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Is Sleep Training Cruel?

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Do you have a guilty conscience for letting your baby cry through the night? Expert Jill Spivack is here to soothe your fears.

Baby crying in crib

Elizabeth Hurchalla: Family therapist Jill Spivack, LCSW, may be a self-proclaimed "uber-wimpy mom when it comes to crying and children's emotional needs," but as the coauthor of "The Sleepeasy Solution" and cofounder of Sleepy Planet, Inc., she's also an expert on sleep training.

Her advice in a nutshell: Set a predictable bedtime routine, create a non-stimulating sleep environment and put your child down when they're tired but awake. Of course, that tired-but-awake part is where things get tricky. If your baby can't visit dreamland without your help, Spivack advises teaching self-soothing abilities by leaving them to fall asleep on their own, briefly checking on and consoling them at five-, 10- and 15-minute intervals (in other words, let them cry it out).

If you're so sleep-deprived you're ready to do something -- anything! -- to get more rest, but you're worried about permanently scarring your child by letting them cry themselves to sleep, check out our exclusive interview with Spivack defending the technique.

Momlogic: So ... is sleep-training cruel?

Jill Spivack: If sleep training were cruel, I would never have gotten involved in this profession! When a child learns any new skill, whether it's riding a bike, tying their shoe or learning the rules of bedtime, there is always some frustration in the process. Frustration = crying. But in doing this for more than 13 years, all I've seen are families who are better rested and frankly, more attached, because the parents have more energy and enthusiasm for their kids the next day and the children are rested enough to receive love with joy!

ML: How do we know that babies crying it out (even with intermittent checking and consoling by the parents) doesn't adversely affect them?

JS: Because we've tested this over time. Parents do not come back 10 years later and tell us their children have attachment disorders or any medical/psychological problems. The majority of families are thrilled that they worked on sleep when they did, and their children are thriving. If you ask most sleep specialists this question, they'll tell you the same thing.

ML: All new moms are told "you can't spoil a newborn." How do you reconcile that with letting them cry until they fall asleep just a month after the "fourth trimester"?

JS: At four months, most babies are ready to learn how to sleep. Their brains have gone through an enormous cognitive growth spurt between three and four months, so they are better able to soothe themselves, and their memory has also improved, so they can remember from night to night how to do so. At this point, they are able to take on a little more responsibility. When we "let them cry" for a few nights, we are doing a short-term intervention for the long-term benefits of giving them good, deep, restorative sleep for the rest of their lives. The little bit of time it takes for them to learn to self-soothe doesn't compare to the constant love and nurturing they get at all other times during the day. Again, this is meant to be short-term -- no more than a week in most cases and usually more like three to four days!

ML: What's the best way for moms to remain calm during sleep-training?

JS: Moms should write note cards or posters to hang on the wall with their top five reasons for what they're doing, like "Many babies have learned to sleep great this way and they're so happy when they get good sleep nutrition," "If I keep helping her, she'll keep relying on us to get her to sleep and we'll be miserable during the day when we're supposed to be loving," "My husband and I aren't spending any time together with the baby up all night and it's affecting our marriage," "This is short-term! Hang in there for one night, and we can trash it in the morning ... give her a chance to learn!" Sleep-training is very hard on parents -- much harder than on the children, actually. And this comes from my own experience of sleep-training my son when he was a baby and I couldn't let him smile without going to him, let alone cry! It really is over before you know it.

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12 comments so far | Post a comment now
ag February 22, 2010, 9:03 AM

This is the approach we used with our daughter at 6 months of age. We followed the book to the T. Previously she was waking up about every hour to nurse and would wake upon being laid down. I’m glad we tried it. It might not work for everybody but it did for us!

bleh February 22, 2010, 9:32 AM

this makes me sick.

Pamala February 22, 2010, 10:36 AM

Worked well for me. She cried for two to three nights and that’s it. I mean seriously how anyone can think that for an infant, two to three nights of crying, is somehow going to hurt them. Children have to learn these skills, we can’t shelter them from the hard things in life.

tennmom February 22, 2010, 10:56 AM

My first daughter had a habit of waking within half an hour of being but into her crib. When she was about 6 months old, my brother-in-law told me to wait 5 minutes before going back in her room. It worked. 5 minutes later she went back to sleep.
Of course I don’t advocate letting a baby cry for 30 minutes before soothing them, but if you know the baby isn’t hungry, sick, in pain or in need of a fresh diaper, there is no reason to run to the child the minute he/she starts crying.

Natalie February 22, 2010, 11:28 AM

I trained both of my children, (who had VERY different personalities , to fall asleep on their own from a very young age. 6 weeks. I am a firm beliver that all children thrive on routine and to this day I have two extremely well behaved children who listen to their parents and do what is expected of them. I honestly feel that the early sleep training and following a strict, yet flexible routine is what has made them happy and well mannered 5 and 7 year old kids!

concerned mom February 22, 2010, 6:34 PM

The reason this is guilt inducing, is because it’s a mistake and goes against our maternal instinct to answer our baby’s cries. They may not be in pain, or hungry, etc. but maybe they are lonely! Isn’t that a legitimate reason? These helpless creatures need us, and their needs don’t stop at night, simply because we are exhausted. Are they self soothing, or giving up hope that someone will come? The guilt is a *sign* that we need to comfort our babies or toddlers until they can truly comfort themselves. A lot of this repressed buried pain comes out decades later as depression and anxiety, which is rampant in america.

Anonymous February 24, 2010, 1:11 PM

funny stuff

Anonymous February 24, 2010, 1:21 PM


Tracy February 24, 2010, 1:30 PM

Concerned Mom - the “guilt” could also be cultural pressures being put on these mothers to be perfect moms for their babies. The fact is that if they are to exhausted to take care of the babies other needs they aren’t really being perfect moms. And for the record this is a very old technique. Mom’s have been teaching their babies to sleep this way that I know of since the 50’s.

Diapers & Divas February 25, 2010, 4:59 PM

We started sleep training when our baby was around 4 months. It was really hard! Hubby & I couldn’t have done it without the other to keep us accountable. It worked like a charm! We sometimes have to do a mini-version when our little guy is teething really bad, but it’s not as tough as the very 1st night of training.

Jo November 23, 2010, 1:41 PM

Is Sleep Training Cruel?
Registrazione domini.

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