Ferberizing: It May or May Not Kill Brain Cells But It Sure Makes Me Want to Cry
More than any other parenting topic, infant sleep training is the one I avoid at social gatherings. In the last month, I've seen Facebook updates and heard casual mentions from my friends about Cry It Out and Ferberizing. These are people I like, who care deeply about their children. And they are doing something that makes my stomach turn. I bite my tongue (or close the laptop) because I know how quickly these discussions turn ugly, especially with articles like this one on the Huffington Post that call CIO: "The Method that Kills Brain Cells".
I wasn't always so circumspect. At a play date several years ago, three moms were urging a friend to try cry it out: "You just have to do it."
"No, you don't," I interjected.
The three turned to me in shock, "What do you mean?" gasped one.
"All I mean, is," I replied, "You do not HAVE to do it. If you do not "sleep train", your baby will still sleep and will eventually learn to sleep on her own. You do not have to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable." Later, my friend came over to me. She said that it seemed so wrong to her to leave her baby to cry but just was not sure and all the other mothers had seemed so sure of themselves. She thanked me and said she was going to keep comforting her baby at night.
I'm not sure it is a topic most parents of infants can discuss rationally because both "sides" will insist that the other is damaging the baby--from lack of sleep or the dependence on the parent or the stress of being left to cry.
Babies Wake for Good Reason
The idea of "Ferberizing" (a process from which even Ferber has since distanced himself) is that the baby should learn to "self-soothe". Ferber claims he was "misunderstood" but many parents who practice Ferberizing seem to believe is that it is normal for a baby to sleep for long stretches (of 8-12 hours) alone.
You don't need a study to tell you that babies sleeping through the night alone is not historically, culturally, or biologically the norm. Babies are pre-wired to consider the parent the sole source of warmth, protection, and food.
Yes, a baby left alone to cry at night in the modern world is safe from the elements and predators and will not starve. But does your baby know that? Does he know what a baby monitor is? That you have locks on the door to protect from intruders? That the heater will kick-in if the temperature dips below 62 degrees? Or even that you still exist when he cannot see you?
Remember that an 8 month old has just really begun to realize that you are separate from him and can go away. Until he is a toddler, he probably will not understand that you have not vanished forever.
This is Your Brain on Sleep Training
An important part of infant development is learning that your parents will come when you call. These are building blocks of trust, communication, and cause and effect. We cannot simply turn that process off at night because we want to watch a movie or work on a deadline or sleep in a separate room.
Yes, children (not babies) absolutely do need boundaries and independence--but like any skill, it needs to be scaffolded in an age-appropriate way. Just as it is not age-appropriate to hand the keys to the car to your 10 year old, even though you may expect him to one day learn the skill, it is not age-appropriate to expect that an infant exhibit patience, sleep more than a few hours at a time without checking for you, or even demonstrate a firm grasp of object permanence. I promise you that your normally developing children will not still need your help to fall asleep past childhood.
When your baby cries, he cries because he needs you. We know that prolonged, un-soothed crying releases the stress hormone, cortisol, and we know that excessive cortisol can have a negative effect on the developing brain. When you do not come, he did not "self-soothe", he gave up, shut down, and is conserving energy. He is happy to see you in the morning not because he understands or accepts what happened but because he relies on you to fulfill his needs.
That's the limit of what we know, however. If you follow the link to the Psychology Today article on which the HuffPo article is based, you will see the rest is pieced together from studies, some quite old, that either have very small sample sizes, concern orphans who suffered from extreme neglect, or have other variables. There are large, controversial, and polarizing leaps of logic that take the author from crying to cortisol to brain damage.
The truth is, there are no studies proving that controlled crying or "gradual extinction", as awful as that term sounds to me, has any ill-effect on the child's brain or even on the child-parent relationship. The reason there are no double-blind studies is because it would almost certainly be unethical to design.
Instead, we'll have to rely on our own instincts.
My first child was colicky and intense. She also had a heart condition that required I keep her calm until she was three months old. I can tell you that when it is a life or death situation, you find ways to get your child to sleep without extended crying, even if that way is swaddled, in a swing, with a pacifier, and the vacuum cleaner going (no recording, she knew the difference), and still waking up throughout the night.
Even once my daughter had her operation, I continued to rub, rock, sing, and nurse her to sleep. Not because I was concerned about brain damage but because that is the type of parent I want to be and the type of relationship I want to have with my children. I trust there is a reason babies wake and need their parents and a reason their parents, especially their mothers, can't stand to let them cry.
I can also share that, five years later, that she only needs a story to fall asleep in her own bed.
So, look at the facts, draw your own conclusions, and trust your gut: does this feel like the right thing to do?
How about you? Have you ever used a cry it out method?
photo credit: bfhoyt via flickr