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