“Self Soothing” Myths And Facts

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.

7 Comments
  • Valerie
    Posted at 14:21h, 08 July Reply

    I totally agree with you! Thanks so much for posting this. It makes me feel much better than I did after reading the other article. 🙂

  • Claire Pienaar
    Posted at 13:23h, 09 July Reply

    I am so passionate about the negative effects of mothers who try to successfully implement attachment parenting. It’s ridiculous to uphold the expectations of the attachment parenting camp when you have a household to run, (other) children (besides the baby) to care for, and you still have a responsibility to bring in some income into the home. Where do attachment parents live? In communes with people who are willing to share the sleep deprivation? Their sex lives go for a loop, their friendships suffer (because they moan about not sleeping to their gal pals all the time) and they generally put on weight and become unhealthy because they eat to stay awake. It’s not sustainable and their children are bratty and only understand instant gratification.

    While I understand that for a full-time, stay-at-home-mom attachment parenting or “co-sleeping” or whatever you’d like to call sleep deprivation might seem a sensible choice, the reality is that most mothers have other roles to play in the modern home. And quality sleep for both baby and mommy, in my opinion, leads to a better run home.

    What is more heart-breaking than a crying baby? A bratty child who only understands instant gratification. What is more harmful than gently helping a child into a routine? A mom who is so sleep deprived, her relationship with the newborn, other children or husband suffer. Get real. Be solution oriented.

  • Cindy
    Posted at 07:45h, 22 July Reply

    I fully agree wirh you Claire, be solution orientated! I currently have a 6 week old baby and is seriously feeling the effects of little sleep. Also being a first time mom puts even more pressure on me as hubby and I are still trying to figure out what works for us… People like Sarah make me feel very judged, the ones on the “cry-it-out” spectrum too. We have decided to follow our guts and insticts and be the best we can be,but sleep is needed for that!!

  • Hantie
    Posted at 20:04h, 11 August Reply

    Well said! I can testify that sleep training or whatever you want to call it is not bad for your child. Anything but, we did the Goodnight program when my son was 5 months old. He is now 2.5 years. He speaks almost fluently, everyone can understand him, he actually debate with us over matters and his memory is astonishing. He is almost potty trained (only on diapers when he is sleeping), has normal fine and gross motor skills and he impress us everyday by how flexible he is to change. We moved him to a big bed a week ago and he goes to bed without any problems and sleeps like a champ! He loves huggs and kisses and shower us with affection. Maybe I’m bragging a bit but I’m convinced a big part of his astonishing skills can be contributed to good sleeping habits and learning how to handle himself! No one will convince me that my son would have been better of if I had jumped as his every will and need and woke up 3 or 4 times a night to soothe him. I’m a proud sleep training supporter and recommend Goodnight to anybody and everybody I meet!

  • Sas
    Posted at 19:08h, 05 September Reply

    I think you are unfairly misrepresenting Sarah’s position on this. She doesn’t believe that crying in itself is damaging to the baby, she believes that LEAVING a baby to cry as a method for sleep training is the problem, which is very different, and doesn’t actually sound too far from your own position! In other articles & books she has written she talks about sitting with or holding a baby/toddler while they cry and explains how this is very different to leaving them to cry alone (e.g. CIO, timeout etc). She also isn’t against all methods of helping a baby learn to settle to sleep but she is against most of the mainstream methods of “sleep training” which tend to involve some degree of abandoning a baby to cry alone. When people talk about “sleep training” this is often what they are referring to, but obviously you could also call her own methods “sleep training” too, it’s just that she’s more realistic about the fact there isn’t a “quick fix” if you want to minimise the long term psychological impact & she doesn’t approach it like training a dog as some people do!

    I do have to agree, though, that in that particular article she maybe slightly minimises the devastating impact of extreme sleep deprivation which a few parents experience when they don’t follow a sleep training routine. However if you read a lot more of her writings she is more sympathetic to this and suggests ways of dealing with it, and she certainly doesn’t think that parents should just live with it even when it’s causing very serious problems. Also I think what the article in question is focusing on is the kind of “pre-emptive” sleep training that is often recommended to parents who aren’t even particularly sleep deprived, i.e. the attitude that if you don’t “sleep train” your baby from a very young age you will be paying for it in sleepless nights months or years down the line. In reality some babies learn to sleep well at an early age, while some do need more help learning to do so (I’ve had 3 and they’ve all been very different in this respect!). Parents will vary in how well they can cope with sleep deprivation, obviously if you have to return to work & don’t cope well on reduced sleep it might be more of a priority to get your baby sleeping well, if you’re able to take a few years off work then sleeping through the night isn’t really an issue unless you’re dealing with really extreme sleep problems. It’s probably worth bearing in mind that Sarah is UK based, where we have really good maternity leave compared to most of the rest of the world, so UK mothers are more able to take the first year of their child’s life off work.

    I’m not sure where on her site she claims to be able to fix sleep problems after a 30 minute phone call, but perhaps she’s changed something on her site since you wrote this article. On her new site about gentle sleep training she does offer either 30 min or 1 hour telephone consultations, but specifically states she doesn’t offer “quick fixes”.

    Based on what I’ve read on your site I’d say you & Sarah wouldn’t actually be that far apart in your approach to sleep – yes you seem to have a few key differences, but it seems there’s a lot more common ground than there is between you & some of the popular “sleep training” advocates!

    (I have no connection with Sarah apart from being a parent who has successfully put lots of her advice into practice, by the way! I tend to read widely and pick & mix ideas from different sources, but broadly speaking I lean towards an attachment/gentle parenting approach these days – no bratty kids here though, Claire Pienaar!)

  • Vanessa Reader
    Posted at 14:24h, 17 November Reply

    Thank you for your article, I am a new mum and very confused. This seems to be a “first world, specifically white western” problem…upon much research about other cultures, babies co-sleep and it’s been done for centuries to this day…I’ve tried so many approaches and I must say the only to work FOR US and our boy sleeps through the night now…is in our bed happily. We do not abuse alcohol nor take drugs and have never rolled over him. He stirs a few times a night, I roll over giving him breast and he falls back to sleep…all three of us sleep WELL and cannot complain. Is this not a possible natural solution for so many asking? There are no tears and we do not have to get up. During the day he sleeps in his cot after falling asleep on my breast…again as most of the world does it? He is 15months old and I am simply not strong enough to carry him in a wrap or on my back…so cot it is. My limited knowledge on sleep training is that it is very unnatural, stressful on everyone? Perhaps I am wrong? I am not worried about when he will leave our bed, as I said being from a different culture myself, and speaking to all my friends some with 4 kids, none of their kids stayed in their beds after 2/3years old…why is this so wrong? My husband and I can be intimate elsewhere and baby feels safest between mum&dad…natural no? I’m not opposed to sleep training just wondering why it’s so needed? Thank you in advance for your response.

  • Esme Macdougall
    Posted at 19:41h, 05 May Reply

    To add on to what I just said – yes, it is very possible to run a normal life, putting your children to sleep while gently meeting their needs AND have a life which some claim you wont have under these circumstances. For the record – I am a single mother, doing what I do ‘all’ by myself AND I run a full-time business. I try to meet the needs of my children as best as I can (and it ‘is’ tough) and while they play by themselves outside with the animals or with their toys / each other I do what I need to do. I stop when they need me and then I carry on again. Plenty of people I know do the same – it is very doable. If its too much effort to give a child what they need, perhaps its better then to not have any children ?- so your sleep can not be interrupted, you can have as much sex as you want with your husband in your bed where no children are present, go out and do what child-less people do. When we ‘do’ choose to have children however, we need to realise that life does not end, but it changes and we need to be prepared to step up to the bar – the child did not ask to be there.

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