When my first child was an infant, sleep did not always come easily for him (or, as a result, for me or my husband). Some nights our son would conk out on his own and stay asleep through the night (though I'd still wake up to check on him). Other nights, it didn't matter what we tried, our baby wouldn't go to sleep until he was good and ready, and it was impossible to predict when (and how) that time would come.
Many people suggested that we let our son "cry it out" in his crib. "Have you tried 'Ferberizing' him?" they'd say, referring to the methods of Dr. Richard Ferber, a pediatrician who recommends parents let children fall asleep by themselves at bedtime -- even if that means allowing them to cry for extended periods of time -- in order to train them to be self-sufficient. "Ferberizing," such an ugly term. Machine-like. Cold.
My husband and I made a few half-hearted efforts at not responding right away to our baby's cries at night. But we could never really hold out for long. After a minute or two, if our son was still howling, we were by his side or he was in our arms. (Who could sleep through that racket, anyway?) Letting him howl for minutes or even hours on end? Even as every fiber of my being felt drawn to respond, to hold him, shush him, bounce him, and rock him? That just felt like a primal wrong to me.
Ferber's methods have long been controversial (he himself has softened his stance), but now they're being labeled downright dangerous. According to University of Notre Dame psychology professor Darcia Narvaez, research has shown that "letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term." What's more, she writes in Psychology Today, "Giving babies what they need leads to greater independence later."
Narvaez maintains that babies cry for a reason and suggests that, when parents don't respond to their infant's cries, it can, among other things, negatively affect the baby's brain development, lead to neural and digestive disorders, keep them from being able to self-regulate and self-comfort, and even "stop growing, stop feeling, stop trusting."
Ugh. This must be terribly frightening news for the many parents who have relied upon (and in many cases, sworn by) the "cry it out" method of sleep training. Even I, with my few random half-hearted attempts at not responding to my infant's nighttime cries, feel a little unsettled. Have I irreparably damaged my child in some way? It makes you realize that, at the end of the day, we really have to trust our own instincts as parents. If an expert's advice doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.
Did you try "cry it out" sleep training with your child?
Image via Chalky Lives/Flickr