The main technique most mothers around me tend to use is some version of the Ferber Method, also referred to as “controlled crying.” This is the same technique my mother used when I was an infant, to get me to sleep by myself (in my own crib, in my own room) through the night.
I have never even considered using this technique with my 3 kids, just following my gut intuition, and I recently found an excerpt from lactation consultant Pinky McKay that so eloquently outlines why:
One of the arguments for using controlled crying is that it ‘works’, but perhaps the definition of success needs to be examined more closely. In the small number of studies undertaken, while most babies will indeed stop waking when they are left to cry, ‘success’ varies from an extra hour’s sleep each night to little difference between babies who underwent sleep training and those who didn’t eight weeks later. Some studies found that up to one-third of the babies who underwent controlled crying ‘failed sleep school.’ A recent Australian baby magazine survey revealed that although 57 per cent of mothers who responded to the survey had tried controlled crying, 27 per cent reported no success, 27 per cent found it worked for one or two nights, and only 8 per cent found that controlled crying worked for longer than a week. To me, this suggests that even if harsher regimes work initially, babies are likely to start waking again as they reach new developmental stages or conversely, they may become more settled and sleep (without any intervention) as they reach appropriate developmental levels.
Controlled crying and other similar regimes may indeed work to produce a self-soothing, solitary sleeping infant. However, the trade-off could be an anxious, clingy or hyper-vigilant child or even worse, a child whose trust is broken. Unfortunately, we can’t measure attributes such as trust and empathy which are the basic skills for forming all relationships. We can’t, for instance, give a child a trust quotient like we can give him an intelligence quotient. One of the saddest emails I have received was from a mother who did controlled crying with her one-year-old toddler.
“After a week of controlled crying he slept, but he stopped talking (he was saying single words). For the past year, he has refused all physical contact from me. If he hurts himself, he goes to his older brother (a preschooler) for comfort. I feel devastated that I have betrayed my child.”
It is the very principle that makes controlled crying ‘work’ that is of greatest concern: when controlled crying ‘succeeds’ in teaching a baby to fall asleep alone, it is due to a process that neurobiologist Bruce Perry calls the ‘defeat response’. Normally, when humans feel threatened, our bodies flood with stress hormones and we go into ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. However, babies can’t fight and they can’t flee, so they communicate their distress by crying. When infant cries are ignored, this trauma elicits a ‘freeze’ or ‘defeat’ response. Babies eventually abandon their crying as the nervous system shuts down the emotional pain and the striving to reach out.
One explanation for the success of ‘crying it out’ is that when an infant’s defeat response is triggered often enough, the child will become habituated to this. That is, each time the child is left to cry, he ‘switches’ more quickly to this response. This is why babies may cry for say, an hour the first night, twenty minutes the following night and fall asleep almost immediately on the third night (if you are ‘lucky’). They are ‘switching off’ (and sleeping) more quickly, not learning a legitimate skill.
Whether sleep ‘success’ is due to behavioural principles (that is, a lack of ‘rewards’ when baby wakes) or whether the baby is overwhelmed by a stress reaction, the saddest risk of all is that as he tries to communicate in the only way available to him, the baby who is left to cry in order to teach him to sleep will learn a much crueler lesson – that he cannot make a difference, so what is the point of reaching out. This is learned helplessness.
This is an edited extract from “Sleeping Like a Baby” by Pinky McKay (Penguin). Pinky is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Certified Infant Massage Instructor and mother of five. For more tips to help your baby (and you!) sleep, read Pinky’s best-selling book Sleeping Like a Baby.
Personally, I feel being “left to cry” as an infant was the foundation of my fears of not feeling safe in the world – which I have spent about 20 years of healing/therapy overcoming! It is not the only contributing factor, but I think it is a root level, significant one.
I once listened to a neighbour using this method with her baby and the cries of “Mommy, please help me!” had tears streaming down my face and I’m not even her mother! My own children were upset and just couldn’t conceive that a mother would do that to her own child. I thought to myself, “You know, if that were an elderly person in there, crying and calling for help, we would call the police. So why are we allowed to treat children with a lack of such basic respect and care?”
It’s one thing if you leave your kids to cry because you’re literally SO exhausted you’re in danger of abusing them, or losing your mind and having a complete breakdown (we’ll talk about that in a bit) and quite another thing to do it because you think it’s a ‘sleep training technique’ that works well.
In the end, my kids and I stood underneath the baby’s open window (which is why we could hear everything) and discussed loudly what was going on and the kids called up reassurances to the baby. Whatever this made the parents feel, they came and got their baby and we didn’t have to listen to any more anguish, thank god.
Sleep Deprivation is a Torture Technique!
Yes, sleep disturbance/deprivation is part of what can make parenting so incredibly hard and exhausting. Sleep deprivation – waking prisoners randomly throughout the night, every night – is a well known torture technique. Because it destroys the immune system along with brain functioning and it works really, really well.
Only someone who’s experienced this kind of non-sleeping baby, or been held in a prison camp, can have any idea of what this feels/looks like and how it destroys almost every facet of your life and ability to function. Not one of my 3 children were good sleepers and my first was absolutely brutal. I didn’t sleep more than 3 hours in a row (maximum!) for over two years with my first child.
So yes, I know there are times when you’re facing the dilemma of ‘lock them in a room, or risk abusing them or jumping off a cliff’ what can you do? Here are some ideas:
1. Get help at night. Pump your breastmilk into bottles and have your husband or support person take over the night feeding – or at least one night feeding, while you go in a separate room and get some uninterrupted sleep. You must go in your own room – or the basement, or living room or your mommy-alert-instinct won’t let you sleep well.
2. Get a day break. If no one is available to help during the night, then have a friend or family member come over every day and take the baby out of the house/apartment. Again, pump milk in advance if baby is still exclusively breastfed. Your support person needs to take the baby away or you will likely not be able to sleep deeply if you can still hear her/him. Your mother instinct will keep waking you up! Don’t forget, your nervous system is shot too. ASK for this help and schedule everyone on a rotating schedule if using more than 2 people. Ideally, you need a 3-hour block to just sleep. But even 2 hours is enough to be a lifeline. Don’t give in to the temptation to use this time for some “me time” – your immune system and your brain need you to sleep. If you need to hire someone to provide this help, then do so! If you don’t have enough money, go into debt! People go into debt to buy a tv, a car, etc. – what could be more important than your physical and mental health??
3. Rule out physical issues. Gut pain is one of the most common issues in infants. Get my DVD, Baby Fart Aerobics: Natural Treatments for Colicky Babies and learn how to use colonic massage combined with bodywork movements to release trapped gas and stool and improve digestion. At the very least, watch this video for the basic colon massage technique. And also give your breastfed infant Life Start (B.infantis) probiotics (available in Dairy or Dairy-free formulations). The gut is the foundation of health in the body, so get that good bacteria in there. *Note: breastfed infants should only be given B. infantis bacteria – nothing else. If your baby is eating foods, then you need to give the other species as well – Megadophilus and Bifido Factor; all 3 powders can be mixed in yoghurt, porridge, applesauce, milk, or formula.
Sleep deprivation can destroy your brain function so that you get in this super damaging feedback loop and you literally cannot see your way out of it. That’s where you need to ASK other (non-sleep-deprived) people to brainstorm ideas/solutions with you! Don’t ask your partner, who is likely as exhausted as you. Ask a trusted friend or experienced family member. or one of the leaders at your local La Leche League, or your midwife, for ideas. You must change the dynamic so that you get someone else helping you when you hit the wall.
4. WHY can’t baby sleep? Once you have some support in place so that you can get that extra 2-4 hours of uninterrupted sleep, then you will be able to look at getting your baby additional help to figure out why s/he cannot sleep, or wakes up every time you move. Craniosacral (Level 2 or higher) is my top tool for this. Maybe your baby’s skull bones are jammed and this is affecting their nervous system, or giving them headaches, or interrupting their cerebrospinal flow. Is there a baby yoga, or baby massage class you can both go to, to learn how to down-regulate both your nervous systems?
Maybe your baby sleeps best out in nature? Underneath a tree with leaves that move in the wind. Maybe there is something toxic in your house, or the mattress is off-gassing. WiFi and cellphone radiation is also a huge sleep disrupter for infants/children. Many baby monitors now use microwave radiation (WiFi etc) technology! Get rid of cordless phones, wireless baby monitors and put your cellphones in Airplane mode. If you have WiFi Internet, then don’t just turn it off, but unplug the modem at night. If plants can’t grow properly near WiFi routers, don’t you think it’s affecting your vulnerable baby?
Another tool that I used to help my children get to sleep easily without damaging their trust, security and attachment to me (when I was just too exhausted to read, sing, or tell them a story), is my Sleeptime Story CDs – these work great for kids aged 18 months – 6 years. Although we have heard from a number of people who use them with kids as young as 8-9 months old. Most of the time, I would lie down with my kids as they listened to a story and drifted off to sleep (the music put me to sleep too). But my husband was also able to use them to get the kids off to sleep if I wasn’t there – instead of them waiting up for me to get home!