Out of the handful of "mommy questions" I want to address… I have to HAVE TO HAVE TO start with a VERY (maybe one of the most??) controversial subject. Yes, yes, yes.. I speak of the concept of “Sleep training.”
I opted to not to “sleep train,” and go against yet another one of the many popular parenting practices in our society. The main reason I want to touch on sleep training is because there is SO much confusion about it! The fact that Moms with young age babies (like a few weeks old.. !) even considering crying and “self soothing” as a viable option, and the overall idea that sleep training is necessary, has made the psychologist in me want to clear the air. Many times, the psychological implications of sleep training go unspoken because no one really talks about them. However, not responding to an infant's only form of communication- aka leaving a baby crying by themselves, let alone repeatedly- and hindering the “nurture” aspect of development are just a few things that come to mind.
(** Note that sleep training will from here on out refers specifically to the cry it out (CIO) method**)
First and foremost, I have a HUGE PSA!!!! I am in NO way, shape or form implying that one way is better than another or that parents who opt to sleep train are “bad parents” or worse parents than those who do not! PLEASE BE CLEAR ON THIS!!! I just have seen SO much back and forth about it and so many misconceptions about children sleeping through the night and ways to make that happen that the psychologist in me HAS to set the record straight before it completely goes crazy! SO, where do we start with this heated topic?
The psychologist in me has to start with “data and facts.” (Sure, it’s not all “fun”, but it helps you get through the “games”) The word ATTACHMENT is a somewhat familiar one, but it is SO much deeper than “just a word.” (I had to pull out my old child’s developmental psychology textbook for this one… just so y’all know). Attachment is defined by Psychology Today as “The emotional bond that typically forms between infant and caregiver, usually a parent.” They also discuss how it “not only stimulates brain growth but affects personality development and lifelong ability to form stable relationships.” The most vital part, that seems to be the lesser know fact about attachment, is that “neuroscientists now believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to it, and the process of forming lasting bonds is powered in part by the hormone oxytocin.”
There is that O- Word again! Oxytocin… If it looks familiar to anyone (think babywearing or breastfeeding class), that’s because it is! It is the “love hormone” that helps with milk production and what helps promote attachment. So with that being said, you can see why the psychologist in me refuses to let the girls cry for any excessive amount of time. (Again please remember that this post is not here to “judge” anyone, but simply to provide information that may not be as widely available as other info.) What we do with CIO is allow babies to expect their needs to not be met on demand. Crying actually causes stress in a baby, and releases cortisol. If these cries are ignored, it can cause baby to believe they have been abandoned and baby will shut down, likely due to elevated stress levels, and/or because they have put all their energy into "calling you."
Excessive crying additionally prevents babies from developing secure attachments because we are FORCING babies to develop a sense of “independence” (which in the long run forms more dependence because we have denied the child the ability to use the primary caregiver as a source of “comfort and reassurance when upset.”) Psychology Today states: “The fact is that caregivers who habitually respond to the needs of the baby before the baby gets distressed, preventing crying, are more likely to have children who are independent than the opposite.” Psychologically speaking (and to me this is pure common sense and instinct no matter what anyone can tell me), crying is the “stimulus to trigger innate caregiving behaviors by the mothers,” which is why I, personally, can not leave my girls to cry. I literally cannot bear it physically or emotionally. No, I don’t rush over to every whimper and pick them up. As with all things, I feel it out. Babies make noises all the time. It is our job as parents to know which ones need tending to and which ones are just “passing by.” These premises alone are enough to make me have to take a step back from sleep training in general and reevaluate what “experts” are telling us these days. In order to better understand sleep training, we have to go back in time to it’s origins. It’s been around “forever” (under different contexts), but why does our society continue to promote it as “necessary?”
The concept of “cry it out” has been around for many, many, many years (dating back all the way to the 1880’s! But back then it was under the belief that babies transmitted germs and what not, so people avoided touching them…). Erik Erikson (a developmental psychologist) believes that personality development cannot be fully understood without looking at the environment of the child as well. (I.E. Parenting is a holistic concept and can not be “evaluated” by just one factor. Like Erikson, I believe that development is psychosocial.) He holds the belief that development occurs across eight stages and that the child needs a strong sense of positive personality through their “quest for identity.” It is important to note that there is a shift around 7 months between the developmental phases of attachment (wonderweeks; THIS is the best resource with a breakdown of each one). Babies go from learning how to interact and develop a working model of reliability and trustworthiness, to developing emotionally AND physically.
Additionally, we have to consider the psychological milestones that intertwine with the concept of sleep training. The recommended age to begin sleep training is at around 6 months, and it is important to note here that “normal infant sleep patterns” show that night wakings occur up to 3 years of age!!! The less popular/known fact is what is going on with babies at (or around) 6 months of life. This is the time in their development when they are achieving a “sense of self” and are now realizing that they are a separate entity from their caregivers. Nighttime wakings are not indicative of “sleep problems,” but rather are likely results of separation anxiety. Secure attachment is related to parental responsiveness, and when we leave a baby crying by themselves for excessive amounts of time, we can literally prevent them from growing. Babies grow from being held (hence my babywearing… they get to be close and snuggly with me while I still have free hands to do things…). In addition to “short-term” growing, we also have to consider the long term effects on the brain from sleep training.
“Leaving babies to cry increases babies’ stress levels and often keeps them awake longer. It does not guide them emotionally or physically toward the goal of regulating their own distress and response” in the long run, and we can only expect that crying has effects on the brain as well. (HERE are some ways to calm your baby, and where the above quote came from.) THIS article breaks down how neural interconnections play a part in brain development in regards to crying/stress in infants. (and does it better than I ever could. I was never into the “brain” part of psych.) Again, if we strive to anticipate our babies needs (when they need to be fed, changed, etc), we can eliminate a TON of stress from both ends and help foster a more healthy attachment and bond. Remember, at the end of the day our goal is to meet the needs of our babies and prevent stress for both them and us.
It is also extremely important to acknowledge that we live in a consumer based society. Sleep deprived mothers with new cute, squishy, and demanding babies are a GREAT target audience to make some big profits from. THIS article is SO eye opening and mind blowing. I strongly urge everyone to read it at some point. It really made things fall into place for me, for example:
- We are one of the only nations that consistently favor putting babies in their own beds/rooms
- We have somewhat atypical expectations that babies sleep through the night at ages as young as 3 months, 6 being the average, and the benefits of cosleeping.)
The article really puts things into perspective by making some noteworthy comparisons with other “nonwestern” societies and our own American society. Additionally, when considering both consumerism AND the idea of sleep training combined it is hard to forget the IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT BABIES. We have to remember that babies just spent 9 months with their moms getting carried around everywhere and tended to 24/7 without having to worry about it. It should be no surprise that it will take them some time to get used to living in the new world around them. Take your time separating yourself from your baby because one day they won’t want you around! (Another reason why I babywear. They come and do stuff with me like they did when I was pregnant. Except now they have room to move and can see everything… and talk to me 😀 )
Think about times when you have been upset and crying. How did it make you feel? Would you have felt better if someone would have been there to comfort you? How different is your experience when you have a shoulder to cry on or someone to hug you when you have been upset vs when you are alone? When you cry yourself to sleep, how do you feel when you wake up? Add to this equation the fact that you have the ability and skills to pick up the phone and call someone, take a drive/ walk to see someone, have the experience to learn how to work it out on your own, or -most importantly- that you can talk to someone and express what exactly is bothering you. The fact that you cannot spoil a baby is very true. Babies are not capable of "manipulating" us, and what grounds would they have to want to do so? The only form of communication a baby has with us is to cry. This is what makes it so important to acknowledge their cries and to let them know we are there to comfort them and that they are not alone.