Is Sleep Training Safe?

6 January 2020

Let’s start with a clarification here. I really don’t like the expression “sleep training.” People who know me, who have worked with me or have attended any of my sleep events know that I always refer to what I do as “sleep education” or “sleep intervention.” Training referred to a child just feels negative to me. You train a dog, but you don’t train a child in my opinion. That’s why I find the wording “educating” or “intervening” much more respectful and sensitive to the child and the importance of sleep.

As the parent of a new baby, the number of questions you are going to find yourself asking are, to put it mildly, astronomical.

The old saying about babies not coming with an instruction manual exists for a valid reason. Even after spending nine months doing endless research on what to expect when baby arrives, as soon as we are sent home from the hospital with our little ones, there is an unavoidable feeling of unpreparedness.
Every baby is unique, after all, so no manual, no specific coaching from friends and family, is going to prepare you for your unique child. And since this is just about the biggest responsibility that a human being can have, to raise the most important thing they have – we feel an incredible obligation to get it right.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, we don’t get any practice swings or dress rehearsals. Your first run-through is the final performance, so to speak, which only increases our dedication to solving problems before they arise. Now, since babies basically eat, poo, cry and sleep, guess what we are focused on most? Exactly those four things.
What to feed baby? That’s often a lively subject on its own, and we often find ourselves with a sudden fascination in poo that we didn’t quite know we had before. This leaves us with sleeping and crying, and as a Paediatric Sleep Consultant myself, believe me, I’ve done a lot of research on both.

The biggest question that parents have when they start sleep education is: “Will my baby cry?”
This really isn’t the question they want an answer for, of course, because babies cry all the time. In fact, if a baby didn’t cry, it might be cause for concern.
What they are really asking when they pose this question is, “How much will my baby cry, and will I be able to offer comfort when they do?”

Why is this the major concern with new parents? Well, naturally nobody likes to hear their baby cry, and in terms of evolutionary development of the human species, there are valid reasons why we interpret a baby’s cry as a sign of alarm. However, the main reason why this happens is that parents nowadays are able to access a wealth of misinformation that claims if you don’t respond immediately when your baby cries, you could actually be harming them.

This wasn’t always such a contentious issue. Then something happened. In 1993 Dr. William Sears came out with his Attachment Parenting theory. Parents until then were reasonably comfortable with the idea that leaving a child to cry for a period of time when they awoke in the night was safe, if maybe a little unpleasant.
Once The Baby Book was published, a generation of new parents began to believe in the idea that it was not just ineffective but was causing brain damage. Sears cited studies to back up his claim, but those studies looked at babies who were suffering from colic and a condition known as persistent crying, both of which are a far cry from allowing a child a few minutes of crying time.

It’s astonishing that the paediatric and scientific community haven’t done more to prove or disprove this assertion, given the magnitude of the consequences. One reason Dr. Sears’ claims didn’t provoke an immediate and extensive investigation was because they were hugely misleading. The Yale researchers who conducted one of the studies his research pulled from responded to his use of their work by saying, “Our paper is not referring to routine, brief stressful experiences, but to abuse and neglect. It is a mis-citation of our work to support a non-scientifically justified idea.”
Another went so far as to actually note in the study’s own conclusion that “Our findings provide evidence that the quality of maternal behaviour appears to be unrelated to this effect.” So the mother’s response or lack thereof to the condition of persistent crying was inconsequential.

So that’s the argument against the original suggestion that started this whole movement, but Dr Sears’ supporters will invariably ask – and you might be asking this yourself too –  “Where is your evidence to the contrary? How do you know it’s not harmful?”

Well, back in 2012, Dr. Anna Price, a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Centre for Community Child Health in Melbourne, Australia, conducted an extensive study that followed a group of two hundred and twenty six children, measuring mental health, sleep, stress regulation, child-parent relationship, maternal health and parenting styles. Five years later, she followed up with the families to see the if the one third of the children whose parents had employed some method of sleep training had experienced any of the terrifying side effects that Dr. Sears had warned of.
The result… they had not. In fact, to quote the study, “There was no evidence of differences between intervention and control families for any outcome. Behavioural sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects.”
In March 2016 Pediatrics published another peer-reviewed study that showed sleep training to be both effective and safe, but it didn’t change the mind of Dr. Sears or his followers.

But for those new parents who have been bombarded with misinformation regarding the safety and benefits of sleep training, it is yet another assurance that you can feel confident in the fact that helping your child sleep through the night is important, safe, and beneficial to your entire family. There is indeed one thing that everyone can agree on, and that’s the fact that a good night’s sleep is beneficial for mother and child alike. Just take a look at my Testimonials below to learn more about the benefits the families I worked with could see with their own eyes.

So the answer is yes, sleep training is safe. Sleep itself is glorious, rejuvenating, and beneficial to you, your little one, and your entire family. Focusing on your child’s sleep habits is something you can feel good about and a commitment that will pay off exponentially.

Published on 6 January, 2020


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