Is Sleep Training Child Abuse?

is sleep training child abuse

I try not to court controversy because I don’t actually see parenting as all that controversial. A wide range of parenting decisions are totally OK and there are many approaches that can work like gangbusters. Parents all over the world are happily and lovingly caring for their children by breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, co-sleeping, crib-sleeping, baby-wearing, etc. There is no one right way, there are many right ways and without exception, I’ve found my readers reasonable, loving parents who are extremely good at figuring out the right answer for themselves.

So I stay out of the so-called Mommy Wars because I like to believe that we’re not at war. We’re all on the same team and from what I’ve seen on the Precious Little Sleep Facebook Group, we’re overwhelmingly supportive of each other in all the flavors of parenting that we’ve adopted for our unique families.

But despite the vast number of kind and thoughtful parents in the world, there are sadly, a few outliers. Parents who like to yell at people who don’t adhere to their personal philosophies. Which is their right (free speech and all that) I guess.

But the problem with the yelling is that it quickly turns into parental bullying. Telling people they’re bad parents. Shaming other parents to tears, claiming they are permanently injuring their children, calling them ignorant, heartless, selfish.

This “you’re doing it wrong” bullying often terrifies people who are struggling miserably, by telling them that they must sludge on no matter how bad it is for all involved. And as every parent who has ever felt a bit low or insecure (read: all parents) knows, getting yelled at never makes anything better.

A recent post on sleep training is a particularly harsh example of parental bullying. I would ignore it, as I’ve ignored the similar yelling articles that have come before it. But it’s getting a lot of undeserved publicity and making loving parents who I care about feel shitty.

So let’s talk about the yelling article (referred to as “Ol’ Yeller” from here on out). I want to discourage you from reading it because every time someone reads it a fairy loses its wings. However if you insist – and I strongly suggest you don’t – I’ve linked to it at the bottom of the post.

It’s Wildly Inaccurate

It starts by describing an imagined bizarro-world sleep training scenario with parents who presumably look something like this.
evil parents

These parents are quoted as saying, “But we are in charge. We are the parents. He’s got to learn his place.” Do you want to know how many sleep training parents talk about their babies like this?

Exactly zero.

I have personally interacted with many thousands of families who have sleep trained their children and can say with full confidence that the fictional depiction in the Ol’ Yeller article is total bunk. Nobody is ever teaching baby to “learn his place” nor are parents cavalier about things. Parents who use sleep training (in all its various forms) are thoughtful, caring, and mindful of the how critical healthy sleep is to their child’s health.

It’s Full of Alarmist Unsubstianted Statements

Following is a selection of the many harrowing statements made in these articles:

“Due to the mechanism of self-preservation, his body shuts down his conscious self and falls into a forced sleep.”

“Over time, they learn not to signal to their caregivers as the bonds of attachment fray.”

“CIO teaches them to panic silently and detach from those whom nature intends for them to trust.”

“A growing catalogue of peer-reviewed studies clearly assert that CIO harms normal brain development and damages a child’s capacity to develop secure attachment bonds — essential to the cultivation of empathy, pro-social behavior, and future, healthy long-term relationships.”

“This leads to the “underdevelopment” of receptors for serotonin, oxytocin and endogenous opioids – chemicals essential for our experience of happiness. In particular, the neural pathways formed by oxytocin released in our infancy remain with us and continue to impact our adult physiology.”

“While it may be true that some professionals who advocate CIO are traumatized individuals, I prefer to think of them as simply misinformed.” (Thanks, I guess?)

Boy that’s a lot of very scary statements presented as fact. Essentially the message boils down to:

  • CIO doesn’t teach babies to sleep, it forces them into a stress-induced fugue state.
  • CIO destroys the relationship you have with your child.
  • The damage has lasting and permanent consequences.

Ol’ Yeller concludes with the following statement:

“Research is clear. The school of thought regarding infant/toddler sleep known as CIO (in all of its forms) harms the most precious and innocent among us. To knowingly harm babies and children is wrong. Period. May we work for a day when CIO is looked upon like the ancient practice of Chinese foot binding is today: archaic, harmful and best relegated to the pages of history.”

What research is clear? Where is it? And how for the love of all that is good in the world can you possibly suggest that CIO is on par with foot binding? How does any reasonable reader come to such a concluding statement with any response beyond simply this?

It’s hard to step back from these inflammatory statements and not respond on a purely emotional level (although I want to, I really do). But if there is, as the author says, “A growing catalogue of peer-reviewed studies” concluding that “CIO harms normal brain development” we would all want to know about it. The article frequently alludes to research to support its claims (such as the ones I quote here), so let’s dig in.

It Misrepresents the Science

Ol’ Yeller doesn’t cite any specific research but instead makes vague references, so I’ve made my best guess as to the specific science it’s drawing upon to make its conclusions.

This article (like many others) claims this study proves that sleep training destroys parent/child bonds. But that is not what this study measures or concludes (the study is also full of flaws which are described nicely here). Researchers followed 25 infants (4-10 month olds) over a 5-day extinction sleep training program in a sleep lab, testing the mother/child cortisol levels at each day. The mothers and babies had elevated cortisol levels on day #1 but Mom’s cortisol levels decreased when the crying ceased, while the child’s cortisol levels remained elevated. I don’t want to get too far down the path of picking apart this study but it in no way demonstrates that the parent/child attachment has been damaged. A more reasonable conclusion is that having nurses (aka strangers) put an infant to sleep in the context of a sleep laboratory is stressful for infants. Also while “elevated cortisol” sounds like cause for concern, it’s not. It’s a normal and healthy response to new things (such as having a new caregiver, which in this case was a qualified lab nurse). “Elevated cortisol” does not constitute a toxic-stress response which is when a child experiences severe and chronic neglect or abuse.

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Ol’ Yeller repeatedly mentions an article called Baby Bonds quoting, “According to their research, 40 percent of 14,000 children born in 2001 lack secure attachment bonds formed by “early parental care.”” However Baby Bonds is specifically about significantly underprivileged families in the UK who are at much greater risk of neglect, abuse, drug/alcohol addiction, etc. Baby Bonds cites this meta-study on attachment disorders which concludes that about 15% of children in middle-class US families have an insecure attachment, most frequently associated with drug/alcohol use, chronic maltreatment, or children with neurological disorders (e.g. autism). The logical conclusion to this research is not that cry it out causes attachment disorders, addiction does.

Ol’ Yeller also mentions a rat study looking at different rat mothering behaviors (high degree of licking vs. low degree of licking) and the impact low-licking has on the development of the rat, namely that rats that get licked more are less fearful later in life.

Now if that was is as far as you went with it you might come to the conclusion, “I had better get back to licking my little rat because I don’t want him to grow up fearful!” But bear with me with the rat licking stuff a moment longer (if I have to slog through rat research, you do too!).

The conclusion the scientists come to is not that low-licking rats are neglectful parents who are damaging their pups with chronic maltreatment, but rather that low-licking behavior is a form of adaptive programming that helps those animals thrive in their particular habitat. More simply, fearfulness is a necessary survival trait for those specific rats.

So does this science support the idea that sleep training is harmful? Nope. Is it even remotely related to sleep training? Nope again. Further, none of my readers are low-licking rats.

Ol’ Yeller makes allusions to research on attachment (more rat research? why yes thank you!) indicating that when rat parents are cuddling, nursing, and being responsive to their pups, both the parent and pup brains produce happy chemicals (or if you prefer fancy talk endogenous opioids, oxytocin, and
norepinephrine). People produce these opioids too which help give you warm fuzzy feelings when you hold your baby. The research finds that rats who are put into isolation (and thus don’t get the neural support of these opioids) end up depressed and fearful.  But once again, sleep training is not remotely akin to newborn rats being placed in isolation. Parents who sleep train adore their children and attentively care for them throughout the day. These children – YOUR children – have plenty of opioids to support healthy brain development. Removing “45-minutes of bouncing on the yoga ball every night at bedtime” is not the same as putting a 2-day old rat in isolation.

Ol’ Yeller also draws upon research to imply that parents who utilize sleep training view their infants as manipulative and/or are less-fit parents due to depression or unresolved negative feelings related to their own childhood. Once again this takes research entirely unrelated to sleep training and misrepresents its conclusion. The study asked pregnant first-time mothers (meaning they had not yet given birth) to watch videotapes of infants crying and describe the crying as either manipulative or simply communicating.

Unsurprisingly, the pregnant women who had a history of depression or difficulty in emotional regulation were more likely to view infant crying as “manipulative.” So a reasonable conclusion from this study would be that people who struggle to manage their own emotions are going to have a harder time handling the negative emotions of babies. This study has absolutely nothing to say about parents who sleep train, nor does it suggest that parents who sleep train are “bad people” who view their children as “manipulative.”

TL:DR

In short, none of the research presented says what Ol’ Yeller claims it says. It doesn’t remotely substantiate the alarming and frankly ridiculous proclamations peppered throughout the article. Ol’ Yeller simply bandies about vague and misconstrued generalities from unrelated research to provide a veneer of legitimacy for what boils down to nothing more than the author’s personal opinion on the matter.

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Worse, it entirely overlooks the overwhelming body of direct scientific evidence that outlines the importance sleep and sleep training. Research that maps out the significant and lasting impact of chronic sleep deprivation and the negative impact of ongoing disjointed sleep on the well-being of the family. And research showing, in test after test after test, sleep training has been found to be effective, safe, and beneficial.

(Note: Stay tuned for a follow up post discussing the body of scientific evidence on sleep and sleep training.)

The bottom line? No parent wants their child to cry, just like nobody wants their child to wake up 8 times a night, take 20 minute naps, and be miserably overtired all the time. Cry it out is definitely the last approach parents reach after all others have failed. Many people find other methods to successfully help their child learn to fall asleep independently with little or no tears.

But parents that resort to letting their child cry in order to learn how to sleep have not failed. They’ve simply come to the difficult conclusion that the range of so-called gentle methods are not working for their child and that to continue on the current path of chronic sleep deprivation is not conducive to the health of their baby or the family. For those children, sleep training is the appropriate answer.

But sleep training is not child abuse – full stop.

This has been a long pretty heavy discussion so let’s end with this little bit of happy palette cleanser.

Ol’ Yeller Articles which are not to be read (if you value fairy wings) can be found here and here.