Why I no longer believe babies should cry themselves to sleep

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Source: Globe and Mail by GABOR MATÉ
Date: Feb. 04 2006’Some of our friends see us as weak parents because we haven’t Ferberized our children,” says my niece Rachel Maté, a 33-year-old Vancouver lawyer and mother of two. ” ‘You’re letting your baby control your lives,’ they argue. But it would break my heart to let my baby cry without comforting her.”Named after Dr. Richard Ferber, the pediatric sleep expert quoted in a previous 2006 article on parents who share their beds with their children, Ferberization is the process of “training” an infant to sleep by ignoring her crying. As a family physician, I used to advocate the Ferber technique and, as a parent, practised it myself. Since then, I have come to believe that the method is harmful to infant development and to a child’s long-term emotional health.

Ferberization seems simple: “After about one week, your infant will learn that crying earns nothing more than a brief check from you, and isn’t worth the effort. She’ll learn to fall asleep on her own, without your help,” reads Dr. Ferber’s advice. The question is, what else does a baby learn when treated this way and what is the impact of such learning?

People cannot consciously recall what they “learned” in the first year of life, because the brain structures that store narrative memory are not yet developed. But neuropsychological research has established that human beings have a far more powerful memory system imprinted in their nervous systems called intrinsic memory. Intrinsic memory encodes the emotional aspects of early experience, mostly in the prefrontal lobe of the brain. These emotional memories may last a lifetime. Without any recall of the events that originally encoded them, they serve as a template for how we perceive the world and how we react to later occurrences.

Is the world a friendly and nurturing place, or an indifferent or even hostile one? Can we trust other human beings to recognize, understand and honour our needs, or do we have to shut down emotionally to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable? These are fundamental questions that we resolve largely with our implicit memory system rather than with our conscious minds. As psychologist and leading memory researcher Daniel Schacter has written, intrinsic memory is active “when people are influenced by past experience without any awareness that they are remembering.”

The implicit message an infant receives from having her cries ignored is that the world — as represented by her caregivers — is indifferent to her feelings. That is not at all what loving parents intend.

Unfortunately, it’s not parental intentions that a baby integrates into her world view, but how parents respond to her. This is why, if I could relive my life, I would do much of my parenting differently.

When the infant falls asleep after a period of wailing and frustrated cries for help, it is not that she has learned the “skill” of falling asleep. What has happened is that her brain, to escape the overwhelming pain of abandonment, shuts down. It’s an automatic neurological mechanism. In effect, the baby gives up. The short-term goal of the exhausted parents has been achieved, but at the price of harming the child’s long-term emotional vulnerability. Encoded in her cortex is an implicit sense of a non-caring universe.

The concepts behind Ferberization precede the publication of Dr. Ferber’s 1985 bestseller Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problem. Forty years earlier, Benjamin Spock proposed the very same approach in his seminal book Baby and Child Care. The cure for what Dr. Spock called “chronic resistance to sleep in infancy” is straightforward. The way to ensure that the infant doesn’t “get away with such tyranny,” he wrote, was to “say good night affectionately but firmly, walk out of the room, and don’t go back.”

Dr. Spock was a great pioneer of humane and loving child rearing and much of his advice refuted the harsh Victorian practices prevalent in his days. On this sleep issue, however, he ignored his own admonition that parents should trust their own instincts and gut feelings and not defer to the opinion of experts.

Monica Moster, an 80-year-old grandmother of seven, recalls what it felt like for her to follow such advice with her own children. “It was torture for me to do it,” she says. “It went against all my motherly emotions.”

Rachel Maté reports that even some of her friends who believe in Ferberization have a hard time of it. “I know women who have to stand in the shower with their hands over their ears so they can’t hear their baby crying. It’s traumatic not just to baby, but also to parent.”

In our stressed society, time is at a premium. Beholden to our worldly schedules, we try to adapt our children to our needs, rather than serving theirs. More “primitive” aboriginal peoples in Africa and North and South America kept their infants with them at all times. They had not yet learned to suppress their parenting instincts.

The baby who cries for the parent is not engaging in “tyranny,” she is expressing her deepest need — emotional and physical contact with the parent. The deceptive convenience of Ferberization is one more way in which our society fails the needs of the developing child.

Vancouver physician Gabor Maté is the co-author of Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers.

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8 thoughts on “Why I no longer believe babies should cry themselves to sleep

  1. Marta

    Thank you for taking the time to wright this article. But how do you suggest we put our children to sleep then?

    • Mumanu

      I’m glad you said that… I was thinking the same thing. Below are the answers loads of mum’s gave on the Natural Parent Magazine Facebook page I submited this article to. I hope they help…

      – You just cuddle them and hug them and breastfeed them…nothing better than feeling loved and secure to make them sleep

      – nurse/rock/sing your babies to sleep. Bed share and gently transition your toddlers to their own beds if they ask for a bed. Slooooowly night wean if necessary at all. Just remember that parenting is a 24/7 gig. If your toddler doesn’t want to sleep in their own bed and you want them to sleep there, sleep on the floor for a while while they get used to it.

      – Sing, soft touch, cuddles making them feel safe , they just want to b close to u. Frustrating at times but the mre u enjoy and take the time to secur them the easier it is for them and u! :o)

      – My son is just turn 12 months and still rock him to sleep then put him in his crib. He will not go to sleep if i put him in his crib. He will scream. I’m a sucker. I won’t allow that. I have no problem rocking him to sleep. They are only young once.

      – <> YES! I totally agree. But I often wonder if my life were a little different if I’d feel as strongly as I do about this. I have the fortune (and great desire) to stay home and care for my child and home (with great financial, and sometimes mental sacrifice!), but I wonder what I’d do if I had to get up and go to work outside of the home. Those of you that work and don’t believe in CIO, what do you do?

      – I give my baby solids, bath, then breast feed she sleeps straight away. For the whole nyt.

      – Mine fall asleep super fast in the ErgoBaby. I love it. They love it. We’re all happy.

      – If your baby is truly crying, they shouldn’t be left alone. The book Good Night, Sleep Tight helped us learn how to coach our son to put himself to sleep. While I truly believe a lot of it is his natural laid back demeanor, i believe our “coaching” plays a big part in why he sleeps 12 hours solid with no fuss, and I have never let him cry. Having said that, sometimes he has a very busy exhausting day and cries for a couple minutes at bed time. But I stand next to his crib gently stroking his back or thigh, shushing or humming, until he gets out his frustration. Usually about 5 minutes and he’s snoring peacefully.

      – Interesting, thank you for this I have struggled with this idea for the past few months. My son (age 1) was co-sleeping until a couple weeks ago. One day I had him in his crib to play while I put away his laundry and he just lay down and fell asleep. Just like that. So next nap I put him in his crib rubbed his back and he, again, fell asleep. For the last couple weeks I would put him in his crib rub his back a bit and lay beside him on the floor until he was asleep. Tonight we had a break through he stayed awake in his crib for about 15 minutes (no tears) playing until he just went to sleep on his own (he did call out to me for reassurance a few times, just fine)
      I think as others tried to pressure me into letting him cry it out my instincts and patience has paid off and he is confident to sleep alone knowing we are just a voice call away!!!

      – I am so happy that I never listened to anyone who said that sleeping with my babies wasn’t good, and so happy I never listened when the same people said to do the cry out method it’s the only way. I followed my heart and slept with all my girls! We never did the cry out method, my baby is 10 months and still sleeping with us. My heart breaks for all those poor babies crying alone in bed, it’s feels so wrong!

      – I work outside the home fulltime. I bedshare with my girls, as they need it. I BF on demand through the night. WE’ve just moved 18mth old into her own bed, and she wakes once a night. We’re gradually looking at eliminating this nursing. I won’t lie, there have been times when I thought I was dying from lack of sleep, especially when both girls were having restless nights and were in my bed tossing and turning or grizzling or nursing.
      But you just adapt and push on. I will never regret having my girls nuzzled up against me and listening to their satisfied little sighs as they nursed.

      – the best tip I can give is work on your own expectations and be the one who needs to adapt. I just read about a fellow photographer mama who lost her toddler to terminal illness and how lost and helpless she feels, it’s be almost 2 years and hasn’t grieved yet, so whenever you feel frustrated, hold your baby, when ever you are super tired, hold your baby, whenever you feel stress hold your baby..we don’t own them, they can go any day. hold that child every night if they ask you to and tell them a million times how much your love them. I just put my almost 2 year old to bed pass 11pm holding on to each other like a pretzel, rubbing our noses together.. she gently rub my face with her tiny soft hand and kissed me. I need her in my life as much as she needs me in hers and nothing else i do is remotely as important as that 15 mins i created a memory and releases feel good hormone in my body. don’t take any little moment for granted, hold that baby tight and say thank you for one more day with them! My daughter can put herself to bed but often loves the touches of our hand on her face or her head against our cheek.. and my bond with her has grown a million time stronger since she was born just by being there with her when she wanted us there.

      – I’ve never been able to let my now 2 year old son cry himself to sleep, so I’ve just done my due diligence to comfort him. Unknowingly, by sticking to a predictable bedtime routine and the same predictable steps when laying him down (cover with blanket, kiss him, say “night night”, and rub his belly for a minute, then kiss his head again) he has been wonderful at going to sleep for the last month! The predictability makes it something he is no longer anticipating, it’s just the norm.

      – I will share what we did. Jack was in a bassinet next to our bed until he was about 4 or 5 months. Then we moved our mattress to the floor and put a crib mattress between him and the wall. We would have to rock him to sleep to music ea h night and lay him in his crib after he was asleep until we went to bed. Then around 13 months he got his own floor bed in his own room. Still we rocked til he fell asleep, placed in bed and brought him to our room when we went to sleep. Then around 15 months, we laid in his bed next to him and let him decide when to fall asleep. Sometimes it would take him an hour to settle, but eventually he would stop playing, crawl into bed and go to sleep. Four weeks ago (20 months) we stopped getting him when we go to bed. When he wakes in the night he is welcome to join us or not. Two weeks ago (at 21 months) we decided it was time for him to fall asleep without a parent in the room. (Im due in two months so it was time!) I began by sitting next to his bed. The next night I moved a little further away and so on. For the first four days or so he would try to engage me in another story. I said you can bring the book to bed but story time is over now sweetie. He wasn’t happy but got over it quickly. Every night I moved farther away until the last two nights where I was able to close the door and leave. No crying! So moral of my story? Patience pays off!!

      – I take him to his room (my 18 mo old) around bed time and play with him, giggle and wrestle and then it turns to snuggles so I dim the lights once he slows down a bit, and then it takes some time for him to settle depending on the night but I sit or lay with him til he’s breathing slow then I give him a kiss and hug, clothes the curtains and he’s out.

      – we did that for awhile and tried the traditional methods and then she got older and wiser and has started being in the “scared of monsters” stage. We brought a few different night light things and techniques and nothing seemed to work, so now we put her to bed in our bed (we stay with her til she falls asleep) and then transfer her into her bed. She’s almost 3.

      BREASTFEED THEM!! The wY nature intended, no problem!

  2. Amanda

    I have 7 month old twins. I let them cry it out at 4 months old. They cried for less then 10 minutes for the first two nights since then they either play for a little bit until they fall asleep or go straight to sleep. I love my children but rocking two babies to sleep every night at the end of a long day is exhausting. Bedtime is for sleeping. They get plenty of cuddles and kisses during the day.

    • Mumanu

      I don’t think two night’s for 10 minutes is all that bad. I think this article is talking about those babies/toddlers who cry and scream for ages and ages each night for a long time

  3. Lisa Pontician

    I feel it is cruel to leave your baby crying for any reason. They need as much love a.d affection and trust in you as any human being but doubled. How bad is it to pick the baby up and rock him or her to sleep? Oh, your worried about yourself and how much sleep YOU get? Tough!! It’s part of being a parent, and above all else…a human with compassion. That’s your baby! You only get ONE chance to raise them to be successful, well balanced adults. Listen to your instincts and that little voice telling you to comfort that little piece of you…

    • nzgirl

      I must be really harsh then, as when my daughter was waking every 45 minutes at 6 months old and was unable to settle, my instinct told me that she needed to be supported into self-settling and learning how to sleep for more than one sleep cycle. I had an unhappy and exhausted baby – it wasn’t about me, it was about her getting enough sleep. I tried No Cry Sleep Solution (Pantley) read and applied some aspects of Babywise, as well as numerous online sites (ranging from AP to CIO) and finally read and used Ferber’s CC at 1,2,3,4,5,6,10,10 intervals. Why did I choose Ferber after a long and wide net of reading? Because my baby was exhausted and nothing else – no amount of sleep logs, Pantley method, Co-sleeping was working. We only got to ten minutes once and it took 3 nights of settling in this manner. To couple with this, we used Verbal Reassurance Technique and were comforting, consistent and loving. Night one she slept until 3am, night two and three from 6-4am. Did she do this because she was neglected? Abandoned? She certainly didn’t show any signs of this; her cot was side-carred to our bed and we continued to sleep right next to her. She just didn’t wake up beyond stirring as she’d learned how to fall asleep. Was she stressed and abandoned? No. Nor I agree was she engaging in tyranny by crying.

      Since our stint of controlled crying – which is Ferber’s method (this is different from Cry it Out) and VRT, our baby has moved into her own room, loves bed times and nap times, and lies there chatting and singing after we do what we have fondly called “Dump and Run” (yes, it is said in jest.) At the end of the day there is more than one way to fry eggs, and Ferber’s methods can be cooked in many different ways. Applying instinct, commonsense and a view of the big picture in relation to your own family is by far the best way to navigate.

  4. Lisa Pontician

    Apparently there is something wrong! Colic maybe? I screamed the first 3 yrs of my life until my mother took me to a urologist who found a malignant tumor the size of a grapefruit attached to my left kidney Major surgery with a 50/50 chance of survival at 4 years old…there is a reason, there is ALWAYS a reason.

  5. Pamela Thompson (@PamelaHDesign)

    Maybe that part of my life is why I have an occasionally recurring nightmare that I can remember as my first. I am in my mom’s grey blue Buick that is rolling down a hill with nobody to drive it. I DO NOT HAVE the ability to drive but, I learned how to actually drive very early in life…My drunk daddy let me drive the boat at 6 and a car at 8.

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