Sleep Training, Night Waking, and Parents

Self-Reg for parents, photo of man and son sitting on the grass together

Controlled crying, graduated extinction, Ferberization, cry-it-out.

These are some of the names given to methods designed to “teach” babies to sleep through the night. I have done a lot of pondering, writing and research on this topic, including academic research. I am a co-author of two peer-reviewed journal articles based on a study of parents’ experiences of night waking and sleep training, led by Dr. Lynn Loutzenhiser (psychology, University of Regina). I’ve interviewed dozens of parents about their struggles.

Oh yeah. And I have personal experience too – nine years or so of interrupted nights. None of our three boys slept through the night regularly until they were over three. That was a long time ago.

Why am I bringing it up now? A few weeks ago, yet another study was published claiming to prove that sleep training methods that include leaving babies alone to cry are not harmful in the long term. The CBC’s headline read, “Letting babies cry themselves to sleep not damaging, study finds.” News coverage like this always re-ignites debate between pro and anti sleep training pundits.

I am not a fan of sleep training. But whether or not it is harmful or not is not what I want to talk about here. I want to look at my own experience of night waking and sleep training through the lens of Self-Reg. Because I think the parents’ experience is too often ignored in discussion this issue. Parents tend to be seen as either the cause or the solution to the baby’s problem.

My view is that night waking is primarily a parent problem. I don’t mean parents are doing something wrong. I mean that parent stress around night waking is the problem. Infant sleep specialists have traditionally regarded night waking as a baby sleep behaviour problem. The baby’s problem needs to be fixed because it can lead to long-term sleep disruption and behaviour problems in kids and postpartum depression in mothers, they say.

I’m not saying there is no such thing as a bona fide baby sleep “problem” or disorder. But I think it’s more useful to look at most night waking as a parent problem. I offer up my family’s experience as a case study.

My wife and I were total wipeouts in the sleeping through the night department. We tried sleep training, partly out of desperation and partly because (back then) we thought that maybe the sleep experts were right. Sleep training felt awful. But it appeared to work at one point. Then our son, a classic “”high needs” baby (easily upset/aroused, hard to soothe), started waking again. That was devastating.

Let’s look at the stressors my wife and were experiencing apart from the obvious one – interrupted nights.

1. The worry that something was wrong with our son.

Experts were saying that babies “should” be able to sleep through the night by age six months. Our 11- month-old was waking 3 or 4 times, and often seemed to be crying hard before he was even awake.

It’s now well documented that night waking after six months of age, and relapses in sleeping through the night, are normal. We didn’t know that at the time.

2. Self-doubt because we couldn’t control something we were “supposed” to be able to control.

Sleep experts maintained their techniques worked if parents were persistent. Ergo, we were inept.

3. Inner conflict.

Other expert voices were (rightly) saying it’s important to respond promptly and consistently to infants’ distress. Sleep experts tended to downplay or sidestep this question. But it’s not irrelevant. Our baby’s distress was very real. Not responding felt wrong. We felt terrible and mean for what we were doing to him.

4. “Helpful” advice from people who believed that sleeping through the night was a normal, expected early milestone.

My mother-in-law, a lovely person who was always very helpful and supportive of our parenting, would tell us about people whose grandchildren were sleeping through the night. She meant to give us hope. But, given my “kindled” (as Dr. Stuart Shanker would say) alarm system, those encouragements were like little darts to my heart.

I was burning a lot of energy dealing with those stressors!

Our night waking experience remained highly stressful until we finally found a way to eliminate our parent stressors. That’s not how we thought about it back then. We just knew that we couldn’t do sleep training. It didn’t fit with our beliefs and instincts. We just couldn’t/wouldn’t let our kids cry. So we let go of the idea of “training” our kids to sleep through the night, stopped listening (mostly) to conservative sleep experts and decided to live with night waking.

That took away more than half our stress! The interrupted nights remained. But now we were following our convictions, supporting each other to get enough rest, and not second-guessing each other about when and when not to go in to comfort our toddler. That left us with enough energy to cope until night waking gradually petered out on its own.

Is that approach right for all parents? That’s not for me to say. But my conviction that night waking can be regarded as a parent problem is validated by data from the study I worked on with Lynn Loutzenhiser. We found that mothers’ perceptions as to whether or not night waking was a “problem” were primarily dependent on how the mother was doing. Generally, the moms felt their babies were OK. But mothers who felt negatively impacted by night waking (read: stressed) tended to label it a “problem.” In contrast, moms who felt they were getting enough rest and could function well during the day tended to not label night waking as a “problem.”

Bottom line: If infant sleep advice-givers spent less time telling parents there was something wrong with their babies and more time focusing on and relieving parent stress, it would be a lot easier for parents of nightwakers to sort out what they need to do and what they feel they can do about night waking.

John has had three distinct careers that have blended together at times: roots musician, stay-at-home father and freelance writer. A former long-time columnist and feature writer for Today’s Parent, John now specializes in knowledge translation, blogging and writing for non-profit organizations like The MEHRIT Centre, The Psychology Foundation of Canada and Dad Central Ontario.
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