Baby sleep trainers – do you have the guts to tell them to bugger off?

“We were feeling tired, but happy with our daughter’s progress. She was gaining weight, nursing like a champ, and — best of all — giving us six- to eight-hour stretches of sleep pretty consistently. When we told our pediatrician, she seemed less impressed.

“She could be sleeping 12 hours a night,” she said. “It’s time to think about sleep training.”

Sleep training? An 8-week-old?

Our doctor coached us on the recommended technique.

Place all 12 hungry, needy pounds of our daughter in her crib at 7 p.m. Close the door and return at 7 a.m. No checking, no consoling and definitely no feeding. She would cry — for hours, possibly — but in about three nights she’d get the picture that nobody was coming to her rescue and would begin to sleep through the night.”

True story. This is an extract from a parenting blog, published in the New York Times, titled ‘Sleep Training at 8 weeks: Do you have the guts?

Just days ago, a midwife’s ‘recipe’ for controlled crying was published on a popular blog here in Australia. The heading was “This is the one and only way to get your baby to sleep.” Really? I call bullshit! In fact, there is evidence that it may not work at all for a lot of families.

This week too, I had a mother call me upset over advice from a ‘professional sleep trainer’ who, when I checked, was certified by a company that offers courses on the internet.   This baby trainer claimed she didn’t do controlled crying (as above) or Cry it Out (the first example). But, the baby being ‘taught to sleep’ or ‘self soothe’ or ‘self- settle’ (whatever you call it, it’s a load of rubbish – you may as well ‘teach’ an immobile baby to ride a bike!), had cried for hours.

For the last few months of her sweet life, this baby had been sleeping in a cot next to her mother, breastfeeding to sleep and again, several times a night when she woke. Yes, the mother was tired and yes, she needed help but….

Mrs Baby Trainer advised the mother to move into another room – immediately. Father would train baby by holding her as she screamed. According to the baby trainer, a baby of this age (six months) doesn’t need night feeds.

Mrs baby trainer had ‘gently’ justified that the baby would cry but because she was crying ‘in arms’ this was just a ‘stress release’ cry (even if the baby was distraught for hours).

What sort of bullshit is this? Of course a baby cries from stress when the very thing that will relieve her stress is being withheld. A baby of six months or eight months or even 12 months might need a night feed – a baby this age may be distracted during the day, could be burning some extra calories if she’s becoming mobile or her mother may have a smaller milk storage capacity that means baby will need a few more feeds to get her daily ‘quota’ (so for goodness sake, offer more feeds when she is awake before you stop night feeds – and do it gradually with love, not cold turkey, for twelve hours).

Ask any baby trainer –  can YOU go twelve hours without a drink? A snack?

When I have done workshops with health professionals I have shared an exercise where everyone writes down what they have eaten, drank, snacked on in the previous 24 hours with the times beside each sip or taste. Then I ask them how long they have gone between ‘feeds’. Only one or two people in a room of up to 100 people have ever managed more than 3 hours without a snack or drink – most go an average of ninety minutes. And none of them are trying to gain weight! Many people (and especially baby sleep trainers) don’t advise feeding babies that often (even though it can be perfectly normal)  yet expect tiny babies with tiny tummies to manage without feeds for up to twelve hours at night.

Babies don’t just need food in the night. They need touch – it helps them grow and develop neurologically and physiologically. If we withhold touch for 50% of a young baby’s time of rapid growth and development, how does this potentially affect his neurological and sensory development?

It’s bad enough when parents give each other a hard time about how their babies are sleeping – like it’s a badge of good parenting, not just that you might have lucked out (some kids are great sleepers from the start – luckily for them, they miss out on being left to scream until they vomit or give up altogether), but when professionals tell parents it’s OK to ignore an EIGHT WEEK OLD baby (he’s just come out of the womb, folks – this is the fourth trimester), they are normalising abuse.

When professionals tell you that there are no published studies showing there is proof of harm in training babies to sleep by leaving them to cry, they are talking crap. To my knowledge, there are no published studies proving that cigarettes cause lung cancer, even though there is plenty of evidence.

When they tell you ‘this is just a protest cry’ or ‘this is a stress release cry’ they are talking crap. Forget the fancy pants jargon – YOU know YOUR baby, if he sounds distraught to you, he is.

Baby tamers who tell you to ignore vomit or you will be rewarding the baby for this ‘behaviour’ are talking crap too. Vomiting is a stress response to being left to cry. Would you like to be left all alone in a pool of vomit? If you leave an eight week old baby unattended all night how will you know he hasn’t choked on his vomit? Or what if he shits himself? Does he get to lie in it stuck to his bum all night because you ‘mustn’t go in until morning’?

There is a big difference between ‘no proof of harm’ and ‘proof of no harm’. Just because stacks of parents have fallen for this bullshit because it was dished up by a health professional and their babies are ‘just fine’ isn’t evidence of anything.

Needing a published study to tell us a baby (or any one of us, for that matter) will be distressed if we shut him in a room alone and don’t respond to his cries, is like needing research to tell us the grass will grow if it rains. While there is certainly a difference in physical safety between checking on a crying baby and shutting the door overnight, there are no ‘published studies’ telling us how long it is ‘safe’ to leave a baby to cry. Hell, one book even says to leave your baby to cry for 39 minutes – whose arse was that number pulled out of?

However, there are studies that show there is potential harm in neglecting babies’ needs in order to train them to sleep. While some babies may be ‘just fine’ there is no guaranteed outcome:  we don’t know which babies are more vulnerable or which ones may be at risk. Or when evidence of harm will surface – or which parts of our parenting could have caused harm. Hell it’s a minefield out there for parents!  We don’t need the second guessing or guilt or regret -that awful feeling of ‘if only’ when things go pear shaped.  Our kids aren’t cakes. We can’t look back when we have an anxious 18 year old and say, “shit, I forgot the baking powder!” Or, “bugger Aunty Madge, she didn’t tell me what temperature I should have used!” We need to take care when we make choices on behalf of our babies and health professionals have a duty of care when they give advice about babies. The mantra is ‘do no harm.’

This is a time of rapid development: a time when tiny brains are being wired. Cortisol receptors are developing in the brain (the more cortisol receptors, the better the capacity to mop up stress in the future). Being ‘gutless’ and ‘giving in’ to your baby’s cries, as your instincts are urging, could be helping him develop the optimum chance of wiring his tiny brain to manage stress –for life!

Night-time breast-milk is rich in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. We now know that eighty percent of our serotonin receptors are in the gut. Serotonin receptors affect neurotransmitters and hormones that influence various biological and neurological processes such as aggression, anxiety, appetite, cognition, learning, memory, mood, nausea and sleep. This could mean that night feeds (if an individual baby needs them, some babies choose to drop night feeds at early ages) may play an important role in development of serotonin receptors and future well-being.

Research (reported here or read the study abstract here)  shows that babies release cortisol (a stress hormone) in large amounts when they are left to cry during sleep training. They are still releasing the cortisol even after sleep training has ‘worked’ (that is, even after the baby has stopped crying and is sleeping). According to researchers such as Uk Psychotherapist, Sue Gerhardt, stress from leaving babies to cry and the subsequent flooding of  baby brains with cortisol, may prime the brain to over or under produce cortisol and affect the capacity to respond appropriately to stress, throughout life.

While there are lots of variables beyond infancy that can affect the development of healthy stress responses and this evidence may not be ‘proof’ of harm, it certainly suggests we don’t have ‘proof of no harm’.

Thankfully, there are plenty of professionals who aren’t telling parents they only have two choices: leave your baby to cry until he ‘learns’ to sleep or suffer, if you don’t have the guts to leave your baby to cry.

Please keep listening to your baby, listen to your own heart (or gut) and have the guts to tell the ‘baby tamers’ to bugger off.

If you are desperate for sleep or you worry that your baby may have a sleep problem (if it’s not a problem to you, it’s not a problem), reach out and ask for practical support so you can catch up on sleep (you aren’t imposing, most people love to be involved with a baby), look for a health professional who will address reasons for your baby’s wakefulness such as feeding or medical issues and guide you to make changes, gradually with love. Or read a book offering gentle solutions.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and confused by any advice – whoever is dishing it out – put on your bullshit filter and ask: “Is it safe? Is it respectful? Does it feel right?” If you give something a go and it is stressful to you and your baby, have the guts to ditch it.

Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised breastfeeding expert and gentle parenting advocate. She’s an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), mum of five (so she has had her fair share of sleepless nights) and best-selling baby-care author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying and Parenting by Heart (Penguin Random House). See Pinky’ s books, baby massage DVD and recordings HERE.   

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Photo with permission by Mel Muller Photography   sleep cover new