Paging Dr. Roban: The Ongoing Sleep Training Controversy Put to Sleep
In an effort to alleviate any feelings of guilt that may be felt by parents sleep training, Dr. Whitney Roban emphasizes that sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity. It is a vital component to a happily, functioning family. And for those of us trying to keeping the spark alive in 2013, let’s start with the basics–a well rested family!
One of the most common questions I hear from parents in my Pediatric Sleep Consulting practice is whether sleep training is emotionally harmful to children. The wealth of sleep training information at our fingertips, coupled with the varying and often times extreme and judgmental opinions of others, results in confused (and severely sleep deprived) parents who are lead to question their parenting choices. It is so unfortunate that these parents, who are trying to make parenting choices that are best for their particular family, are made to feel anything less than the loving parents that they are.
As a clinical psychologist as well as a sleep coach, an important aspect of my job is to help parents work through these issues. Before embarking on a sleep training journey with a family, I believe it is important to focus on the parents’ emotional well being as it relates to the sleep training process. Parents have to feel that what they are doing is right for their family and will benefit their family as well. When I encounter parents who are questioning their decision to sleep train and who are also expressing guilt in wanting to sleep train, I try to help them restructure their negative thoughts. The key to any and all sleep training is 100% consistency. If parents have any doubts and negative thoughts about the sleep training process, they will question their journey and therefore not be 100% consistent. They will then not experience the success they both need and deserve.
It is very important for parents to understand the difference between “wanting” their family to sleep and “needing” their family to sleep. Sleep is a basic biological need, just as is eating and breathing. Sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity. This is true for both adults and children. It is helpful then, for parents to understand that although they do “want” their family well rested, they “need” their family well rested as well. Lack of healthy sleep is just as much a health issue as lack of healthy eating or lack of healthy breathing. I find that, by reassuring parents that healthy sleep for their family is both a want and a need, it helps to alleviate any guilt they feel about moving forward with sleep training.
Parents also often ask me about the “negative research” related to Cry It Out (CIO), as this a major source of parental anxiety and guilt about sleep training. Therefore, this is an important topic to discuss with and clarify for parents. There are a very limited number of controlled research studies on the effects of CIO. The anti-CIO studies to date are not controlled studies looking specifically at the effects of sleep training and CIO. They are studies that look at the effects of chronically non-responsive parents in neglectful parenting environments. More specifically, these studies look at the effect on children who were left to cry all day and night without any parental responsiveness. The children in these studies were not actually being sleep trained by loving and caring parents. Instead, these studies looked at children in traumatic situations of emotional abuse and neglect, and their cortisol levels were measured in these types of totally non-responsive parenting environments. I have personally journeyed through sleep training with hundreds of parents through the years (and sleep trained my own children when they were young) and I must say that the parents I have worked with were the exact opposite of non-responsive, abusive, and neglectful parents. They were loving and caring parents who focused on what was needed and what was best for their family, having a healthy and well rested family.
It is also important to note that the few studies that have looked specifically at the effects of sleep training and CIO in controlled environments have found that both children and parents benefit from children learning how to self soothe, sleep independently, and sleep through the night. These families were found to be happier, more rested, and showed no signs of attachment disorders nor any long term harm from the use of the behavioral sleep training techniques. Although there is most likely crying involved in the sleep training process, the crying ends as soon as the child learns to self soothe, a skill that all healthy children can learn on their own and relatively quickly. Those limited bouts of crying are then replaced with long and peaceful hours of sleep. However, children who do not know how to sleep independently can often cry for long periods of time and long term. These children do not know how to fall asleep, stay asleep, nor get back to sleep on their own. They are fully reliant on outside factors such as their parents, to help them with the sleep process. This causes fragmented sleep and light sleep patterns on a daily basis, which results in severely sleep deprived children and parents. There will never be a study promoting sleep deprivation, as there are absolutely no positive benefits to sleep deprivation. In fact, so many of the parents I have worked with have told me that the positive effects of sleep training and having a well rested family were life changing for their whole family.
Which brings me to my last talking point with parents who are conflicted about sleep training. This is the important fact that there is absolutely no research showing the positive effects of sleep deprivation. The one noncontroversial sleep related topic is the negative effects of sleep deprivation. It negatively affects both adults and children emotionally, cognitively, psychologically, behaviorally, and physically. It negatively affects our daily functioning at home, school, and the workplace. My hope is that one day society will focus on sleep deprivation as an epidemic in children and adults, and that sleep will be universally accepted and understood as an important and major health issue. At that time I hope all parents will stop being made to feel guilty for their desire and need for a well rested family. Again, sleep is a necessity not a luxury!
Sleep training, as in many controversial topics, has many vocal opponents whose views tend to be extreme and one-sided. Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all philosophy. What’s right for one family may not be right for another. It is not beneficial to any parents to be made to feel bad for their parenting choices. We all need to accept that although we may disagree about how to handle various parenting issues, what parents need most is to support each other’s differences. Co-sleeping may be right for one family, where as sleep training may be right for another family. As long as everyone’s goal is long and peaceful nights of sleep for the whole family, it doesn’t matter how each family accomplished that goal. However and wherever a family chooses to sleep is each families’ own personal decision, as long as it results in a very well rested family!