Do you train your baby to fall asleep on her own—despite the crying? Or rock and comfort him off into dreamland—and do this over and over every time he wakes? Few parenting decisions are as fraught—and controversial—as how best to get a baby to sleep. But a new study tries to put the great sleep debate to rest.
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers in Australia followed 225 children from 7 months old through age 6 to see if sleep training produced negative psychological effects—the concern typically raised by parents who are against the practice. Roughly half the children received sleep training—either "camping out" (parent stays in room while baby learns to fall asleep independently) or "controlled comforting" (parents respond to baby's cry in intervals). The other half did not receive formal sleep training.
The results? By age 6, no long-term differences, either positive or negative, were found between families who used behavioral techniques to teach infant sleep and those left to their own devices. However, when help was needed most—when babies were still very young—sleep training decidedly offered more benefits than drawbacks. As KJ Dell'Antonia notes in a recent Motherlode blog, families who used sleep techniques reported improved infant sleep patterns and moms reported fewer cases of postpartum depression (probably because they got a better night's sleep!).
All this information leads researchers to conclude that, simply put, sleep training is effective and safe. Researchers wrote, "Parents can feel confident using, and health professionals can feel confident offering, behavioral techniques such as controlled comforting and camping out for managing infant sleep."
It's important to note that "crying it out," the controversial technique of putting baby down and then not responding to cries as a means teaching self-comforting, wasn't one of training tactics practiced in the study. There is no question about this technique—letting a baby cry for extended periods causes too much infant and parent distress, according to researchers.
So, what's it gonna to be tonight? Infant sleep expert Kim West—a.k.a. "The Sleep Lady"—tells BabyZone that before employing any sleep training technique, make sure it's one that you know you can live with—and stick to.
"One of the takeaways of this study for parents should be that consistency is key. Find a method of getting your baby to sleep that's a match for your parenting style and is one that you can see yourself doing night after night," says West.
Before beginning training, West also recommends checking in with your pediatrician to make sure your baby's trouble sleeping is not connected to an underlying health issue like sleep apnea or allergies, and to get the green light from your doctor on your chosen method.
The age to start sleep training? It may be as young as 6 months, but this is something that can vary widely from baby to baby.
And one last piece of advice when it comes to teaching Baby better sleep habits? "Know going in that, when it comes to teaching your baby better sleep habits, it always gets worse before it gets better," says West.
"But it will get better."