Last week, one of my good friends, who has a 6-week-old baby, went to a breast-feeding support group run by her local hospital. The nurse overseeing the group passed around a copy of the June issue of the journal Clinical Lactation, which was devoted entirely to infant sleep.
“You're not going to like what it says,” she warned my friend and the other exhausted moms in attendance.
What it said, quite adamantly, was that “crying-it-out,” the popular term for the sleep training method that involves letting your (not hungry or in-need-of-a-diaper-change) baby cry himself to sleep, is dangerous.
Dangerous how? An editorial in the journal suggests that our common use of crying-it-out may be responsible, at least in part, for the fact that Americans “have a longstanding pattern of poorer health” compared to other high-income nations, where crying-it-out isn't as popular.
Crying-it-out is so stressful to babies that it “can rearrange certain systems in the brain,” another piece in the issue argues.
A third article compares our society's poor treatment of babies to racism, noting that the editors of the journal Pediatrics – the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics – show “great ignorance and disdain for babies” because in 2012 they published the results of a randomized trial suggesting that sleep training does not cause lasting psychological harm.
“By allowing this irresponsible and unethical conclusion, the editors are encouraging parents to do great harm to their children and our fellow citizens,” the author, Darcia Narvaez, a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame, proclaims.
My first instinct upon seeing the issue was to burn my copy of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, the popular sleep-training book that endorses crying-it-out. But I tend to read a lot of medical journals, and I was struck by the brash, sweeping language Narvaez and the other researchers were using.
They didn't sound like scientists who had carefully analyzed the research on crying-it-out and then concluded that it might be harmful. They sounded more like people who had decided that crying-it-out was a bad idea and then looked for science to back up their belief. The same goes for the claims against crying-it-out made by the controversial but highly popular Sears family doctors – William, Robert, James, and Peter. The language they use is scary and vague – more dogmatic than scientific.
Despite the fevered debate around sleep training, I have never had strong opinions about crying-it-out, in part because I never needed to consider it – my son was a good sleeper. (I know, I know: You hate me.) But with this journal issue in hand, I decided it was time for me to figure it out.
I've learned that many of the claims made in Clinical Lactation and by the Sears family are, at best, overstatements of the science; At worst, they completely misconstrue it. Worse, they don't mention many of the studies that suggest sleep training to be safe, nor do they seem to consider the important fact that sleep training works and therefore gives babies and their parents much-needed shut-eye, which is crucial for healthy development (not to mention good parenting).