One of the most polarizing issues in parenting has to be what's often referred to as the "cry it out" method, or "Ferberizing," stemming from pediatrician Richard Ferber who developed his sleep training strategy and published it in Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems in 1985. The approach says that if a baby gets used to being rocked to sleep or always falling asleep while breastfeeding, she won't learn to fall asleep on her own. So the goal is to train the baby to "self-soothe" herself to sleep at bedtime, and then use the same skill when she wakes up at night or during a nap.
While many parents are intrigued by the idea, there's quite a bit of research and opposition against it. And research has shown various short- and long-term negative effects of the method. Here, six reasons "crying it out" can hurt little ones ...
- Babies left to cry have been shown to be stressed even after they do appear to be "sleep trained." Research conducted at the University of North Texas published in the Early Human Development journal in 2012 looked at 25 infants aged 4 to 10 months in a five-day inpatient sleep training program. Even though by the third night of being left to cry, they were crying less and falling asleep faster, the cortisol levels measured in their saliva remained high, indicating that they were just as physically "stressed" as if they had remained crying.
- Even once a baby does fall asleep, sleeping alone has long-term negative effects. "Isolated sleeping is bad for babies," says Darcia Navarez, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, who has done extensive research on responsive parenting, characterized by breastfeeding, frequent touch, soothing babies in distress, outdoor play, and a wider community of caregivers. She notes that animal studies show how even brief isolation can affect stress reactivity. "All sorts of systems can become disorganized when a baby is not 'in arms' with long-term effects on intelligence, social capacities, and health."
- The distress associated with crying it out can affect brain development. "Extensive distress in babyhood kills synapses, which are rapidly growing in the first years of life. This means that networks of connections between brain systems don't get established properly," says Narvaez. A key set of connections are from the prefrontal cortex to the older parts of the brain. When these are established well, they control primitive survival systems (anger, fear). If they are not, a child may develop anxiety and depression.
- It may also may lead to a higher probability of behavioral problems. Narvaez notes that studies out of Harvard, Yale, Baylor, and other prestigious institutions show that the practice can kill off baby brain cells and lead to a higher risk of ADHD, poor academic performance, and anti-social tendencies.
- Prolonged crying can ultimately lower IQ. Dr. Rao and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health showed that infants with prolonged crying (not due to colic) in the first three months of life had an average IQ 9 points lower at 5. They also showed poor fine motor development.
- Babies left to cry it out also have a higher chance of becoming more dependent later on. Although the hope is that allowing a child to "self-soothe" will foster independence, Narvaez notes that it actually accomplishes the opposite: "It is more likely to foster a whiny, unhappy, aggressive, and/or demanding child, one who has learned that one must scream to get needs met."
How do you feel about sleep training?
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