There is a ongoing debate between parents and psychologists about whether crying down is harmful method for getting babies to sleep and whether it has long-term harmful psychological effects on the child. Before I discuss the research, I want to clarify what crying down means. Some people refer to crying down as just shutting the door and allowing your baby to fall asleep by itself. However, many people prefer a more gentle method of sleep-training nowadays . The term ‘crying down’ is now often used to refer to a method introduced by Dr. Ferber, where parents leave their child for increasing amounts of time e.g. 2 minutes, 4 minutes building up to 15 minutes, before going back to reassure them. This method is also referred to as extinction and controlled crying. I have to say that I used the Dr. Ferber method of controlled crying with my son when he reached 3 months old and I know that some people will disagree with my decision. However, it is important to look at the evidence when making a judgement and to understand why good sleep patterns are so important.
Touchette and colleagues (2005) found that many children who did not sleep six consecutive hours at 5 months old, still had problems at 29 months old sleeping six consecutive hours. They concluded that the ability to sleep through the night was learnt very early on and that parental behaviours could have a negative impact on a child’s ability to sleep. Some of you may argue that it is normal for babies and toddlers to have difficulties sleeping through the night. However, other research suggests that children who have problems sleeping early on are more likely to have behavioural difficulties later. Other studies show that sleep problems affect performance at school.
The way parents deal with their children’s night-time wakings is important. Simard and colleagues (2008) found that parents who comforted their toddlers out of bed at night-time or who gave their young children (not babies) food in the middle of the night were more likely to have children with sleep problems and behavioural difficulties later on. They also concluded that co-sleeping had a negative impact on the future sleep patterns of children.
Mindell and colleagues in a study for the National Sleep Foundation (2004) found that a late bedtime and a child falling asleep with their parent present had the most significant negative effects on sleep. A late bedtime led to children taking longer to fall asleep and sleeping for a shorter period of time. Parental presence led to children having more night wakings. Having a poor bedtime routine and having a television in the bedroom was also found to cause sleep problems.
Some of you may argue that good sleep patterns are all very well but not important relative to the possible psychological harm caused by leaving a baby to cry. Hiscock and colleagues (2008) looked at the long-term effects on both mother and child mental health of using Ferber’s graduated crying down method. They study recruited 328 mothers of 7 month old babies who reported that their child had a sleep problem. Half of the mothers were taught a sleep training method (with more mothers choosing Ferber’s controlled crying method than other sleep training methods). The other half of the mothers were placed in a control group and not taught any method. The key findings were that the mothers who had been taught a sleep training method were less likely to have depressive symptoms and by the time their children were two years old, there were no differences in behaviour between the sleep-trained children an the non-sleep-trained children. This study suggests there are no long-term consequence of sleep-training your child. France (1992) studied the behaviour characteristics of babies who had been sleep-trained using Ferber’s extinction method. She found that the sleep-trained babies were just as secure as the control group babies at 24 months old and their tension levels and likeability scores improved.
More research still needs to be done on the subject of sleep-training and the long-term impacts. However, I would recommend looking at the ample research carried out by Mindell if you are sceptical about sleep-training. Personally, having read the many studies on the topic, I feel happy that I used Ferber’s graduated crying down method when my son was 3 months old. He is a good sleeper generally and he frequently sleeps eleven and half consecutive hours at three and half years old. I also know that I have been very responsive to him throughout his childhood and he has a good attachment to me. I am a strong advocate of being sensitive and responsive to you child but I also think it is important to teach your child to sleep well. Winnicott said that a good-enough mother is one that gives their child the attention they need but also allows their child to experience some frustrations. Sleep-training is hard to do as a parent and tugs at your heart strings but I believe it has long-term benefits. I will also admit that my son still has some night-time wakings. Having re-read the research to write this blog, I now feel I need to get a bit tougher and resist the urge in the middle of the night to just fall asleep beside him in his bed.