Why I don't practice controlled crying...
I want to start this article off by saying both of my children have been “sleep trained”. Both of my children have experienced “controlled crying” to some degree. And really. They both seem relatively normal. Ish. ;)
It is not my mission in writing this blog to guilt anyone for the choices they have made in how they have gotten their children to sleep. Because I believe every parent is inherently good. We’re all trying our best. We make choices every day for our children and hope in our heart of hearts we are making the right ones.
But sometimes to know more is to do better. Right now I know more, and I am choosing to do better. In my own parenting at home, and with every client who trusts me to guide them in my sleep work.
I did not get to where I am today holding back. If you know me, you know I'm an open book. As honest as they come. I've made decisions I'm proud of, and some that bring me guilt, shame, and yes, even regret. And while this writing may make you feel a lot of “feels”, this was a story I felt I needed to tell to continue on in my business and propel it forward in a direction I feel most proud of, and confident in.
I remember the first time I questioned controlled crying. Like really questioned it. I believed it to be a good method to use to get a child to sleep when I had an infant. That's because I really fucking needed to sleep. It worked. And I was grateful. I got my life back. A little piece of me I was really longing for.. lost in the abyss that is postpartum life. I began to feel like me again. I was also convinced that I had given myself and her the “gift of sleep”, and that I had done a good thing by teaching my baby to “self-soothe”.
But then that little baby became a toddler. More advanced than her peers in the language department, she would love to talk your ear off. And when she turned two, she decided bedtime was the place to share all of her wildest dreams and deepest secrets.
My usual methods in getting her to sleep weren't working. I could close the door, but immediately she screamed. And not just a little cry or whimper. A bloody murder scream. The kind I remembered from when she was a baby and we sleep trained her using the Ferber approach. But this time, she didn't quiet down. She added another element to her plea. A “mama mama mama mama please don't go!”.
That night I laid on her floor. Closed my eyes. And sang until she was asleep. I wondered what I had done wrong. What had happened. And why our sleep strategy was no longer working. The Ferber approach is supposed to be a 3 - 5 nights and you're “done forever and for always” approach. What was happening?
And in true Lara form, this brought me to the library. Where I then checked out every toddler sleep book that exists, and began to dive a little deeper.
Had I been prepared for what to expect, I would have been ready. There is a sleep “regression” at age two with the burst of language development, the evolution of true fears, and some residual separation anxiety. A normal, healthy, and natural part of my toddler's childhood that I was trying to close the door, separate myself from, and ignore. And this strong-willed girl was having none of it.
I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. And it made me question everything. Why was it appropriate for me to walk out of the room on my crying baby when she was but 7 months of age and barely had object permanence? But, as soon as she had words it felt wrong? Had she not always been trying to communicate something to me?
Of course she had. That's biology. Human infants communicate to their caregivers through tears. This is the only way they can get their needs met. Sometimes this is a cry for a diaper change, a tummy to be filled, or pain from an ear infection. And at other times a cry may mean; please stay with me, I need you near.
Now I am not an advocate for NOT allowing our children to cry. In fact, I encourage quite the opposite. I believe that we should meet all of our children’s needs, and then if there are some tears to be had - fine. This is part of a normal, healthy emotional release, and you can read more of my thoughts on crying here. But, I believe tears can be in the arms of a loving caregiver, or the presence of a parent sitting beside, hand on chest, telling their child they are there for them. Or in my case that night, singing “on top of spaghetti” at the top of my lungs because I really had no other way to get that child to sleep.
I've learned a lot in my work with families. I've always attracted a “gentler” crowd, and through families asking for something totally different, I learned a lot. People wanted to move slower. They wanted to connect more deeply with their child. And they wanted options. Caring as much as I do about the clients I serve, I tried to find these for everyone who asked. And in doing so, I found myself a whole new repertoire of skills.
But still, I offered controlled crying as an option. Since no concrete research based articles on sleep training proved it was bad, or harmful to infants (or so I thought), I carried on.. business as usual. Doing what 90% of other child sleep consultants do. Convincing families that their children NEED to sleep. And that I would be the one to get them some.
But then came along baby #2. And damnit. He was more difficult than the first in the sleep department.
I promised myself I wouldn't worry. I wouldn't stress. “You've got all the tools to fix this Lara” were words I repeated often, and as a result I relaxed.
I relaxed a lot. I gave myself a chance to just “be” with Theo. To listen to him. To feed him more than I thought I should in the middle of the night. To respond to him with pick ups, cuddles, love and contact at any hour of the day - with far less restrictions than Ferber would ever allow. And dog gone it, the child began to sleep. In his own time. In the comfort of my presence. Without “negative sleep props or associations”, with room for “healthy tears and emotional release” in the presence of his loving caregivers - he began to sleep.
Now to say I got to this place on my own would be a complete lie. I confided in the sleep coaches I was most curious about.. and they taught me a lot. One of my good friends, and colleagues, Amy Butler, suggested I take Bebo.Mia’s Infant sleep Educator course and I signed up almost instantly. I felt drawn to the promise of seeing sleep through a lense different than the one I was used to viewing it from. And I was excited to see what this new education would do to my practice.
Some of the learning was hard for me. These ladies actually had the science. The science the greater half of the sleep training community chooses to ignore. And the science I needed to give me my “why”. The reasons why I personally no longer practice controlled crying forms of sleep training in my home, or with my client’s babies.
This isn’t to say I won’t get you more sleep. I absolutely will do that. But I will guide you at a pace that feels right. A pace that feels more natural. Good, and supportive for everyone involved. With permission to touch, stroke, make eye contact, and feed at times where these things are necessary.
What Bebo.Mia taught me is that a lot of what we hear about infant sleep is a lie.
Firstly, babies cannot “self-soothe”. Babies cannot regulate their emotions. They are born with a seriously underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that does regulate our emotions (Cozalino, 2010, p. 70). And to be honest, most of us have not fully developed the neuro pathways for self regulation until age 24. Therefore asking a baby to “soothe itself” is really quite a preposterous ask.
Babies are born wired to survive. They are designed to survive the first year at all costs. And their biology ensures that this is so. For this reason, they are hardwired to their parents as well. Parents are physiologically wired to respond to an infant’s cries (Narvaez, 2011), and to be honest, we don’t yet know enough about the longterm effects of ignoring an infant’s cries in order for me to comfortably ask a family in my care to do this. We do know enough about forming secure attachments for me to err on the side of caution on this one.
Considering that sleep is also where we are most vulnerable (Aldort, 2011), it only really makes sense that a child might need the support and loving presence of their caregiver to trust the transition to the sleep state, and go to this state peacefully. We know that teaching babies and young children is done through example (Cozalino, 2010, p.70). And teaching a child to sleep is surely no exception.
When we look back on the Behaviourist Theory that dominated psychology in the 1950s, it is easy to see why we developed infant sleep practices that ignored a child’s primal needs. The North American view at this time was that infants should be seen, and not heard, and that parents should not be inconvenienced by the demands of their children. And sadly, we see this having residual lasting effects in today’s parenting practices, and many of the sleep training approaches offered as a “quick fix”.
But since the 1950s we have learned a lot about infants. We have learned a TON about the brain. And we know that although children cannot remember specific memories before the age of 3 (Mate, 2002), these memories are stored implicitly in the brain and will re-surface when similar experiences take place as those that did in the child’s earliest of days.
Thanks to Developmental Psychology and Attachment Theorists such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, we know that babies are born social creatures. We know that positive early experiences in a child’s life help to hardwire the messages “I am understood” “I am worthy” and “The world is safe” (Cozalino, 2010). And I believe we are on the edge of a paradigm-shift in the world of sleep consulting.
All of the sleep training studies that exist are inconclusive. They do not account for all of the variables we would need to see to know if it is truly safe to sleep train a child using a controlled crying approach. Bebo.Mia asked us to look at these studies, and look at how someone supportive of sleep training took the information and blogged about it in a positive light. While someone who was against sleep training took that same study, and blogged about it negatively. Inconclusive at its best, I believe.
Lastly, ask anyone who sleep trained their child this way if the process felt good. I know that many people choose cry-it-out as an absolute last resort. I also did this. But had I known there were other ways to achieve more sleep, I certainly would have chosen them. Had I known that picking up my baby would not “undo all of the crying to this point” I would have picked her up.
I also know that new pathways in the brain are formed every day, and that the brain is incredibly neuroplastic. For this reason, I know I can go ahead with my own children each day and form healthy, happy attachments, and awesome early memories for them, despite their prior sleep training experiences.
What I have learned about being a mama is there is always something to feel guilty over. But, the very fact that you are worried about being a good mama is usually enough to prove you are in fact one, and your children are going to turn out just fine. Or at the very least.. Just messed up enough that they are interesting at a dinner party.
I choose everyday to lead my business with the heart of a mama. I know the visceral response you feel when your baby cries. And I want you to act on this instinct. This instinct. This intuition. It is there for a reason. And I believe it should not be ignored.
I want you to look back on the experience of getting your child more sleep with a smile on your face, resting assured that it was the absolute best thing you could have done for your family in that moment in time. And that you took the most caring, most thoughtful, and most supportive road you could have taken to get there.
So yes. My approach will be this way moving forward. I can get your child and your family more sleep. This is true. But you've got to be on board with doing things a little bit differently. With sometimes having to completely reshape everything you think you know and believe about infant sleep. With getting creative. With exploring the relationship you have with your child now, and for a lifetime. And if you are open to this - then yes, I'd be honored to be your guide.
Aldort, N. (2011)). Naomi Aldort on sleep: YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oelT2QM5Tk
Bebo.Mia. (2017). Infant Sleep Educator Module. Toronto, ON. Retrieved from www.bebomia.com.
Cozolino, L. (2010). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company
Narvaez, D. The Dangers of “Crying it Out”. (2011, December 11). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/morallandscapes/201112/dangers-crying-it-out
Photos featured here by Astrid Miller Photography.