Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Sleep training...?

There are some who swear by it. There are some who say you're a terrible parent by doing it. There are some who say you're ruining your children by not doing it. Sleep training is another one of those child-rearing issues that every parent has an opinion on - and every parent is sure they're right.

Although I am by no means a parenting expert (my only formal training being the three children I'm raising...) I have my own opinions about this particular issue, as with most controversial parenting issues.

In our family, we do not sleep train. We never have, with any of our children.

None of my kids have ever been great sleepers as little ones. They rarely napped as babies, they nursed to fall asleep, they often preferred to sleep in our bed to their own, and they all woke up to nurse a zillion times during the night. I don't know how many times friends and family told us we had to sleep train our kids if they were ever going to learn to sleep through the night or sleep on their own or if we ever wanted a good night's sleep again.

I disagreed.

There are countless different methods of sleep training - every expert seems to have an opinion, a recommendation, a book with a method to follow. Pediatrician Dr. Richard Ferber's "cry it out" sleep training approach, the popular and contoversial "Ferberizing" method, assumes that babies will learn to fall asleep on their own if given the chance, but won't if they get used to being rocked, held or nursed to sleep. The method involves putting your child to bed, leaving the room and ignoring his cries for a predetermined amount of time, returning to soothe without picking up and repeating over and over again for gradually increasing intervals until he learns to soothe himself and fall asleep on his own - but to me, that just seems cruel.

It is completely counterintuitive to everything we feel and know and are taught as parents. Babies and toddlers are completely dependent on their parents and trust them completely to care for their wants and needs. What are we teaching them when we teach them that they can't, in fact, trust or rely on their parents for comfort at such a young age? Aren't we in fact confirming all those deep-seated fears of abandonment? How will leaving them to scream and cry while we ignore them teach anything other than that if they are frightened or sad or uncomfortable, they have to learn to suck it up and deal with it on their own? I don't believe that these are lessons a child should have to learn until they are older and have already formed a strong attachment to their parents and have learned trust and affection and self-expression. Scientific studies of sleep training methods have made it clear that there is insufficient information on the long-term effects of these methods on emotional and personality development, the ability to express affection, and the parent-child relationship. To me, it's just too big a risk to take simply to gain a few more hours of sleep myself.

The exact opposite method is advocated by pediatrician Dr. William Sears, best known for his "attachment parenting" approach. Dr. Sears encourages a child-centered approach to sleep training that includes rocking and nursing your baby to sleep and co-sleeping to help develop closeness, comfort, trust, a healthy parent-child bond and positive mental and emotional associations with sleep and bedtime. To me, this seems a great deal more natural and nurturing and more in line with our roles as parents in our babies' lives than to leave them alone and crying to figure it out for themselves.

There are some who take the notion of attachment parenting a little further - we've all read about those celebrities who are still co-sleeping with their seven-year-old children in a family bed. To me this also seems a little extreme.

Every parent and every family needs to do what is best for them, what feels most natural and most comfortable and what they believe will be healthiest for their children and their family. In our family, we've always had a bedtime for our boys; but as infants we rocked or nursed them to sleep, so bedtime was variable and controlled by their needs. They were all restless sleepers as babies and toddlers, waking a half-dozen times during the night for feeding, snuggles, diaper changes, bathroom breaks, drinks of water. I got up with them every time, and stayed with them until they were back asleep. Every time. They often liked - and still like - to crawl into our bed at night for a snuggle after a bad dream or if they're not feeling well. We've taught them about privacy and knocking if the door is closed - but we let them come snuggle whenever they want.

I have never let any of my children "cry it out" for any reason. I have nursed, rocked, and snuggled them to sleep for years. I have let them sleep in my bed. And guess what? They're turning out just fine. My older two boys sleep for ten solid, uninterrupted hours every single night. If they need to go to the washroom or get a drink of water, they do so on their own. If they wake up early they usually pull out a book and read until the rest of the family wakes up - but occasionally they'll still crawl into our bed and curl up for a morning snuggle with Mommy. At six and eight years old they are bright, creative, confident, independent little boys who are perfectly at ease showing love and physical affection to each other and my husband and I. My youngest still nurses or snuggles to fall asleep and wakes up a few times during the night. When he wakes up, he grabs his pillow and carries it down the hall to our room.  He lies in our bed to nurse or snuggle back to sleep. Sometimes I bring him back into his own bed, sometimes he stays in our bed for the rest of the night. I have no concerns that as he grows older he will gradually become more independent with his sleeping just as his brothers did.

Every family does what they think is right and there are so many factors involved in the decisions we make as parents. Some people believe that sleep training is a necessity, and there are valid arguments for that point. For myself, I never believed that sleep training was the only way my children would learn to sleep through the night, and I happen to be the type of person who can function on little sleep myself. I certainly have had a lot less sleep over the last eight years than if I had sleep trained my boys. But for me, the guilt of leaving my baby crying for no good reason is not something I could have lived with. Our parenting philosophy, while very child-centered, does involve disciplining and teaching them certainly and shaping them to be good adults certainly - but we choose our battles carefully. "Teaching" them to sleep, at the risk of possibly undermining a part of our bond or trust, does not seem a battle worth winning.

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