby would fall asleep easier), and sleep education control (parents were directed to a website with sleep education but very little support or direction.) Monitoring of results were done by analyzing parent-reported sleep diaries and infant actigraphy. The baby’s stress was measured via morning and afternoon salivary cortisol sampling, and mothers’ self-reported mood and stress. Follow-up was conducted at 12-months after intervention.
The results were:
- Large decreases in how long it took for babies to fall asleep for graduated extinction and bedtime fading groups, and large decreases in number of awakenings throughout the night with the graduated extinction group.
- Salivary cortisol showed small-to-moderate declines in graduated extinction and bedtime fading groups compared with controls. Babies stress levels went down, even with a bit of crying. We have to remember that cortisol levels rise in an overtired baby as well and it makes sense that as baby got more sleep the cortisol levels went down.
- Mothers’ stress showed small-to-moderate decreases for the graduated extinction and bedtime fading.
- At the 12-month follow-up, no significant differences were found in emotional and behavioural problems, and no significant differences in secure attachment styles between groups. Everyone still loved each other.
So is it okay to use a sleep training method that involves crying for my baby?
There are studies upon studies that are either against CIO or state that crying isn’t detrimental in emotional/behavioural problems, and parent-child attachment. This is an ongoing debate that will continue to live on. We have to understand that every study needs another study to validate its findings. Including this one, but we need these studies done. One study shouldn’t make or break your decision in the method you choose. Do your research and choose what is right for your family and make sure you are incorporating all the tools within the sleep training tool kit. The method you choose is only one of the tools.
Let’s look at further research through Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child that explains toxic stress can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.
Is this what these parents of this study did? No. How a child is raised has just as much if not more to do with their overall well-being then where they slept or how they fell asleep. We can’t forget that.
So I thought I’d share my own research findings. Mind you it’s a smaller group than this new study. There were only three participants. Okay thousands actually, if you count many of my clients that I’ve worked with over the past eight years, but I kept this particular study small. The group is my three kids, and given that we have both an 8 and 5 year follow-up I think the results from my study are pretty accurate. Like Gradisar’s study participants, my kids turned out okay and still love me.
My 8-Year Case Study and Steps I Took For My Research:
- I breastfed, formula fed, made homemade baby food (barely), mostly ate out of a jar, and continue to make nutritious meals at least 5 days of the week. Long story short – they are fed and have never gone hungry.
- Clothed – except when my son went through his stripping phase at age two but that was his fault not mine.
- Cuddled the crap out of. They can’t walk by me most of the time without me swooping in for a snuggle. When they eventually tell me to stop I’m going to assume it’s because I’m standing in the way of them doing something way more fun than being bear hugged by mom and not because I let them CIO.
- I tell them I love them an insane amount of times throughout the day. Actually they tell me they love me an insane amount of times throughout the day. So there’s that
- Immerse them in relationships outside of our family. They have BFF’s, close connections with their teachers, ask to see their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins daily. Point is – they like people and people like them.
- If they injure themselves, are scared, are struggling, have a nightmare, have a cold, or just having a really crummy day, I comfort them. I’m not a complete jerkface.
- Teach them frustrations – how to handle them and overcome them independently. Because life is going to give you frustrations. Like this article may be frustrating some of you, but you know how to handle it, right?
- Tell them NO. Like. The. Actual. Word. I say it – a lot. Because you know what else life gives you – disappointment. My kids are used to being disappointed and I’m okay with that. They also have learned how to handle that disappointment and get on with their lives, happily I might add.
- Teach them that they are capable of many things. Getting dressed by themselves, brushing their own teeth, reading and writing, riding their bike, and yes – even sleeping thought the night and by themselves.
- I basically love on my kids as much as I can, every second that I can, like most of you reading this do with your own kids.
Whether you’ve done CIO or bed-share, feed on demand or schedule each bottle, I bet most of you can check off most of these points as well because you’re not a donkey of a parent. That’s what we do as parents! I didn’t write this article to show you another study that says ignore your gut and do this instead. This isn’t me telling you that you also need to attempt some type of extinction sleep training in order to do the best for your child. Because know what else I teach my kids? That there are choices in life and you need to always choose what’s best for you.
This is me telling you that I didn’t need a study to tell me that my kids are going to be okay even though I practiced CIO because they ARE okay.
And totally well-rested to boot.
Alanna McGinn is a Certified Sleep Consultant and Founder of Good Night Sleep Site – a Global Pediatric and Family Sleep Team. She provides free child and family sleep support through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She invites you to join her sleep community as she works towards Good Night Sleep Site’s mission of a healthier rested family unit. For more sleep tips, subscribe to our newsletter and visit Good Night Sleep Site.