Now you can sleep-train your baby without guilt

sleeping baby
CC BY 2.0 Tamaki Sono

Study shows that sleep-training babies is not only effective, but also harmless; saying that it does not stress out babies as much as previously thought, nor does it affect the parent-child bond.

Sleep training babies is a complex issue. Many North American parents are not comfortable with it and prefer attachment parenting-style methods, such as rocking to sleep. But there is good news for those parents who are in favor of tougher love when it comes to getting a few winks. Researchers have found that letting babies cry themselves to sleep is both effective and harmless.

The study, led by Michael Gradisar, associate professor at Flinders University in Australia and director of the Child and Adolescent Sleep Clinic, was a small randomized, controlled trial involving 43 infants between the ages of 6 months and 16 months who were having trouble falling asleep and waking often in the night. They were divided into three groups:

  • Those who followed ‘graduated extinction,' also known as the Ferber method or “crying it out,” where parents leave the baby to cry for longer and longer periods of time before coming in to comfort them (Note: The child is not left to cry alone indefinitely until they fall asleep.)
  • Those who followed ‘bedtime fading,’ a newer sleep-training technique in which the baby’s bedtime is moved later and later, in hopes that he or she will have an easier time falling asleep
  • The control group, where parents continued to do as they had previously, usually rocking to sleep
  • Parents kept a sleep diary, and the infants’ stress levels were measured morning and night via salivary cortisol samples. The mother’s self-reported mood and stress level were also tracked. A follow-up 12 months later assessed the child’s emotional and behavioral state and evaluated the parent-child bond.

    When the trial began, it took babies an average of 18 minutes to fall asleep. As time progressed, the gradual extinction babies fell asleep 13 minutes faster and the bedtime fading babies fell asleep 10 minutes faster than babies whose parents did not practice either training technique. The gradual extinction group also had fewer nighttime wakings, whereas the bedtime fading method did not reduce nighttime wakings.

    The study points out that there are no long-term negative effects to sleep-training a baby. The cortisol measurements could not detect immediate stress during treatment, nor were there any significant differences in the parent-child bond one year later. While Prof. Gradisar admits that sleep-training can be stressful for parents for a brief period of time, consider how much more stressful it would be to have a sleepless child who’s not getting any better at sleeping:

    CBC reports: “[Gradisar] noted that his co-author, Kate Jackson, who was delivering the interventions, also found it stressful to take calls from parents in the control group, whose children showed far less improvement.”

    Regardless of which side you take in the sleep-training debate, parents need to feel comfortable with their choice. For some, the average three nights that it takes to sleep-train a baby using the gradual extinction method is a small price to pay for predictable, solid, uninterrupted sleep. CNN cites Gradisar: “What our data probably do not capture is the peace of mind surrounding bedtime that we see when we work with families.”

    Parents who do not support sleep-training, however, will be happy to hear that babies’ sleep generally improves as they grow older. By one year, all of the babies, including those in the control group, were sleeping about the same amount each day.

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