“Self Soothing” Myths And Facts


By Good Night Consultant

Social media has been abuzz about a recent article published by Psychologist Sarah Ockwell-Smith about the misconceptions or damage one can do by teaching your baby to “self sooth”.

Herewith my response:

As a self-proclaimed attachment parent, Sarah falls within one end of the parenting style spectrum, together with Dr. Sears, for example. The challenge with Sarah’s article is that she insinuates that one cannot both “sleep train” and be an attachment parent. Her statements make it sound as if any parent wanting to have better quality sleep for their child is selfish and does not care for the emotional wellbeing of the child.

She refers to “controlled crying” as a method where parents leave a baby to cry – even if it is for 2 minutes – and explains that this is neither positive nor gentle. My question then, is crying bad?

The misconceptions about what “sleep training” is, is not a new phenomenon. It is NOT about leaving a child to cry. Even controlled crying, at very specific times, where the parent is either with the child or not with child, is very controversial. Essentially, I believe that parents need to strive for maintaining a holistic approach to sleep. Parents need to analyse factors that influence sleep—from environment through to nutrition and stimulation—and then work together with a specialist to determine the best course of action for the family.

A dummy or pacifier is a wonderful tool with which to sooth a child – age appropriately – but can become a huge stumbling block for the quality of a child’s sleep. One has to question whether taking the dummy away and teaching the child to soothe in other ways is really “not meeting his emotional needs”.

I have worked with many families where implementing the correct building blocks for good quality sleep, which include a combination of 10 minutes of crying (while all the while being there to sooth the child in other ways) have made the difference between a child who is able to sleep through, and a child who wakes up every half- an hour at night. Are we abandoning our child’s emotional needs by not feeding them until they fall asleep? Are we damaging our children if we do not give them a dummy? What Sarah seems to forget, is that the studies that she refers to do not merely have to do with what happens at night, but rather what happens throughout the day. A child who has been “ignored” continuously, for prolonged periods of time, both during the day and at night might be susceptible to shut-down syndrome. But for a child who is loved and nurtured his whole life; will not necessarily be damaged by the “two minutes of crying” that she refers to.

Fundamentally, I take issue with how this article disempowers mothers and parents to decide for themselves about how they feel about certain issues, including a serious issue like sleep deprivation (for both mother and child). As with so many articles out there, Sarah harshly judges any mom who has prioritised sleep for her family. There is no right or wrong when a parent loves a child, especially when the parent wants to meet the child’s most basic needs. Sleep is a fundamental need – both on an emotional and physical level, for both parent and child.

My mind takes me back to the distressed phone call I had with a new mom who was literally ready to kill her baby, as she couldn’t cope any longer with sleep deprivation. I remember the dad who phoned me behind his wife’s back, because he just could not see how his marriage would survive on the erratic amount of interaction he currently had with his wife.

With regard to the “research” that Sarah refers to, one of the studies is about an investigation that “sought to examine the unique and interactive effects of child maltreatment and inter-adult violence on children’s developing strategies of emotion regulation and socio-emotional adjustment”. Interestingly, by quoting this article, Sarah infers that “sleep training” is child maltreatment. Also, another article refers to a study done on less than one hundred children between the ages of seven and twelve. Another article that she cites in her research relates to the fact that “depression has been linked to increased cortisol reactivity and differences in limbic brain volumes”. I would like to offer a well-known fact that sleep deprivation often leads to depression, and the stress a parent contends with when they are not sleeping creates many, many problems for the family down the line. Furthermore, regarding this specific study, Sarah explains that “the results suggest that maternal emotional attitudes toward children may play a causal role in the development of antisocial behaviour”. I have to agree with Sarah on this point! If a parent is so sleep deprived that he/she cannot attend to a child’s needs, what about the emotional neglect that child will experience? I can go on… but I think I have proved my point.

The truth is, for every article cited about the “damage” of her perception of sleep training, I can quote and reference another that supports healthy sleep training. For every article about the “damage to the brain” for allowing a child to cry for a few minutes, I can reference another article about the damage of lack of sleep to the emotional wellbeing of parents and children.

Interesting also… that Sarah, on this exact page, advertises her “Gentle Sleep Training” business… I’m confused? Didn’t she use her article to explain just how evil sleep training is?

On her page she promises an “empathetic, non-judgmental approach” where she can fix parents’ sleep problems with a 30 minute phone call… Not only do I think this is a marketing ploy, I have first-hand experience that most parents who are at the point whereto they are willing to reach out for help and support from a professional, need more than 30 minutes to help them onto a path of sustainable change and good results.

MyY pPhilosophy remains the same. As a parent, trust your instinct above all else. Don’t believe everything you read. The fact that this article was shared so widely yet again proves the human condition of being swept up in mass sentiment instead of making our own discerning arguments and conclusions based on what is best for OUR individual families. I wonder if many people even took the time to read the research that Sarah was citing.

It is not my job to convince you of any particular method of raising children, whether you are FOR sleep training, FOR crying or FOR attachment parenting – chances are, YOU ARE PROBABLY RIGHT.

I am not for sleep training. I am for sleep.