Why I don’t believe that sleep training is incompatible with children’s rights

Mothers for Women's Lib regularly host a Carnival of Feminist Parenting.  Every month (recently reduced to every two months) they post links to a selection of posts about various diverse topics on the general themes of feminism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, and about how parenting is affected by these issues (both by discrimination and by the need to fight against it).

A few months ago, one of the featured posts was an anti-sleep training polemic.  Just Let Her Cry started out with a fictional first-person tale of an ill and depressed woman shut in her room by her husband every evening when it suited him regardless of whether she was hungry, in pain, or just not tired.  The author then drew her analogy between this and controlled crying or other forms of cry-it-out (CIO) sleep training, which she referred to as 'neglect with a different name'.  She claimed, inaccurately but ominously, that scientists everywhere knew the short and long-term consequences of CIO to be 'vast', and was scathing in her condemnation of parents who've tried sleep training: 'They aren't setting out to harm a
child, but that doesn't change the fact that they are.  Argue with me
all you want.  Say "I let my baby cry it out, and he/she is fine".  I
don't believe you.  I believe you broke your child like an animal.  I
believe they gave up.  They didn't magically learn to "self-soothe",
they just figured out that you suck at being a parent at night time.'  This wasn't a discussion of feminist parenting; this was a no-holds-barred shot in the Mommy Wars.

I enquired as to the appropriateness of this post as a carnival submission.  One of the site's authors replied 'We are advocates of children’s rights as well as women’s rights and
believe the two are very much intertwined.'  So be it; their Carnival, their choice as to what they consider appropriate, and I wouldn't even want to go down the road of telling people what views they can or can't express.  But I disagree with the implication that a belief in children's rights automatically means a belief that controlled crying is always wrong, and I think it would be a shame if that particular post was the only view a site supposedly for anyone interested in feminism and parenting had on the matter.  So this is my explanation of why I do not agree with that poster's analogy, and why I do not agree that a belief in children's rights is incompatible with a belief that sleep training may be a perfectly reasonable option for a parent to consider.

First off, some background explanation of what sleep training actually is, what it's not, and what purpose it serves:

A little-known fact that's important for understanding sleep training is that all babies wake up multiple times each night.  I'm not talking just about the sleep pattern of very young babies or about occasional bad nights in older babies (although it's important to recognise those as facts of parenting life as well); I'm talking about what happens in every baby, every night, including all the ones whose parents think of them as sleeping through the night.  The parents of those babies aren't lying; the key is not that those babies don't wake up, but that they get back to sleep again right away when they do wake up.  If, on the other hand, the only way a baby can get to sleep is by being rocked or nursed or what-have-you by someone else, then the someone else is going to have to wake up several times every night to do this; and that's where it becomes a problem.

One way of dealing with this is simply to have the baby in bed with you, thereby meaning that you can cuddle or nurse them or whatever without waking up.  As long as the parents are also happy with this and have taken proper safety precautions, this can be a perfectly good solution.  However, there are various reasons why this is not a universal solution for every situation, and so the other option is to teach the baby to go back to sleep alone.  (Older babies, that is; babies in their early months still need to feed every few hours and so trying to get them to sleep through an entire night can actually put them at dangerous risk of dehydration.  For this, among other reasons, sleep training methods are not recommended for babies in the early months.)  Sleep training is the term used for the various methods used to do this. 

Sleep training is not meant for use in situations where the problem is actually that the baby still needs night feedings, or isn't well, or has had a nightmare, or some other need for help or comfort.  (I'm not trying to claim, here, that nobody has ever ignored a baby in such situations and mistakenly referred to that as sleep training; I'm pointing out that
this is not why sleep training methods were designed or how they are
appropriately used.  From what the author said in this post and others
on her blog, it is absolutely clear that she was not merely warning against
misuse of sleep training – in which case I'd have agreed with her – but
was lumping all sleep training in under that description and condemning
it wholesale.)  Sleep training is for teaching the baby to be able to get back to sleep in situations where nothing's actually wrong.

The method usually recommended a few decades back was simply to leave the baby crying for however long it took to fall asleep alone, cold turkey style, but this method was pretty distressing for everyone (including the neighbours), and hence a variety of modifications were introduced.  The first of these was the advice to come in at regular intervals to comfort the baby briefly before going out again, extending the length of the intervals as time went on; this is the infamous controlled crying method, also referred to as Ferberisation after its inventor, Richard Ferber.  He advocated a fairly rigid schedule for going back in and very limited
time in the room/interaction with the baby.  Most of the other suggested methods are just variations on this initial method with different advice about intervals for which the baby is left and/or the amount of time spent comforting the baby.  There are a couple of others which don't involve leaving the baby alone at all; Ferber had an alternative which I think of as Ferber-lite, in which the parent stays in the same room but moves further and further away from the baby's cot, and Tracy Hogg of Baby Whisperer fame had a version to which I personally am very partial called PU/PD, standing for Pick Up/Put Down and referring to doing precisely that with the crying baby until it gives up and falls asleep.  (By the way, if you go looking for that last then a) the full description is in this book, not this one which is a near-complete waste of time, and b) be prepared to grit your teeth, because she was one of the most annoyingly patronising baby experts on the market.  But I still think the method's a good one.) 

The plethora of methods can seem fairly bewildering, but makes a lot more sense when you think of them all as just being different ways of getting from point A (baby needs cuddling or rocking or whatever to get back to sleep) to
point B (baby gets back to sleep without any sort of requirement for
parental help).  The trick, as with an awful lot else in parenthood, is in finding a method that's not unduly harsh yet is firm enough to get the message across.  I don't think there's any such thing as a 'best' method because it will depend on the baby and the situation and what-all else; in any case, most methods will work perfectly well for most babies at the end of the day.  But the point of all of them is not to neglect babies who are hungry or wet or frightened, but to teach babies how to get themselves back to sleep after normal night wakings where there aren't any other problems.  Penelope Leach nicely summed up the principle behind sleep training when she said that the idea was to show the baby that you were
always available but after bedtime you were very boring. 
As the delightful Libby Purves comments, it is possible to get very
boring indeed by three in the morning.

So, if the neglected-wife analogy in this post was rewritten to reflect the way in which sleep training is actually supposed to be used, how would it look?  Something like this:

There was a time, not so long ago in my life, when I had some major problems with getting to sleep.  The only way I could get to sleep was to have somebody hug me and rock my body back and forth in their arms, which would relax me enough to drop off.  As well as needing this at bedtime, I was waking up several times a night and needing the same thing each time.  Everything else in my life was going fine – I was happy, healthy, and had no other problems.  I just couldn't get to sleep by myself, that was all.

Fortunately, this wasn't a problem for me, as my husband was there to help.  Whenever I woke up during the night, I just woke him as well to rock me back to sleep (or, if he hadn't gone to bed yet and was trying to do something else, I'd just interrupt whatever he was doing and call him up to the bedroom to rock me).  That, as far as I was concerned, was the problem sorted out.  Oh, sometimes the disturbed sleep made me grumpy and grouchy during the daytime, but my husband could handle that.  And I didn't see a problem with calling on him at any hour of the night that I wanted to, every night.  After all, he loved me and was very attentive to my needs by daytime; I didn't see any problem with expecting the same intensity of service during the night-time hours.

It seemed not everyone saw it the same way.  At one point I heard my mother-in-law talking to my husband about the situation.  "You have to put your foot down.  You can't go on like this.  You haven't had a decent night's sleep for months!  You're going to make yourself ill with exhaustion – and for what?  She doesn't really need anything.  She should learn to get back to sleep by herself."  I didn't understand what she was talking about, and, even though my husband was looking haggard and was also becoming a lot more snappy during the daytime, I didn't see what that had to do with anything I was doing.  Even though I love my husband more than anything in the world, I didn't really see him as a person with his own needs.  I'd never seen any reason why I shouldn't expect him just to give me everything I want when I want it, or how this could have any sort of impact on him.  This wasn't my fault – I certainly wasn't intentionally being selfish.  It's just that, at that stage of my life, I wasn't yet mature enough to be able to think that way.  I wanted my husband's help to get back to sleep every time I woke up, so I called out expecting to get it.

But things changed.  My husband told me it was time for me to learn how to get back to sleep on my own.  I wasn't happy about this in the slightest, and burst into tears when he walked out leaving me alone to get back to sleep, but he stood firm.  He didn't leave me alone for long at a time – every so often he would come back to comfort me, check I was all right, and speak reassuringly to me – but he absolutely refused to stay in the room for long enough to help me to get back to sleep in the way I was now used to.  I was bewildered, upset, and furious at being left awake and alone, and at first I would lie awake for long periods of time, crying with frustration and upset that my husband had stopped doing things the way I wanted. 

Fortunately, it didn't last long – I found that, eventually, sheer tiredness was enough to overcome my difficulty in falling asleep, and, the more often I fell asleep without my husband there, the easier it got.  Within less than a week of this starting, I found I had reached the stage of being able to get back to sleep easily when I woke up without needing to call out for help.  If ever anything was genuinely wrong, my husband was quick to help out; but on most nights I could now get by without him.  He was as attentive as ever during the day – in fact, if anything, he seemed more attentive and less snappy than when I was waking him up multiple times at night – and it wasn't long before the new night-time pattern had taken over as the norm in our house. 

Does that still sound like an appalling story of a cruelly neglectful husband?

Also, do bear in mind that a baby may cry at bedtime simply out of annoyance that it is bedtime.  Babies are as capable of adults of wanting to stay up and have fun rather than putting everything on hold for the night to get some sleep, and rather less capable than adults of recognising the possible ramifications of this.  Have you ever had a friend wanting you to stay up and boogie the night away with her when you had to work the next day and knew that you – and, for that matter, she – would end up regretting it if you did?  If you said no, was that a shockingly neglectful act on your part that was likely to traumatise your friend so deeply that she would never be able to trust you as a friend again and would possibly suffer lifelong psychological damage into the bargain?

Babies cry when they need something.  But they also cry when they want something, and it is a really big mistake to assume that if a baby is crying for something this must mean that they need it to the point of risking psychological damage if denied it.  (One obvious reason why this is a really big mistake is because it would rapidly lead to you giving your baby sharp knives and live electrical circuits to play with.  Babies are totally capable of crying for things that they very much need not to be allowed to have, thankyouverymuch.)  I don't believe that setting limits on the extent to which you can meet a person's wants violates that person's rights in any way, regardless of their age.

One other point worthy of mention here, which is technically not sleep training but is very frequently mistaken for it, is that some babies actually need to cry for a few uninterrupted minutes as part of their wind-down into sleep, and attempts to soothe and settle them can backfire and keep them awake.  My daughter was like this; I've heard of other babies who are.  If your baby is one of these and you're locked into a rigid dogma of never leaving a crying baby alone, you're in for some problems, because all your efforts are actually going to be keeping your baby awake rather than settling them and what they really need is for you to back off and leave them alone while they go through the wind-down process.  In which situation, leaving your baby alone to cry is meeting his or her needs.

I wish I didn't even have to make the next point, because it seems so obvious to me, but… absolutely none of this is meant to try to persuade any parent that they should use CIO.  Believe it or not, I'm all in favour of avoiding CIO methods wherever feasible; not because I think CIO violates children's rights or damages their psyches, but because it's simple common sense that if you have a choice between equally effective ways of solving a problem it's good to go for the one that doesn't cause upset to anyone.  And I'm all in favour of minimising the amount of crying involved where crying does have to be involved, for the same reason.  I believe that parents should set limits gently, sympathetically, with full regard for age-appropriate behaviour, and with careful consideration of what limits really need to be set in that particular household and what limits don't actually matter.  I don't, however, think it a good idea to confuse any of that with the notion that we can get by without ever setting limits or
ever causing at least some upset to others by doing so.

So, if you've found an alternative method of dealing with the sleep situation in your household that seems to be working out all round, more power to you and go for it.  If you've found that that doesn't work and that, for whatever reason, your baby does have to be left alone for a bit as part of the process of getting them to sleep, then do that.  Either way, don't assume that whatever it is you're doing would work for every other family as well, and don't resort to scaremongering, guilt-tripping, or poorly-informed parent bashing to try to get others to fall into line.  I'm not trying to replace the anti-CIO polemic with a pro-CIO polemic;
I'm trying to replace it with an anti-Mommy Wars polemic.

Instead of the Mommy Wars, I'd like to see a widespread willingness to trust parents.  To trust that parents, if given information about different options (which is not code for 'scare stories about the options we don't like), are actually pretty good at making decent choices for their children.  To trust that even if a parenting choice isn't what you would choose/what would work for your child, it doesn't automatically follow that that parent did something terribly wrong and harmful to their child.  To trust that parents know their own children and that if a parent has done something that happens to go against your particular dogma but they genuinely believe their child is doing fine then it might just be that it's your dogma and not the parent's knowledge of their child that's wrong.  A feminist parenting site strikes me as a very good place to eschew the Mommy Wars and promote that kind of trust.

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18 Comments

Filed under Don't let the bedbugs bite, Grr, argh, Sacred hamburger

18 responses to “Why I don’t believe that sleep training is incompatible with children’s rights

  1. I also think that you need to weigh in the dangers of sleep-deprivation for adults when deciding how to handle night waking. If I planned on driving my kids anywhere, it was important for me to sleep in more than three hour chunks.
    Thanks for the link to the feminist round-up; that was interesting.

  2. Granny C

    This is a really helpful posting. Full of common sense and acknowledgement of finely balanced issues. Thank you. xGranny Constance

  3. Ugh. I would say that there’s more than one blogpost over at that carnival which has nothing whatsoever to do with feminism, though the one you singled out is probably the worst of the lot. Woman throwing a verbal temper tantrum =/= feminism. Especially when it’s other women she’s bashing with her misinformed view.
    I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but it may even be more depressing:
    http://www.mama-is.com/crying-it-out/
    (Short version: Hathor Cowbitch sticking her fingers in her ears and singing “La-la-la-LA-la, I ca-an’t HEAR you!”)

  4. Kate

    Thank you! It’s so refreshing to see some common sense. I had one of those kids who would cry to soothe themselves. In the beginning, I drove myself (and her!)crazy running to her everytime. Finally I realized that she wasn’t crying because she needed me, but to settle herself in. I think she was very relieved I figured it out – although I suspect she wondered why it took so long…I also had an older child who suffered through with us, because I was so exhausted. I honestly wonder how people who disdain sleep training deal with other children/spouses when they are sleep deprived?

  5. You are a fantastic writer. Thumbs-up to this post. I don’t have much to comment other than that. 🙂

  6. This is a great post. I totally agree with you (I have written a bunch about this myself). I love your point about wants versus needs- something I think gets confused in many discussions.
    My daughter is the type that really needs to cry to fall asleep. After trying all the no-cry methods, we finally figured out she wanted us to leave her the heck alone. She actually initiated the ‘sleep training’ process at about 5 months when she started to scream and arch her back when we tried to rock her to sleep.
    CIO is not the best method for every child, but for the right child it is appropriate.
    Great post!

  7. Anne Rogers

    before I ever had kids, a friend who at the time had 3 children and now has 5, shared that she felt the best gift you could give a young child was enough sleep, having had 3 children now myself, ages 1, 5 and 7 I wholeheartedly agree and somehow you have to figure out what is right for your family, probably the most helpful general tip I’ve heard is consistency, but avoiding a huge mega routine that is exhausting to carry out.

  8. You continue to impress me for many reasons, but most of all this one: you manage to passionately, yet rationally, discuss these issues; even when you personally feel one way about things, you can see the other side. That is (sadly) so rare in the parenting community.
    Have you ever thought of writing a book? I bet it would be great. A non-patronizing Baby Whisperer…:)

  9. Alan

    Um…why is the husband leaving the wife alone in her own room at night? I think you kind of torpedoed your own analogy there.
    You say you’d “like to see a widespread willingness to trust parents”. I’d say a look around us shows that there has already been too widespread a willingness to do just that, and most parents have done a poor job of it (though there is a sizeable minority doing a good job).

  10. @Alan, sorry if I’m being dense here, but I’m a little stymied as to why the idea that this hypothetical husband happens to go to bed later than his hypothetical wife would torpedo this analogy. Care to clarify?
    The comments about trusting parents were aimed primarily at the original poster’s flat-out refusal to take parents’ word for it that their children were doing fine after CIO – in other words, her belief that she was capable of forming a better judgement about children she’d never even met than their own parents were. In more general terms, I wouldn’t agree at all that there’s a widespread willingness to trust parents. Everywhere we turn we see some other expert giving us the patented OneTrueWay of raising our children, with the inevitable implication that parents can’t actually be trusted to work out such things for themselves. Most baby experts seem to have very little faith in parents’ ability to figure out methods that work for their own children. I’m curious as to how you think we should go about trusting parents less than we currently do, since it seems to me we wouldn’t be able to go too much further down that road without getting downright draconian. As for the notion that most parents are doing a poor job, you won’t be too surprised to hear that I downright disagree.

  11. Alan

    @Sarah: My wife is a night owl, but I am even more of one most of the time, so I often do go to bed an hour or two later (or sometimes more). But when she goes to bed, I lie down with her for a half hour (minimum; usually longer) before getting back up (or sometimes I just decide to stay). I think that’s sort of de minimus for me to consider myself a good husband, but maybe I’m a believer in “attachment spousing” as well. ::shrug::

  12. That’s sweet (I’m not being sarcastic – I genuinely think it’s sweet). But, no, it isn’t de minimus. I’d never expect my husband to drop everything, every night, in order to do that (actually, I’d probably have a more difficult time getting to sleep if he did). It’s not about ‘attachment spousing’. It’s about the fact that different couples will find different answers to the challenge of how to give each other attention and affection while simultaneously keeping some time and space for themselves. If that’s one of the ways that you and your wife enjoy bonding, then that’s great. It doesn’t mean that people who don’t do that are automatically worse spouses, that they can’t be trusted to accurately assess their own spouse’s feelings about the matter, or that their behaviour is traumatising their spouse.

  13. Alan

    I think for most spouses, it’s better for the health of the relationship for the couple to go to bed together. But you’re right that I can’t impose my belief on every marriage; people have all kinds of idiosyncrasies and that is their right. However, this still fails to be a good analogue for CIO for two reasons:
    (1) In your marriage, and presumably others you’d point to as healthy relationships where one spouse goes to bed without the other present, you’re perfectly cool with that. Right? I mean, that is what you’re saying, isn’t it? You’re not crying loudly when your husband’s not there, and then quieting down when he does arrive to lie down with you. Correct? So, by definition, that’s not at all analogous to CIO–right?
    (2) In a marriage, if one spouse is unhappy with feeling neglected by the other spouse at bedtime, they can talk it over, try to come to some understanding or compromise. If no understanding or compromise is forthcoming, they can get divorced if it’s important enough to them, and look for a partner that fulfills them in that way. An infant cannot talk it over, and cannot leave the parent-child relationship in search of a different parent. So, again: fundamentally non-analogous to the CIO situation.
    One more thing. Since I last posted on this thread, my wife came across a very cool attachment parenting type blog (particularly cool for us because unlike a lot of “APers” she is a left wing atheist like us). She has a post that I think makes a particularly important distinction between this subject and other parenting issues we might debate:
    http://freechildhood.wordpress.com/2010/07/05/owning-your-parenting-choices/
    She begins the post with a paragraph you’d probably agree with (more than I would, even):
    “Every parent is different, every child is different, every family is different. These differences should be honored, but it seems as though when it comes to parenting, everyone thinks their way is the only right way and anyone who does anything differently is wrong.”
    And later in the post, she enumerates several such issues–where she has a strong preference but does not insist that others are wrong if they make a different choice. I’m not sure I would go as far as she does in putting formula feeding (that is, not even trying to breastfeed) in that category. However, I do agree with her overall point, and specifically with the following caveat:
    “Don’t get me wrong, there are some parenting choices I will never agree are right for anyone, such as routine infant circumcision, cry-it-out (CIO) sleep training, and spanking (and of course all other forms of physical violence). I don’t think those things should even be parenting choices, as I think they should be illegal…”
    Those things, including CIO, really are beyond the pale in my opinion. I could not in good conscience be friends with someone who got good information about why doing those things is wrong, but continued to have no regret and/or continued to do them. That’s just not what a decent human being does if they are at all informed that there are other viable options. And I suspect in a few decades, or a century at most, it will be widely understood that those things are wrong, just as, for instance, it is now widely understood that putting small children to work in factories is wrong. In other words, I feel that I’m on the right side of history here, and you are not.

  14. Alan: I wasn’t trying to claim that going to bed separately was analogous to CIO. I was responding to your implied claim that it was a sign of poor attachment between spouses.
    I agree that analogies of how we’d actually act towards adults who behave the way a crying baby does aren’t brilliant analogies for CIO. That was, for goodness’ sake, the point of my post. If an adult was insisting that his partner drop everything repeatedly throughout the evening and night to help get him back to sleep, showed no regard for anything else his partner might be needing to do with that time, and didn’t have the necessary maturity to talk the situation over and find a compromise, then it would be perfectly appropriate for the partner to a) flat-out refuse, and b) get the hell out of that relationship. That’s why the whole “But we’d never treat a crying adult the way we treat crying babies! We ought to treat babies the same way as we’d treat adults in this situation!” argument used by the poster to whom I was responding falls apart – the average sleep training programme is, in actual fact, far, far milder than the way we’d react to an adult who actually was exhibiting that sort of behaviour.
    As for viable options to CIO, indeed there are, more often than not, and I’ve tried them wherever feasible. They simply didn’t cover every situation or every reason why a child might be crying. As for good information as to why we should never under any circumstances leave our babies to cry to get to sleep, I’ve yet to see any. If that means that you can’t ever be friends with me, I can live with that. 😉 I’ve had people dislike me for flimsier reasons.

  15. Alan

    It seems we have a different definition of “feasible”. I can’t think of any situation, short of something like an emergency with an older child and no other adult present, where avoiding CIO is not feasible. “Inconvenient” is not the antonym of “feasible”.

  16. Jan

    This is a very well balanced and informative article. Although I do not agree with everything within it I thank you for sharing your views.
    Jan
    BabyCradleSwingReview

  17. marie

    I think one problem is the mention of a difference between babies’ NEEDS and WANTS. Those are, in fact, the same. A baby wants only what it needs. It knows no difference.

  18. Marie: I have to say, I’m always rather puzzled by that view. Does that mean that babies need to grab sharp knives, chew on electrical cables, and eat flowers? Should mothers give their babies everything they want to grab, on the basis that if they want it they must need it?

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