Sleep training methods have always been a subject of much contention and there are a plethora of opinions on what the ‘right’ thing to do is. Do you let them cry? Do you rock and pat? Or collapse in an exhausted heap on the floor under their cot?
The ‘cry it out’ method has been widely criticised in recent years, with several parenting experts claiming it can cause emotional, behavioural and attachment issues. However a new study conducted at Flinders University sleep laboratory has discovered that a baby crying itself to sleep might not cause the upset previously claimed.
The study took 43 babies with sleep problems in a randomised trial with three groups: control, ‘graduated extinction’ (otherwise known as cry it out), and ‘bedtime fading’ (a method in which parents gradually delay bedtime each night, to make baby sleepier and thus fall asleep more easily).
The results found that the babies in the gradual extinction group fell asleep an average of 13 minutes sooner and woke significantly less often during the night, than those in the control group. Most importantly, after testing the salivary cortisol in the babies, they found that there were no significant increases in stress levels.
The infants in the bedtime fading group had a 10-minute decrease in the time it took them to fall asleep, but they had similar number of night-time wakings as the control group.
At a 12-month follow up for all participants, the study found there were no significant differences in attachment styles, emotional and behavioural problems.
“It’s natural for parents to worry about having their babies cry at bedtime,” says Associate Professor Gradisar. “A combination of using bedtime fading first, then moving on to graduated extinction could be another good approach,” he explains.
“We hope parents of children 6-16 months can become more aware of bedtime fading which helps babies fall asleep at the start of the night.
“It may not resolve awakenings during the night so if a child is waking up several times a night, then there is now some more evidence that graduated extinction is a technique that may not be harmful to their child.”
As a parent, there is nothing more heartbreaking than hearing your own baby cry. Methods such as room sharing with baby can be another option for gently introducing sleep behaviour training.
This might not be the whole answer to infant sleep, but hopefully for those parents that have tried the cry it out method, they can rest a little easier now.
For more information on sleep solutions, see Goodnight, sleep right. Or wondering what a regular night is like in one household with toddlers? Check out this first-hand account of How to get toddlers to sleep.
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