I am troubled by children and sleep. This is nothing to do with my own children: we are thankfully long past the years of night crying. (I am now awoken most nights by a toilet door banged by a half-asleep teenager who has not got used to the length or strength of his limbs since his last growth spurt. But that’s another story.)
I am troubled by children and sleep because I made the mistake of reading a book on the subject by a parenting expert with a very fixed moral stance on how parents should respond to bedtime problems. That led in turn to some internet digging on the advice peddled to parents in regards to children and sleep training.
It is clear that there is a strong backlash against ‘sleep training’. Changes in fashion in parenting advice are common, as with all walks of life, but what alarms me about this one is the vitriol. Parents who would even consider (let alone attempt) a sleep training strategy that involves leaving a child to cry are dismissed as cruel, heartless, selfish and neglectful (with accompanying images of Romanian orphanages).
To be absolutely clear, I’m not talking about babies here. Few, if any, positives can be accomplished by persistently leaving a baby to cry. (Having said that, I confess to having sleep-trained my eldest son with controlled crying at 7 months old, as was the advice at the time. And – his current physical gawkiness aside – he is turning out to be a fine young man. Babies are not so very easy to ‘break’ as some would have us believe).
What troubles me most is the black-and-white nature of the sleep training debate. The central message seems to be that parent-centred (aka selfish) parents sleep train their children for their own convenience whereas child-centred (aka attached) parents adapt their lives to cope with their child’s nocturnal disturbances.
But does anyone actually live in this polarised world? Most of the families I work with are made up of a number of different people with a number of different needs – needs that sometimes concur and sometimes compete or conflict. Where is the space in this big sleep debate for a family-centred model in which the needs of all family members matter? For when you look at things from a family-centred perspective, it’s much harder to be didactic and judgemental.
There are a variety of ways to respond to a child who won’t sleep – from the cold turkey cry-it-out approach, through intermediate controlled crying strategies and even gentler gradual withdrawal, to adapting your own nocturnal patterns in order to respond and soothe every time. There are valid (and usually family-based) reasons why a particular parent would opt for any one of these strategies.
Different parenting experts cite different studies as evidence of the rightness or wrongness of different approaches to bedtimes and sleep. But in truth, there is no scientific study that can tell an individual parent in their own unique circumstances whether the short term distress of sleep training through controlled crying (for example) outweighs the benefits that will accrue to that child from other factors (e.g. parents who are rested and therefore able to be calm, consistent and engaged, or who can hold down a job or argue with each other a little less….). To make that decision, every parent has to use their own judgement.
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