In your first few weeks as a new parent, you may remember countless sleepless nights with your newborn. At 6 months old, however, most babies should already be able to sleep through the night. For babies who struggle with this though, some parents have turned to sleep training techniques and strategies. Letting baby cry himself to sleep or “self-soothing” is one of them.
Though some parents disagree with this sleep training, a new study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that not only is it effective, it does not cause stress or lasting emotional problems to the baby.
The study involved 43 sets of parents with babies aged 6 to 16 months, all of which had trouble sleeping. Researchers separated them into three groups.
One group of parents and their babies was to try out the "cry-it-out" method. Parents were to leave their child within a minute of putting their baby to bed. If the child cried, the parent would wait, gradually increasing the amount of time before comforting their baby.
Another group was asked to try out a newer and gentler sleep training technique called "bedtime fading." In this approach, the child’s bedtime was pushed back for a few minutes every day, making the baby sleepier and sleepier as their bedtime is further delayed.
The last third of parents acted as the control group. They did not attempt any sleep training technique and were only given information on infant sleep.
After three months, results showed that the babies in the cry-it-out group fell asleep 15 minutes faster than the control group. Those in the bedtime fading group fell asleep 12 minutes faster than the control group, showing the effectiveness of both sleep training techniques.
In addition, babies in the cry-it-out group also reported the longest total sleep time and the least instances of the babies waking up during the night.
After a year, all the babies, including those in the control group, were getting the same amount of sleep. Researchers speculate that this may be due to babies' natural tendency to sleep better as they get older.
Importantly, the researchers also discovered that the sleep training techniques appeared to have no short-term and long-term ill effects on the babies. The level of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress, in the babies undergoing sleep training were within the normal range, showing that the sleep intervention was not causing them distress.
For long-term effects, researchers evaluated the babies for emotional, behavioral and parent-child attachment problems after a year. They found that the sleep-trained babies showed no signs of being more attached to their parents compared to the control group. And, there was no difference among the groups of babies when it came to emotional and behavioral well-being.
“We couldn’t find any differences. The more studies we get, the more confident we can feel that this is actually safe to perform,” said lead author Michael Gradisiar, an associate professor of psychology at Flinders University in Australia.
For parents looking to sleep-train their baby, Gradisar mentioned that both sleep training methods applied in the study can be found in the university’s website.
“Bedtime fading is the more preferred technique parents choose when provided both options. ... It's a gentle technique that works quickly,” he said.
Wondering if your baby is getting the right number hours of sleep? Dr. Jodi Mindell, psychologist and author of Sleeping Through the Night, provided this recommended guideline to Parents magazine.
Newborn – 10 to 18 hours, sleeping in 2- to 4-hour chunks
3 months – 15 hours with 2 to 4 naps in a day, 30 minutes to 2 hours each
6 months – 14 hours with 2 or 3 naps in a day, 45 minutes to 2 hours
1 year – 13 to 14 hours with 2 naps in a day, 1 to 2 hours each
1 ½ years – 10 to 13 hours with 1 or 2 naps that are 1 ½ to 3 hours each
2 years – 10 to 13 hours with 1 nap a day that’s 1 ½ to 3 hours long