Does Sleep-training Work?

Sleep training – if it works at all – sometimes has long-term consequences, as Karin Schimke discovered…

It is almost nine o’clock on a week night and my two children are in bed. Julia, who is five, has been asleep for two hours. Oliver, who is eight, has also been in bed for two hours, reading, listening to music and finally staring at the ceiling. The sleep he so desperately needs, fails to come. Birth order, genes and personality probably account for some of these differences, but I don’t think the fact that I “sleep-trained” Oliver at nine months helped. In retrospect, it was a devastatingly cruel thing to do to a child who is naturally anxious.

Reality hits

Before Oliver I knew nothing about babies. I was 30, and my life until then had been about me, my career and my social life. I didn’t know that babies had specific biological needs that wouldn’t correspond with my biological needs. I thought, for instance, that breastfeeding was done three times a day: breakfast, lunch and supper. And I certainly didn’t know they’d be waking up and demanding attention sometimes more than four or five times after the sun’s gone down.

The shock of a real baby’s needs was visceral. I have always been deeply attached to my sleep. When I laid my head on the pillow at the same time every night, I went straight to sleep and slept solidly for eight hours, after which my eyes sprung open and I hopped out of bed fully refreshed. I was befuddled about the fact that my baby woke every two hours to feed. When the nurses at the clinic looked completely unshocked by this report, I felt a little silly for making a fuss and left hoping that things would improve soon.

My baby had been put in a room beside ours in a cot (crib). That’s how I thought it was done. But hopping up every hour to fetch, feed, change and put Oliver back to sleep – which didn’t work anyway, because as soon as I put him down, he woke again – was taking its toll. I hallucinated. I woke up half sitting in bed cradling him tight against my enormous bosom and think I’d suffocated him and wake us all up in my panic to resuscitate him, when in fact he’d been sleeping peacefully. Or I lifted the covers and frantically patted the bed to find him, convinced that he was dying somewhere near his parents’ feet. One night, I woke up from the feed and carried him to his cot, only to find he was already there, sleeping. The disjuncture between knowing that you don’t have two babies, but being unable to distinguish which one was real was deeply distressing. I felt like I was losing my mind.

My husband urged me to bring Oliver to bed so we could all get some sleep, and someone showed me how to feed lying down. Things improved a little, but there were still the day sleeps to contend with. It never occurred to me to lie down and sleep when the baby did and to stop trying to have a perfect house, meet my deadlines, shop and cook every night. Instead, I spent the days rocking and singing frantically…and not getting anything done anyway.

Slowly, the physical effects of interrupted sleep started interfering with my ability to function properly. I lost weight rapidly, a fact for which I thanked breastfeeding at first. I became jumpy and tetchy, obsessive about sleep and resentful about not having any. I had spots floating at the corners of my vision all the time, my eyes felt gritty, my head was sore, I shook and I continued to hallucinate wildly. I adored my son when he was awake, but at the first signs of tiredness, I would sometimes start to loathe him.

I was so worried about these feelings, I approached the Post-Natal Depression Association and asked for an assessment of my state of mind. I was found not to have post-natal depression, which was a relief, but I still felt like I was on the edge of some sort of major breakdown. By the time my son was six months old I weighed 48kg – I had lost 27 kg since his birth and, considering I’d only put on 12kg during pregnancy, I knew things were beyond normal. It was discovered that I had an over-active thyroid, a condition that speeds up your metabolism, makes you very thin, and – most tellingly – makes you extremely anxious. My homeopath described it to my husband like this: “It’s like being on speed 24/7.”

It only occurred to me after this horrible phase of my life had passed that this condition might have had more to do with my hysteria about not getting enough sleep, than what I’ve subsequently come to understand as my son’s relatively normal sleeping patterns.

LEAVING BABY TO CRY

My husband went away for business and I was alone with my son who – I believed, as though Oliver had some sort of personal vendetta against me – simply refused to sleep. By now, I realise in retrospect, he’d absorbed my anxiety. His eyes would close and then suddenly pop open. My desperation was acute. I was sick, alone and angry.

I’d been urged by other mothers to sleep train. Even the midwives had suggested some mild sleep training. I was lent a book by Richard Ferber which explained in what seemed like perfectly logical scientific terminology, why it was important to sleep train my baby, and how to do it. It seemed like a good idea to stop moaning and do something, even though I found the idea of sleep training offensive. I had by then been lead to believe that my “problem” was all my fault, and I simply needed to firm up a bit.

I phoned my mother in tears and asked her to take leave and come to me. I told her, the nanny and Oliver’s godfather the sleep-training plan. The nanny was dead set against it. My mother was instinctively against the idea, but shut up, because she’s never been an interferer. The godfather was all for the plan.

They cooked for me and held and played with Oliver. When it was nap time, I took him to the cot I’d put in my bedroom and told him he had to sleep now, kissed him, turned around, walked out and closed the door. I could go in – according to the “science” – at five, then ten, then fifteen minute intervals, after which he would have cried himself to sleep. I, meantime, sat crying outside the door and listened to him screaming. The nanny would walk past and give me withering looks and say “Shame, he’s just a baby.”

I did it for three days in a row for each sleep. At night, I put my mother in charge and left the house to walk so I wouldn’t have to hear him cry. I found out subsequently that my mother couldn’t leave him, that she went to him and held him till she heard me come home and then put him back in the cot. Oliver’s godfather did one sleep training session and afterwards asked me never to ask him to do it again.

“When I left he was standing up and reaching his hand through the bars to me. I’m sorry I can’t help you, but I can’t do it again,” he said. As I write this, my eyes are filling with tears again. The worst thing that ever happened to me in my cosseted, happy life was a thing I inflicted upon myself and upon the child of my heart. Sleep training was the most appalling thing I ever did.

After three days Oliver was hoarse and hadn’t – not even once – fallen asleep on his own. I’d given up after half an hour each time. I was too afraid to tell anyone about my miserable failure, and from then on I generally shut up about my desperation. I resigned myself to sleeplessness. I asked myself: “What would happen if I never, ever sleep again?” I couldn’t spend the rest of my life on earth being angry and sick. I needed to make some adjustments.

Trying another way

I let go, first of all, of my embarrassment about sleeping in the day when the rest of the world was productive. When Oliver needed to sleep, I lay down next to him, breastfed him and drifted off myself. By then, he was having one hour morning and afternoon naps. The extra two hours of sleep a day seemed to do wonders for my energy levels and I slowly started feeling more in control. Amazingly, when I was there and our bodies were touching, he drifted off to sleep easier. And so we muddled from year one into year two and – because I lay with him – the struggle to sleep gradually diminished.

When I became pregnant with my second child, I reasoned to myself that babies do not sleep like adults do, so I would just have to sleep like the baby. I promised myself six months’ maternity leave (I work for myself), advised everyone that I would not be available for anything for six months, not even making supper. If I had an expectation, it was that I would not get sleep, and somehow knowing this, made things easier, because I didn’t spend my time with her in the resentful twilight zone of hope.

Julia was born. I held her for three days in hospital, against my naked chest and she and I slept and ate and eliminated like some sort of super biological mother-and-child machine. We were one. She seemed calm and contained.

When we came home, I held her all the time, even when she needed to sleep and, sometimes, right through her sleep. I spent much of my time on the couch reading to my son while feeding and sleeping my daughter, or I cooked and cleaned with Julia nestled in the baby sling. Amazingly, I got more done in those six months than I had in Oliver’s first year.

At night, I lay down with Julia and when I woke up, I’d feel quite refreshed and find myself able to do little domestic jobs or chat to my husband. We no longer had a cot. Instead, we’d bought a double-bed mattress for the baby’s room and put it on the floor. If she needed to feed at night, I could snuggle next to her without being cramped and could wake up in the morning feeling refreshed. I slept in twenty minute snatches in the day – when she slept – and suddenly found that I would wake up as clear-eyed and refreshed as I used to when I was getting eight solid hours.

So that’s why…

My gorgeous, healthy, funny, normal son is now eight years old. He never, ever says “I’m tired.” He seldom falls asleep before 9pm, even though he’s in bed by 7pm. He gets dark rings under his eyes and, when sleep is particularly hard to come by, he inevitably becomes ill. He still falls asleep quickest if there is physical contact between him and me or him and his father. He watches his sister fall asleep an instant after she’s put her book down and whispers in awe: “How does she do that?”

When Julia, on the other hand, is tired, she says so, and takes herself off to bed. She falls asleep minutes after putting her head on the pillow and wakes in a good mood exactly twelve hours later. She – it seems to me – has nothing to fear from the spectre of sleep. She has not been trained to be frightened of sleep or anxious about abandonment.

My son will always, I suspect, sleep easier when he doesn’t feel alone, when he can touch the skin of a loved one, an action that has an instant calming effect on his whole body. Those three days of bewildering, uncharacteristic abandonment when he was nine months old robbed him of something which I’m not sure that even a life-time of affection will replace.

Recently the issue of sleep training came up on an e-group I belong to on a night when Oliver was having a particularly difficult time falling asleep. I took my book to his room and climbed into his bed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the e-group discussion about sleep training. I decided to tell him about it. I explained about how babies slept differently to adults and children because of their need to be fed often, and then explained that there was this thing called sleep training where you leave the baby in the cot and don’t go back to it, even if it cries. His head flicked up from my shoulder where it was resting and he was clearly shocked.

“And they call it sleep training?” he exclaimed, “What a stupid name.”

“Why, what would you call it,” I asked him.

“Baby torture,” he said without hesitation.

I went on to explain that I had baby-tortured him. He wanted all the details. Which room had it been, which door did I sit outside and cry, how long did I do it for, what did Grandma think. He was very good natured about it, smiled and hugged me and said: “So you think that’s why I can’t sleep!”

I think we’ve both forgiven me…

Article written by Karin Schimke© 2008

For more information on sleep-training, please read the string of comments below this article, and also feel free to contribute. Your questions on this subject are also welcomed as we plan to discuss it more in future. Click on “contact” at the top of the page to leave any questions you might have, or email pgt@mweb.co.za

Recommended reading:

  • “Helping your Baby to Sleep; Why Gentle Techniques Work Best”, by Anni Gethin and Beth Macgregor (Finch Publishing, Australia, 2007)
  • “Sleeping with your Baby: A Parents’ Guide to Co-sleeping”, by James McKenna (Platypus Media, USA, 2007)
  • “The Science of Parenting”, by Margot Sunderland, (Dorling Kindersley, UK, 2006)
  • “The Aware Baby”, by Aletha Solter, (Shining Star Press, USA, 2001)
  • “Sleeping Like a Baby”, by Pinky McKay (Penguin Books, Australia, 2006)
  • “The Baby Sleep Book: How to Help your Baby Sleep and Have a Restful Night”, by William and Martha Sears, (Harper Thorsons, UK, 2005)
  • Three in a Bed: The Benefits of Sleeping with your Baby,” (Bloomsbury, UK, 2005)
  • The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help your Baby Sleep Through the Night”, by Elizabeth Pantley, (McGraw Hill, USA, 2002)
  • Good Nights: The Happy Parents’ Guide to the Family Bed and a Good Night’s Sleep”, by Jay Gordon, (St Martin’s Press, USA , 2002)

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  • 49 Responses to Does Sleep-training Work?

    1. This was a touching story Karin. Thank you so much for writing it. I am, and always have been, a despiser of sleep training. However, when my son was younger, I was so pressured and had this idea of how he ‘should’ be sleeping, that I caved in and did it. It was the most awful experience of my life. It worked the first time, after a few days we didn’t need to rock him to sleep anymore. He still co-slept with us, but started the night off in his own bed. When he was 11 months old, I was admitted to hospital for emergency surgery and was in for 2 nights. My son was absolutely traumatised at not being able to nurse and sleep next to me at night. A couple of days after coming back home, he needed to be rocked to sleep again. We continued with this for a few weeks and finally tried sleep training again :( Needless to say, this time it didn’t work. All it accomplished was getting him so hysterical that he would vomit. We did this for a WEEK, I still can’t believe I did it. Finally, we stopped and started sitting with him in his room instead. The first night he cried, the second night, reassured by daddy’s presence right there next to him, he cheered up and played until he went to sleep. He is now a month shy of 2 and has almost completely dropped day time naps, doesn’t get put into his bed at night time anymore. Instead, he plays in his room while his daddy studies on the bed for a couple of hours, then comes into our room and plays a bit more, we put a movie on and within minutes he’s fast asleep having nursed himself into contentment. My sister-in-law has a 2 month old baby and all I keep hearing is about how tired she is, how all the baby wants is to be held, etc (all the usual stuff) and because I’ve fallen out with her, I can’t say a damn thing. She’s already put the baby to sleep in it’s own room by itself at night. Absolutely heart-breaking, and not yet 3 months old. I’m absolutely devastated. And my husband, love that he is, doesn’t say anything to encourage her or give her advice or say ‘that happened to us’ or anything like that. Anyway, sorry i’ve gone off here, but I just wanted to thank you for sharing your story. It really resonated with me. I think the lesson we have both learned from this is that we should always listen to our babies. xxx

    2. Hi Amanda, Thank you for sharing your story with so much honesty and detail. I am really sorry that you and your baby had to go through this. So glad that you have found a way that is working better for you and your little boy now. I do understand how desperate it must make you knowing what you sister-in-law is doing to her baby. It’s terrible that you have to stand by and watch helplessly, knowing what the baby is going through. That’s why Karin wrote the article — so that other mothers would know what it does to the baby. I will pass your message on to her. You are so right — we should always listen to what babies are telling us! Thanks again for sharing… :-)

    3. Thank you for sharing this, it brought tears to my eyes….I could never do the sleep training with my three boys, I always considered me weak….but then again I love that I’ve always cuddled them to sleep.

    4. I never sleep trained Mr 8 or Miss 6 and yet they are completely different sleepers! Mr 8 is very similar to Oliver, he is an anxious personality (commented upon by all his teachers to date), and since he learnt to read, is up for 1-2 hours after a 7pm bedtime also. He sometimes needs a guided meditation to help him get to sleep. Miss 6 has a lot of trouble winding down (she has ants in her pants), but once she is relaxed she falls asleep super quick. So what I’m trying to say is that it might not be the sleep training, it might just be his personality.

    5. Hello! Thank you for this beautifully written piece. I also had hyperthyroidism post pardum and one of the biggest symptoms was extreme insomnia. I have always wondered if some of the excess thyroid hormone didn’t pass through my breastmilk and impact how my son slept (terribly). It took ages to diagnose my thyroid issue and in the meantime I allowed ‘helpful’ people convince me to put my son in his own room cause surely he was causing the insomnia by waking me up too much. He moved back into my bed at 4 months and has not left it since but he still has difficulty falling asleep at night and I blame this on his insecure start left in his own room. He is 2.5 now and still in our bed and we don’t expect him to leave anytime soon. A thought with your kids – what about letting them sleep in the same room for a while? If your daughter sleeps well she probably still will and your son will get the benefit of not feeling alone and perhaps his sleep will improve?

    6. I love you.

      This made me cry, for the babies who are left to cry, for my 8 year old son who I baby tortured for 3 days when he was the same age as your boy, and for me because to this day I still don’t forgive myself for doing that to him.

      And like your son, he’s only just fallen asleep at about 9.30pm.

    7. Hi Jasmin, I hear you about your kids being so different. Karin also said there could be other factors involved. But making babies sleep away from the comfort of their mother’s body is never good for them, so it is one of the most important factors to consider (thought there may also be others as you and Karin both say). I hope your little one who battles with sleep will be able to sort it out. Anna, I love it that you have your little one in bed with you, and no agenda for moving him out. Lucky little boy! For everyone, this video by Naomi Aldort has just come through. It deals with many things, but sleep is one of them, and I hope you will all enjoy it… http://vimeo.com/48792031 . Missy, I have passed your message on to Karin and invited her to come here and respond to you all (she is a guest writer on my site). Warm wishes to all! Pat

    8. Thank you so much for sharing. ***Tears*** For us Mama’s with wakeful children life certainly can be challenging. This was beautifully written and I love your sons response. I will be sharing with my other sleep deprived Mama and Papa friends..xoxo

    9. I enjoyed your story and appreciated your perspective. Everyone’s experience is different with these things and we all benefit from each others wisdom. Which is why, I suppose, it upset me that your article was called ‘Tourturing Baby’. No doubt sleep training/crying it out/Ferberizing is a controversial issue, but I hope we can share our experiences in the acknowledgment that they are highly subjective and make room for people to make up their own mind without judgement. Tourture is committed by criminals and war lords as an act of intentional cruelty. It is certainly never the intention of a parent who wants the best for their child and themselves. Whether it works or not, wanting some sleep is not a crime. I hope your son understands the difference. I hope we can all reserve judgement over our sisters and sisters in law. Those of us who choose to sleep with our babies haven’t got a monopoly on loving them. If they love their kids too, odds are their kids will be just fine.

      • This IS a deliberate cruelty. Sure it’s often done with the excuse that it is for the baby’s own good. Parents *know* it distresses the baby. Know it hurts them. Do it any way. Over, and over, and over again. So yes, it is torture, Just because people have the best intentions doesn’t change it. Wanting sleep is not a crime. Hurting your baby to get it is still wrong. Yes, everyone loves their babies. But love is not an excuse.

    10. I wanted to share my own story, which is a little different and I hope helps someone.
      I also loved my sleep before baby. I knew what I was getting into, but I still bemoaned it’s loss, was anxious about the baby waking me up to distraction and had the ‘I’ve lost my baby in the bed’ waking dream, while she was soundly asleep in the bassinet next to me (this is pretty common, from what I understand). I was a heartbeat from depressed for 3-4 weeks, which was far worse in the afternoon when I was tired. I stayed awake when I should have slept during the day because I desparately wanted to spent time with normal adults In the hope I’d snap out of it. When we were together and she was calm, i was so in love. When she wasn’t, I wanted to return her – I just wasn’t sure where to! She woke up at least once a night, took well over an hour to resettle and would only fall asleep with a pacifier, which invariably fell out and woke her up.
      Then, at 12 weeks, we made our best patenting decision yet. We had our bath, bed, boob and book routine. We sung her her song, placed her gently in her cot in her own room and, yes, gasp, came back at 7am. Night one she cried half heartedly for 40 minutes at bedtime and an hour on and off at 3am. Night two she cried 20 minutes at bedtime and slept 12 hours. Night three she cried 4 minutes at bedtime and night four was our first of many, many cry free bed times. She sleeps, we sleep, we all sleep. It’s changed everything. We’re all happier for it. I’m not going to lie, the first night sucked. But 3 days for a childhood of sleep anda sane, well rested, happily guilt free mother isn’t a big price to pay.
      It wasn’t baby torture. Teaching her to put herself to sleep was kindness itself. We gave her, and us, back hours of sleep over the next months and years. And she still sleeps like a dream when she puts her head down, all through the night.
      We used the approach recommended in The New Basics by Dr Michel Cohen, for anyone seeking an alternate perspective.

      • 7am? YES gasp. Babies need to be fed at night until they are at least 6 months old. No crying is only evidence of no crying – not evidence of sleep. Sleeping all night isn’t natural for anyone adult or child. We all have wakeful hours, even if one does not remember. This kind of thing is the kind of thing that leads to stunted development. You may think you are fine, but no. You did hurt your baby.

        • Wow- I agree that it is better to respond to your child’s needs but your comments are judgemental and vindictive to someone you have never met. There is no perfect parent- not even you. I agree with what you said in theory- but not how you said it. Different people will have different opinions for the pure reason that there is an abundance of contradictory advice out there and our experiences differ also.

      • Emily,

        Don’t let these negative comments get to you. You have to do what works for you and your child. I know not every body has success, but sleep training helped both my baby and her parents to sleep better. So far no “brain damage”. She’s happy in the morning when I go to wake her. She doesn’t act like she has been “abandoned”. My wife and I started when she was about 5 1/2-6 months.

        The way this woman described sleep training to her son it sounds like torture. There is a difference between and annoyed or upset cry and a wailing cry. If done correctly there is no reason to let a baby cry for more than a few minutes before going in to settle let them know you are still around.

        • Hi George, I am glad if things have worked out well for you and your baby. My concern with sleep training is that it means that the baby is sleeping away from the parents, at a time when we know that babies need to be in physical contact with preferably the mother (or mother substitute) both during the day (baby wearing in a sling), and at night (sleeping with the parents) for optimal brain development. You mention “no brain damage” so I am wondering what kind of tests you have had done… Even MRI scans don’t pick up the kind of brain damage we are talking about here.

          But so as not to alarm parents, most of the people in the generation I (and maybe you) belong to did not sleep with their parents and we are what is considered as “normal”. But as Dr Nils Bergman (one of the doctors researching this) says, “Sadly most of us will never reach our full potential” because most of us were not given the kind of continuous physical contact in the first months of life that makes optimal brain development possible.

          So we are considered “normal”. What we are discovering now though, is that children who are getting all their baby needs for closeness met (day and night), are not separated from their mothers after birth, etc. (all situations that created the stress hormone cortisol, which does the damage) are turning out to be highly gifted, and we are now starting to discover that what we thought of as “normal” is not optimal, though most of us are still functioning fine compared to others raised the same way as we were.

          About babies… Babies who appeared to be sleeping contentedly, after being sleep trained (even gently) were found to have elevated levels of cortisol, and it is now believed that if they manage to get to sleep alone, they are still registering on some level whether they are “safe” (i.e. with the parents) or alone. Having said that, some babies actually prefer to sleep alone from a certain age, so like Dr William Sears says, “Wherever you and your baby sleep best, is probably the best place for you and your baby to sleep.”

          That of course is provided the parents go to the baby the moment the baby cries, and pick them up. Leaving a baby to cry unresponded to is what causes the problems such as “learned helplessness”, which have been discussed in some of the other replies here. Hope this helps clarify.

    11. I tried this with my second child. What a mistake. He screamed in terror every time he saw his cot after that so we ended up co-sleeping, and even now (at age 5) he wakes up in the night and comes looking for me.

    12. Hi everyone, I’ve been reading through your responses and am very moved that my story resonated so widely. I am moved also, at how magic writing and words are in making us feel less alone, and less crazy. I wanted to respond particularly to Emma and Melanie. Melanie, I agree wholeheartedly with you, and my attitude towards mothers is that – generally – they do the very best they can with their own combination of education, experience, support, circumstances and own personal development. It is not up to me to judge them. I really hope it became clear in the article that it was my son who called it baby torture and not me! Emma, from a thousand conversations about the sleep issue I have come to the conclusion that personality has so much to do with sleep…and some babies seem to respond easily to going to sleep alone. If I’d had one of those, I’d have been so terribly glad! For the rest of you who are still struggling: my empathy is a huge, great lake, and I can say only this: life gets normal again. It seems interminable when you’re in it, but it does, eventually, miraculously pass. I’m back to eight hours plus weekend naps!

    13. Melanie, you have completely missed the point in your defensive response. The article is named ‘torturing baby’ because of the way her son described it, ‘baby torture’. And just because we aren’t war lords and criminals, does not make this any less of a torture for the ones it is forced upon. people who are tortured scream in pain no? studies have shown that leaving a baby to cry brings on a literal response to pain, therefore, baby’s left to cry are literally feeling pain, whether it’s from their chests constricting in panic or their bodies going rigid from uncontrolled crying. just because it’s happening to a child, does NOT make it any less torturous. i can only assume that from your response you have left your children to cry? perhaps it is an unpleasant truth for you knowing what you put them through. perhaps instead of defending your bad choice to the death, you should admit that you made a mistake and apologise to your children for doing to them what you did and educating them on the dangers of it so that one day they don’t do it to their children. just a thought…

    14. Emily, you too, have completely missed the point. Did you know that stress hormones are released in huge quantities when babies are left to cry alone? did you also know that those stress hormones stay present long after the baby has stopped crying? did you know that your child had stress hormones released every time she was put to bed for who knows how long? did you know that the release of these stress hormones and their presence in large quantities in the brain causes brain damage in that essential neuron pathways are destroyed? did you know babies who are left to cry grow up to be less empathic and less well behaved? yeah, you made a great choice just so YOU could sleep. what a selfish, heartless thing to promote. Pat, I would very much appreciate it if you removed that woman’s comment. It has no place whatsoever on any article on Parenting with Love, least of all this one. Because love is obviously not at the root of her parenting.

    15. As a response to Amanda — just a little more technical information. What I am posting below is from an article I wrote more than ten years ago, about what happens when we don’t respond to a baby’s cries.

      ” There is a practice currently being taught by doctors and child-care professionals, called ‘controlled crying’. Parents are urged to use it to make their children more independent. Timothy Taylor has deeper insight into what it is actually doing to the baby.

      “He says that for early weaning to be forced onto the child, the child must be made to sleep alone, and its crying ignored. In the approach called ‘controlled crying’, the child is allowed to cry a little more each night before its needs for food and comfort are responded to. As a result, the child eventually stops crying at all. At this point the uninformed may be delighted, believing the child has been trained into better habits.

      “In contrast, what Timothy Taylor suggests has happened, is that a basic animal instinct has come into play – one observed in the young of most mammals and birds. The baby instinctively feels, “If you signal your distress and no one comes, you have been abandoned. You will die unless you conserve energy. Crying expends energy. Therefore in order to survive, you must stop crying, and shut down”. Before it stops crying, however, the baby must adopt the knowledge that it has been abandoned.

      “The outcome of this is very serious. Taylor links it to Martin Seligman’s theory of ‘learned helplessness ‘. He argues that if a child cries and its cries go unheeded and its needs unmet, it begins to detach from reality, or ‘dissociates’. Instinctively the baby feels, “No matter how hard I try, nothing changes, and no relief comes. So why try anymore? My efforts are in vain anyway”. Such knowledge is overwhelming to a baby, and in order to survive, it represses it into unconsciousness, and tries to numb itself to sleep.

      “Experiencing such futility to affect its environment or summon a care-giver becomes the basis of what is called ‘learned helplessness’. The child has learned from the beginning that trying to get its needs met, or asserting itself in any way, is futile. Tragically, learned helplessness is often the forerunner of clinical depression. We need to help parents become aware of the fact that their ‘good, well-trained’ babies, may be in danger of becoming depressed, and may continue to be so in later life, unless they go through years of costly therapy. Since prevention is better than cure, it has become essential that we get this information through to new parents as early as possible.”

    16. Wow Karin, that’s such a full on story and you need to be really proud of yourself for sharing it with us, I wish we could flick a switch and change everyone’s expectations of themselves and their babies when it comes to sleeping. We have co slept with both our children & Zachie is like his dad, assuming he’s tired and doesn’t need to do a #2 will fall asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow. Our daughter Soph is like me… takes her a bit longer to wind down and fall asleep, but neither have been left to cry when it comes to sleeping, so although you tried it with Oliver it’s possible this is just the way he is rather than anything you’ve done….I really hope you can truly forgive yourself. Sounds like you’re a pretty wonderful Mumma. Thanks again for sharing this!

    17. hands up who wants whats best for their child and them selves…i know i do.
      so i breast feed my 4 month old baby girl because its got the best vitamins and its a nice bonding moment, i also give her formula because it sustains her for longer and gives me a break so her dad can feed her and i can go out if i wish. i cuddle her whens shes upset because she needs to be comforted, i also leave her to cry for a little while or until i can assist her properly when im ready because sometimes i just cant drop what im doing the moment she starts crying. my 4 month old daughter sleeps in her cot next to my bed because i believe in early independant sleeping and will be in her own room by the time shes one if thats the approriate action to take for both her and us (she sleeps just fine by the way), she also sleeps with me in bed from time to time because shes having a bad night and just wants cuddles or heck its just quicker and easier sometimes…and sometimes its not ;). my point is that every child is different, and even the one child can be different everyday. dont condem a mother or father for trying different tatics to settle their child. but ive got to say as an adult whos mother left me to cry to sleep sometimes…im fine and ive yet to meet a fellow adult who has sleeping issues due to..”baby torture”.

    18. Thank you so much for sharing your story.. I sleep-tortured my toddler as well. She is now 3 and the worst sleeper- EVER! She can’t fall asleep by herself and always has major anxiety about sleeping at night. It is a battle to get her down. Now, with baby #2 here, I’m trying to do things different. We’ll see how this turns out :)

    19. Thank you so much for sharing this. My heart ached for the both of you but that talk you had with eight-year old Oliver really redeemed everything :) As a mom of a 10-month old baby who has never ever slept through the night yet, I can totally understand the “pressure” sleeplessness brings. But I followed my instincts against sleep training and I have never ever regretted it because my baby, though a cranky sleeper he may be, is happy, healthy and smiling the entire time that he is awake. Co-sleeping was definitely life-saving for us and so was skin-to skin contact.

    20. I wanted to let all the lovely ladies and their children know that there is a way of healing the trauma of the past. Even though you say think you ‘are over it now’, if you still think about it with an emotional pull, then it s still affecting your life now in some way. And although Oliver may have forgiven his mum, if he still has problems falling asleep then he is not healed.

      However there is a simple technique, easy to learn and do that is non harmful, with no side effects and has amazing results. It is called EFT, emotional freedom techniques. Some people call it just tapping.

      You can learn about it here. http://www.towards-happiness.com/emotional-freedom-techniques.html
      I am in the process of creating a site especially for parents, but in the meantime this gives you the how to of it.

      I highly recommend you giving it a try.
      Blessings
      Patricia Hope

    21. Brought tears to my eyes. I have not sleep trained my 1 year old while every one around me is doing it. I co sleep and I feel lucky that I love co sleeping. I hope I will not give up on this attitude when I have a 2nd baby :)

    22. My mom sleep trained me. I’m fine. Seriously, I sleep amazing. She didn’t know any better and sleep trained me at 3 months. I love her. I love sleep. And *gasp* I was only formula fed, and *gasp* adopted (at 3 months-so technically I WAS abandoned by my biological mother, then by my foster mother)-and turned into a well-adjusted productive adult who loves her babies (no stress disorders, brain damage or depression-I do have hayfever though…) Fortunately I have good sleepers so I walk the line between the crunchy and conventional when it comes to sleep. I feel so blessed to be able to nurse my babies and I really think that alone makes a huge difference in creating an easy sleeping environment. I have allowed my children to cry-but not for such long stretches. I can honestly say sometimes babies need to cry for a minute and wear themselves out a bit. It’s good for their lungs. If anything too it can give them a chance to settle themselves down and see if they can put themselves to sleep or back to sleep. I don’t, however, advocate crying for long stretches-obviously something is wrong if they’re willing to cry for 10+ minutes. We look at food and diaper changes as NEEDS-sometimes being snuggled to sleep and while sleeping is one of those NEEDS. I have found that having a bassinet is the best for me because I actually rolled over and slept on top of my first-twice. Thankfully, my husband found me this way and woke me up before I smothered her…I’m a deep sleeper. Ultimately it’s SO important to follow your instincts and do what’s best for you and your baby-keeping both parties in mind! We can’t be good mommies if we don’t factor ourselves into the equation!

      • In my line of work I have come across a lot of mums and babies damaged from sleep training. Looking for ways to undo what has happened and build up the bonds again. Different personalities take to things differently. I have seen children with shut-down syndrome and behavioral problems and later adults with depression, drink problems and attachment issues. Many suffer due to sleep training. I am glad you are not one of them and your personality was hard to break. Unfortunately there are few of you. Please spare a thought for people who do suffer, there are many recovery sites on the net, helping people recover from sleep training if people google them.

    23. Hi April, I am so happy to hear that in spite of losing your real mother, someone who loved you adopted you and your life is now good. Would you like to share with us “how” you sleep-trained your baby, as that information would be helpful.

      You mentioned that you believe that crying is good for babies’ lungs. I would query that, as crying is a distress signal. A famous paediatrician once quipped, “Crying is good for the lungs, like hemorrhage is good for the veins”. We do need to take babies’ cries seriously, and respond immediately so that they can learn trust. But crying in our arms can also be a basic need, as it is how babies can heal from hurts.

      Regarding the amount of time a baby should be “allowed” to cry in our arms, there is an article up at the site here where we go into that in more detail. Here is a link: http://www.parenting-with-love.com/help-for-moms-with-crying-babies-2/ One of the main points is that babies can heal from hurts through crying in our arms — though it is only when they are in our loving arms that crying can be healing. Being left to cry it out alone can have serious repercussions as the baby experiences it as abandonment.

      Thanks for joining in the conversation and please feel free to reply. I do agree with you heartily that every mother/baby pair need to find out what works best for “both” of them in such a way that the developing babies needs are met.

    24. Check out this Psychology Today article detailing the harmful effects of sleep training. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201112/dangers-crying-it-out?page=2

      Note that maladjustment from these methods are not always what we would expect or obvious. But it’s silly to think that this type of neglect would NOT have long-term implications. From the author / psychologist:

      “I was raised in a middle-class family with a depressed mother, harsh father and overall emotionally unsupportive environment–not unlike others raised in the USA. I have only recently realized from extensive reading about the effects of early parenting on body and brain development that I show the signs of undercare–poor memory (cortisol released during distress harms hippocampus development), irritable bowel and other poor vagal tone issues, and high social anxiety. The USA has epidemics of poor physical and mental health (e.g., UNICEF, 2007; USDHSS, 1999; WHO/WONCA, 2008). The connection between the lack of ancestral parenting practices and poor health outcomes has been documented for touch, responsiveness, breastfeeding, and more (Narvaez et al., in press). If we want a strong country and people, we’ve got to pay attention to what children need for optimal development.”

    25. Did I read Emily correctly? 12 weeks old and the baby was left to cio? Don’t most “sleep trainers” recommend that you DON’T let kids less than 6 months cio?

    26. Hi Francesca, “Sleep-trainers” come in all shapes and sizes. The more benign recommend what you say. But there are actually people telling mothers to let babies CIO from day one so that they can “sleep through the night”. That is coming from people who know absolutely nothing about babies or their needs. Up till six months of age (and often later), babies need to feed at night, and quite frequently at night in the first few months. So having the baby in the bed (or in a cot or crib next to the bed with one side down) makes it easier for the mother to feed whenever the baby wakes hungry. Having the baby with the mother means that the baby can feel her, hear her breathing, smell her smell, etc. and know that mom is right there and they are safe. I don’t believe that leaving a baby to CIO is ever okay, and I suspect you don’t either. Am I right?

      Dr Nils Bergman (Kangaroo Mother Care specialist) has written a very good article which includes the issues of where the baby sleeps, and how often the baby is fed. Here’s a link: http://www.kangaroomothercare.com/olanders.aspx

    27. There is definitely a middle ground between leaving your child alone in their room overnight with no interaction and sleeping with them until they are God knows how old (you don’t say when you stopped sleeping with your daughter at night or when you ceased breastfeeding.)

      Sometimes I can allow her to breastfeed until she falls asleep and just sit with her while she dozes. And sometimes I just can’t. And it is perfectly okay for her to go in her crib and put herself to sleep, even if that means she has to cry a little. As long as I know that she is not hurt or soiled or hungry she can cry some. Is it ideal? Of course not. But WAKE UP PEOPLE the world is not anyone’s “ideal.” In my ideal world I would have every generation of my family living together in a large home so that at any moment the children would have someone to love on them, cuddle them, teach them, help them. That’s not how it is. As it is, I’m by myself a majority of the time and I do what I have to do to make sure both of my kids are happy and healthy and well rested.

    28. I just came across this website and it has been fascinating reading people’s responses. Sleep training is a very delicate and hot topic. I must admit I tried to sleep train my son on two different occasions after he was 6 months old. I just couldn’t do it. There was something about the way he cried that reminded me of someone dragging their fingernails on a chalkboard. It just didn’t feel right even though i desperatey needed sleep. I believe in co sleeping and it has been a wonderful thing. He is 2 and a half and he still crawls into our bed in the early morning. He will sleep through the night if someone sleeps with him. I have come to cherish those moments. He will not remain my little man forever.

      As human beings, we were never meant to live in nuclear families. As a species, we have always lived in groups. The sad fact is that most women go into motherhood with very little support or understanding of what parenting entails. I have been fortunate to have my mother live with us since my son was born. It has saved my sanity and life. My son knows that there is always an adult to meet his needs and that person is not always me. We must be very cautious about dismissing the effects of a particular practice just because it happened to us and it didn’t affect us. The field of neuroscience is proving that sleep training may do more harm than good. From a cross cultural perspective, sleep training is more prevelent in Western cultures. What are other cultures or mothers doing? Maybe it’s time to step out of our bubble and learn from others.

    29. I am profoundly thankful today that I ignored all advice and pressure to sleep train my child, who is now a teenager. I could never have been comfortable with the process and knowing what I know now about my child, I am quite sure it would have done no good at best, and been harmful at worst. I know a number of parents who employed various sleep training methods and who say their children have suffered no ill effects, and this may well be so, but what is effective for one chlld is not necessarily so for another. My child has been a light and easily disturbed sleeper since babyhood, and always found it difficult to drop off to sleep.

      When she was 5, she was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. It wasn’t something that could have been diagnosed when she was a baby, but children on the autistic spectrum frequently have sleep issues. If there’s anything that I’ve discovered during my years as a parent, it’s that treating a child on the autistic spectrum like any other child just does not work. Their sensitivity and anxiety levels are so high that if you don’t take trigger issues into account and plan accordingly, life very quickly descends into chaos. I spent years sitting for at least an hour (often more) a night with my child while she fell asleep, and fielding criticism from uninformed people who said I was spoiling her and that she would never be able to cope on her own.

      She now usually (about 95% of the time) manages to fall asleep on her own – eventually. She still lies awake for at least an hour before dropping off, generally wakes up at least once during the night, and things are invariably a lot worse when anything stressful is going on, like exams. There are times – sometimes several weeks in a row – when her anxiety levels are high, when she still wakes me up during the night, and she and I both get more sleep if I go and lie with her for the rest of the night. If I left her to cope alone, she would be exhausted and distressed in the morning and I would feel selfish, neglectful and lacking in compassion.

      Even adults find a long worrisome night easier to cope with when they have a comforting presence in the bed with them. We’ve also found homeopathy helpful – not that it’s removed the problems entirely, just made things easier to cope with. I believe that if I’d acted contrary to my instincts and sleep-trained my child, things might well have been more difficult now, instead of considerably easier than they used to be.

    30. I have just come across this heartbreaking story of a mother who sleep-trained her first baby using the Gina Ford method. Fortunately she has now found better parenting advice for her new baby and is doing everything she can to help her older child to recover:

      http://thechickpeamamachronicles.com/2013/02/05/from-ford-to-sears-my-heartbreaking-awakening/

    31. The above article was translated into Polish and can be found on this website: http://www.shantala.pl/

    32. It takes a lot of courage to share a story like this – one so wrought with emotion and guilt. As I read, I kept coming back to a few things – namely, the impact of our own anxiety on our infants. Being a new mother is hard – especially for someone with little-to-no experience with young children! Even parenting a child who sleeps well can bring on anxiety in a variety of ways, so adding sleep-deprivation and all the guilt associated with parenting a child who struggles with sleep is surely a recipe for an anxiety-riddled mother. That said, I wonder how much that anxiety itself contributed here, not only leading up to the sleep training, but then for the years since. This mother clearly feels a great deal of guilt for leaving her child to cry. I can’t help but wonder if this guilt SINCE that time (and the anxiety that comes along with it) doesn’t contribute to the child’s sleep issues, even today. If this mother is so convinced that her efforts to sleep train have so impaired her son’s ability to fall asleep on his own, that feeling likely impacts every sleep-related interaction they have, even now. Self-fulfilling prophecy is a very real thing! If she fears that her actions all those years ago have made it so her son cannot feel secure enough to fall asleep, he surely must feel that anxiety emanating from her! I wonder if what her son needs most is for HER to heal and to move past this guilt she feels. Sleep-training, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily “bad”. There are a variety of methods, and some of them work well for some families. The most important thing – and the thing this mother didn’t know or didn’t feel equipped to do – is to trust your infant to tell you what s/he needs. Follow your child’s cues and be responsive IN THE WAY S/HE NEEDS (which isn’t always picking up the child at the first cry), and you can’t go wrong. And before anyone gets defensive or decides to make assumptions, I didn’t use the cry-it-out method with my son, because I knew it wouldn’t be effective for him. When he cries, he is a persistent crier. He thrives on close contact and feels a greater sense of security when he has me close by. I DID “sleep-train”, in that I used specific methods and strategies to improve his sleep and help him learn to fall asleep on his own.

    33. Why are we all so critical of mothers? It seems to me that whatever we do is condemned by one party or another. Torture?? Really?? These mothers just followed advice from the professionals of the time. Is not doing so constitutes to being a good mother? Now some professionals think differently. But that should not mean that we should beat up mothers who followed advice from before. If your child grows up and is healthy and happy you have done a good job as a mother whatever way you managed to do so.

    34. jessica toraman

      Ok guys lets get a grip here. If sleep training left all babies traumatised and brain damaged there wouldnt be many of us left! I sleep train my son. Sometimes he comes out of it but most of the time my happy giggly baby goes to sleep with no crying. Has a little chat with himself and falls asleep. MY SON NOW KNOWS HOW TO FALL ASLEEP ON HIS OWN. He sleeps 11 hours at night and is a happy chappy when he wakes up in the morning. How can you say its torture? How can you be so judgemental? Your baby is ill and cant sleep until all hours? If you do not enjoy sleep and neither does your child then go for it but don’t judge other women on teaching their child to sleep. Its women like you that make other mothers feel worthless.

    35. Way to go to make mothers who are already having a tough time feel even worse. You have made us sound like horrible, heartless, child-abusers. Because I am sleep training my son (also named Oliver), does that mean I don’t parent with love? My Oliver sounds much like yours. Only I have no support around me to help on the days I do not have the energy to care for him. My doctor has cleared me of any medical reason for my exhaustion – we all know I am simply not getting enough sleep. Hearing Ol cry is difficult. But in a short time he does fall sleep by himself, in his cot, alone. He sleeps for much longer stints than when we were co-sleeping. We know he will probably not sleep through for some time (he is ten months) and we are OK with that. But we needed to do something – as we were all on the verge of stress, exhaustion and over-all poor health with his current sleeping patterns (or of a night – lack thereof). We are helping Oliver to sustain his sleep. My point is – quit the blame and shame game. In this world of motherhood you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Can’t we just support all mothers and have some level of empathy for those struggling – especially when we know what it can get like (and don’t start me on the people with naturally wonderful sleepers casting judgement on other parent’s who children struggle with sleep!)? Acknowledge that every mother, baby, family combo is unique and we just need to show love, care, nurture and respect for all. Sure – it didn’t help your Oliver, but can’t you write about your experience in a non-judging, respectful way? Let’s help one another. I am all for sharing our experiences, but not in a way that segregates others… in this case, ME!

      • Hi Julie, I think your comments were addressed to Karin who wrote the article, so I can’t speak for her, but I hear that you are very upset by the post. Just wanted you to know that we don’t have to choose between sleep training and babies that wake all night, because both mothers and babies need to get enough sleep. Here is a link to a lovely article about that and I hope you will find it helpful:

        http://www.awareparenting.com/cryinginarms.htm

    36. I take it from the article that the writer never actually did sleep training correctly? Am I wrong in this? No wonder she feels like she tortured her baby. I’ve been reading about the process quite a bit over the past few weeks, and she seems to have done it completely wrong.

      • Hi Jonathan, I understand that this is very confusing to parents as there are many kinds of sleep training from the mildly traumatic, to tragic child abuse. Karin followed the Ferber Method. You say that she followed the “wrong” sleep training method. I don’t believe that there is, ever was or ever will be a “right” way of sleep training for babies. Babies need to sleep safely with their mothers at night where they can feel her gentle touch and heartbeat, hear her breathing, smell her familiar smell, and know that they are safe and that she will protect and nurture them through the night. Also it was not Karin, but her son, who now suffers from a persistent sleep disorder, who called it “baby torture”. I hope this addresses your question and puts your mind at rest.

        P.S. I would be interested to know what you have been reading if you would like to share.

        • “Many experts tell sleep-deprived parents how vitally important it is to teach the skill of self-soothing to their offspring as soon as possible. But what if I told you that babies can’t self-soothe? Babies are no more capable of self-soothing as they are of riding a bike. Self-soothing is not something you can teach through any amount of sleep training techniques” ~ Sarah Ockwell Smith

          Here Sarah explains why:

          http://sarahockwell-smith.com/2014/06/30/self-settling-what-really-happens-when-you-teach-a-baby-to-self-soothe-to-sleep/

          • WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SLEEP TRAIN?

            “I know that many who read this will think “but it works, you’re wrong!”. The real issue here however is our misinterpretation of what is working and what is actually happening.

            “If you practice sleep training (that could be controlled comforting, spaced comforting, controlled soothing, controlled crying, cry it out, rapid return, spaced soothing, gradual withdrawal or pick up put down – call it what you will, really they’re all the same in their intent and actions) are you teaching your baby to self soothe? No. You absolutely are not, unless you have a wonder kid about five years advanced in their brain development!

            “What is really happening? In most cases something is happening on a very basic primal level. Let’s go back to the hindbrain and the fight or flight response. What happens when those stress hormones reach such a level that they are toxic yet you can’t take flight… or fight… another ‘F’ comes in, this time it’s F for ‘Freeze’. You freeze all activity in order to try to conserve homeostasis, or more simply put – conserve life. Dr Sears calls this ‘Shutdown Syndrome’.” ~ Sarah Ockwell Smith

            • Studies done on babies who had been sleep-trained, sleep-coached, etc. found that though the baby appeared to be sleeping peacefully, they were (a) sometimes awake but didn’t cry out because they had “given up any hope that any one would come” (learned helplessness) or (b) more frequently, asleep, but had highly elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can cause brain damage.

              Babies sleeping peacefully next to their mothers or in her arms, sleep peacefully and they do not have elevated levels of any of the stress hormones. These babies are highly unlikely to develop any sleep problems or suffer from insomnia when they are older, because they do not experience any connection between sleeping alone and being abandoned and/or in danger.

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