Is Sleep Training Safe?

Have you ever heard that saying that “babies don’t come with instruction manuals?” It may sound a bit like a cliché, but there is so much truth in that sentiment.

We typically have 9 months time to research, read, plan, prepare, etc. for what to expect when your baby comes home. And yet, the majority of us arrive home with an unavoidable feeling of unpreparedness.

The idea of an instruction manual for this little life that you have to care for sounds so perfect. Take away the anxiety or angst and replace it with a sense of confidence and assurance.

But the reality is that would never happen! (And if it did, it would be a grandiose failure) Because we know that every baby is different. And no one set of instructions, written and published or passed down from your family and friends, is going to apply to your child in particular.

Of course we are grateful to have the advice and input that we get from professionals in our child’s lives (thank you pediatricians and teachers) and the experience and wisdom from our family and friends – there is nothing like that momma tribe that you build around you. But, in the end, it’s like being asked to complete your final project for school or work without ever having worked on this type of project before.

How incredibly daunting. No wonder we feel a huge sense of obligation to get it right! We are being told to raise another living person without a clear guideline or any kind of practice. This is just about the biggest responsibility that a human being can have.

So – where do we start? Newborn babies basically eat, sleep, poop and cry. That tends to be the beginning focus of this journey. Feeding a baby is a whole subject in itself (saved for another post). And there is the in-depth fascination that new parents develop with baby poop that (hopefully) fades after a few months.

And that leaves us with sleeping and crying. As a certified sleep consultant, I assure you, I have gone through a lot of learning and research on both of these topics. Makes sense, since one of the most frequent questions I get about sleep training is – “Will my baby cry?”

But, I have learned to read between the lines with this question. They are not asking just IF the baby will cry – since babies cry all the time (in fact I would be quite concerned if I met a baby who didn’t cry at all). What moms really want to know with this question is, “How much will my baby cry and is it safe for them?”

We can’t really blame them to be interested in this. Naturally, nobody LOVES to hear a baby cry. But there has been a shift in parenting recently that has led parents to believe that they could actually be harming their baby if they don’t respond immediately to their cries.

And when I say a “shift” I am actually telling you that this has not always been the case. Up until Dr. William Sears came out with his Attachment Parenting theory in 1993, parents were reasonably comfortable with the idea that leaving a child to cry for a period of time when they woke in the night was safe, if maybe a little unpleasant.

But once his was published, a generation of new parents began to cling to 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 while supporting them and meeting their needs.

And so the argument has raged on for nearly 25 years now, with attachment parenting advocates accusing sleep training advocates of willfully neglecting their babies for their own convenience. (And let me just add, even the concept of trying to label parents into categories based on some of their child-rearing practices is one that I don’t like to promote)

It’s surprising that the pediatric and scientific communities haven’t done more to prove or disprove this assertion, given the magnitude of the consequences. After all, if we’re causing our babies brain damage by allowing them to cry, even for a short period, wouldn’t almost every parent in the world alter their approach to prevent it? One analogy that I pose to parents is the ABSOLUTELY PROVEN safety of the proper use of car seats. Even those babies who don’t like being strapped in to the car seat or the toddler who tantrums when it’s time to buckle up is still being put into that situation for their safety – regardless of the amount of crying that happens during the car ride. (I can’t imagine any parent deciding that the crying was bad for them and allowing them to roam free in the car while speeding down the freeway)

One reason Dr. Sears’ claims didn’t provoke an immediate and widespread 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 behavior appears to be unrelated to this effect.” So the mother’s response or lack of it to the condition of persistent crying was inconsequential.

So that’s the argument against the original suggestion that started this whole movement, but its supporters will invariably ask, “Where’s 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 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. Behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects.”

But critics continue to try to shoot holes in the evidence. “The sample size was too small,” is a common complaint, no matter what the size of the study might be. “We need further study,” is another, assuming that further study supports their position, which, as of yet, it hasn’t.

So in March of last year, when Pediatrics published another peer-reviewed study that showed sleep training to be both effective and safe, it didn’t change the mind of Dr. Sears or his followers.

But for those new parents who have been bombarded with misinformation and hearsay regarding the safety and efficacy of sleep training, it’s yet another guarantee that you can feel confident in the fact that getting your child to sleep through the night is important, safe, and beneficial to your entire family.

Because there’s one thing that everyone can agree on, and that’s the fact that a good night’s sleep is beneficial for mother and baby alike.

So the answer is yes, sleep training is safe. Sleep itself is glorious, rejuvenating, and beneficial to you, your baby, 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.

In short, your baby and yourself can both sleep soundly, knowing you’ve made the right choice.

Scroll to Top