In which I venture forth into the murky waters of the sleep training debate, and see whether I can find anyone left to alienate

In the week that I spent without having a chance to update this, it seems the scandal of the blogworld (or the small part of it which I read, anyway) is that Julie, brave lady, let us know that she’s been letting her seven-month-old son Charlie CIO.

Since the only people remotely likely to be reading this are non-parents and not au fait with the jargon, here is the translation: CIO stands for ‘cry[ing] it out’, and is one of various methods for getting children to sleep. Basically, if the kid wakes up before nap and/or night-time is over, instead of going to get them you leave them crying until getting-up time, and repeat this as needed until either you crack or the child figures out that he’s not going to get picked up right then and had better just deal with it and go to sleep. Or, according to other ideologies, figures out that he’s been abandoned in a hostile world and enters a state of learned helplessness where he no longer bothers to cry because he knows his needs won’t be met.

You will gather that the method is a source of some contention.

Basically, telling people that you’ve done CIO with your kid is the equivalent of telling people that you support the war in Iraq, or that anyone who hasn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and saviour won’t make it to heaven, or…… You get the idea? It’s light-the-blue-touch-paper talk.

Actually, most of the people who disagree with Julie have stayed off her blog – I gather from another blogger that she’s been excoriated on various other blogs and forums, but most of the comments on her blog simply expressed delight that she’d found something that worked for her. However, inevitably, there was the occasional dissent.

There was, for example, the anonymous commentator who stated herself to have been ‘alienated’ by what Julie did. After all, Charlie was learning that “when he cries, mommy may not come and get him”. Um, yes, sounds as if that’s pretty much the idea. But, you see, this is apparently a Very Bad Thing. “He feels abandoned and his primal instincts kick in for self-preservation (I’m alone in the world, I must conserve energy or die).” And seeing Mommy turn up again at the end of the nap with a bottle and a cuddle doesn’t clue him in that, phew, he was wrong in that conclusion and he can actually survive a short stint in his crib perfectly well? Apparently not. ‘[H]e will trust you less and that will carry on into adulthood’, the psychic Anonymous assures us. Fortunately, we don’t have to abandon all hope for Charlie’s emotional well-being quite yet – “It’s not too late. Maybe you can rebuild his trust.” Phew. I bet Julie’s relieved to hear that.

Then there was Ellen, the psychologist who gave it as her “clinical belief” that CIO was “the start of a slippery slope into justifying all kinds of parenting choices…. which ultimately are about getting the adult’s needs met at the cost of the child’s”. Yes, because, of course, a parent couldn’t possibly manage to respond differently in different circumstances. Just in case anyone thought that kind of thinking was the preserve of the anti-CIO brigade, Susan weighed in with “Take a moment and look around you in a grocery store. The child who is screaming because his mother initially said no about a candy bar, who then escalates his cries to the aforementioned ear-splitting shrieks and eventually gets his way… Those parents did absolutely no one any favors by letting that child train them so long ago while the kid was still in the crib, that louder = I get what I want.”

Rounding it all off with probably the strongest contender for the ‘Oh, please’ award, was nzmom: “These babies are your skin, your bones, your cells. They have evolved to thrive on touch, skin to skin contact, the sound of their mother’s heart beating, the warm milky rush of breastmilk and the strength of your arms in the night.” I suspect they’ve also evolved to be tough enough to handle worse things than being left in a cot on their own for a bit.

All of this is pretty much business as usual in the perennially long-running series of “A Mother’s Place Is In The Wrong”, and, given that the dust has now well and truly settled on this particular episode, I probably should just leave it settled. The reason why I’m posting my two cents – apart from the whole congenital-inability-to-shut-the-fuck-up-at-times-of-contention thing – is because Julie said something in her entry that has barely been commented on, and that I thought was worth highlighting:

See, I don’t interpret those premature-end-of-nap cries as “Help me, I’m alone and frightened and I’m worried you’ll never come back.” I hear it more as, “Hey, here I am, ready to play! Hey! It’s time to wake up! Heeeeeeey! Big lady-shaped person! C’mere! I’ve had enough sleep!”

To read the vast majority of the whole sleep training debate, you would think that a child’s crying in his cot could only indicate a single possible response. The ‘gentle sleep solution’ advocates insist that the crying must indicate terror, despair, loneliness. The CIO advocates don’t think it means anything of the sort. And there is remarkably little acknowledgement of the fact that, actually, it could quite possibly be either. Or it could actually mean that the child’s overtired and desperately needs to sleep. Or it could mean that they’re hungry earlier than normal, or thirsty, or in pain…. but the point is, it will depend on the child’s personality and developmental stage, and, even then, it’ll vary from day to day. Just because Charlie is currently crying at the end of naps because he wants more playtime rather than more sleep doesn’t mean that he won’t, at some point in the future, have a nightmare and cry out of genuine fear. I suspect that, if and when that happens, Julie will pick up on that just as she has picked up on his current lack of fear, and respond appropriately. (I also suspect that if she’s being a bit slow on the uptake that day and doesn’t do so, any trauma incurred by Charlie as a result will be of a level that takes a few days of extra cuddling rather than a few years of therapy to sort out. JMNSHO.)

And I think that a near-complete failure to recognise this underlies quite a lot of the passionately heated debates. Parents who are leaving their children to cry because they want more playtime are being excoriated by people who can’t imagine that those children could be crying for reasons other than abject fear. Parents who recognise that their children are crying from abject fear and just aren’t suitable for CIO are being excoriated by people who can’t imagine that those children could be crying for reasons more serious than wanting more playtime. A lot of people are making money writing a lot of books on The OneTrueWay™ to deal with children’s sleep. And there is a quite astonishing lack of flexibility about the whole thing. Thinking about it, it’s ironic how much of the failure to appreciate the individuality of children in this regard comes from the camp who are loudest in insisting that Children Are Just Little People.

Goodness knows I can understand this kind of rigidity – I haven’t exactly been any better myself. I have also wasted more time than I like to think on the search for the OneTrueWay™ that’s guaranteed to work for all kids and produce perfect upbringing. What I don’t really understand is how that kind of mindset survives contact with real mothers, real children. Well, I suppose by the law of averages a lot of people must end up with babies who happen to thrive on the methods that their parents happen to espouse, and I think a lot of babies are flexible enough to fit in with whatever their parents are doing anyway. But don’t these OneTrueWayers ever listen to the stories of parents who’ve found that a different way turned out to be what worked better for them?

I guess a lot of them just don’t.

Oh, and in case you were interested – Charlie, who hasn’t yet read any attachment parenting theory and doesn’t quite realise how traumatised he’s meant to be by his time fussing in his crib, is apparently doing just fine, thank you. And, these days, his mother’s doing a lot better as well.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “In which I venture forth into the murky waters of the sleep training debate, and see whether I can find anyone left to alienate

  1. The part that bugged me was the advice from the doctor to leave and not take a monitor. THAT concerns me because if you can’t hear you don’t know. I’ve had some scares too – a baby with a leg caught in the crib. A baby who has managed to unravel an afgan and get the yarn wrapped around her neck (yikes! no more afgans in cribs after that one!). So it was that earshot thing – not what she did or didn’t do. I am willing to trust that she knows her child and can tell full out screaming about something wrong from whiny tired fussing. I know I can tell. I’ve put my twins in cribs when tired and let them whine for a few minutes before falling alseep. I like the term FIO (fuss it out) vs CIO because of the bad connotations. Full blown leave your child to scream and never check on them no matter what until you decide it’s time for them to be up – I have issue with.

  2. mellybean

    hi, me again. i guess the part about CIO that bothers me the most is that its adherents point to their happy, healthy, well-adjusted baby or toddler and say “see, it works! they’re happy!” but we don’t hear from these same parents after the child has reached school age, or has moved on to middle school or high school. i’ve read blog posts and articles from women who regret CIOing, because their children grew to be mistrustful of them, especially at bedtime during illness, thunderstorms or nightmares. i believe CIO, like spanking, works in the short-term. it’s the long-term, big picture, that i’m always concerned about. there needs to be more studies done on the long-term effects of CIO.i appreciate the openness of your blog 🙂

  3. JK

    I just want to say I just found you from a link from my blog to your new blog and I’m excited to read more. 🙂Love OneTrueWay(TM). It never works… In anything… (in my area of research people are always advocating that and they forget the world is grey not black and white). More soon!Amen to Cheryl saying “Full blown leave your child to scream and never check on them no matter what until you decide it’s time for them to be up – I have issue with.”And Fuss it out is so much nicer too. Cry it out… sensationalism and that’s what sells. More soon!

  4. JK

    Oops.. I guess I should have said a link back to my blog from your new blog… (That’s what happens when I try to write too quickly…! I don’t make any sense… !)

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