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Is 'crying to sleep' at bedtime good for a baby's health?

Researcher Gerry Giesbrecht tracking Calgary moms on their baby's sleep and development to see if approach helps or harms the child
May 9, 2016
University of Calgary researcher Gerry Giesbrecht (right) is tracking parental response to infant crying and fussing at bedtime over a three-year period. The study with 300 Calgary moms is aimed at providing information on child development to help parents make decisions about bedtime training. Kayla Ten Eycke is a first-time mother to Ophelia, who is still waking up at night to be comforted. Photos by Laura Herperger, University of Calgary

University of Calgary researcher Gerry Giesbrecht (right) is tracking parental response to infant crying and fussing at bedtime over a three-year period. The study with 300 Calgary moms is aimed at providing information on child development to help parents make decisions about bedtime training. Kayla Ten Eycke is a first-time mother to Ophelia, who is still waking up at night to be comforted. Photos by Laura Herperger, University of Calgary 

At eight months old, Ophelia was learning to crawl. She also had her first front tooth. Her mom, Kayla Ten Eycke, is trying to follow a consistent routine at bedtime by allowing her to cry for short periods of time before intervening. She says the teething period has disrupted the bedtime routine, causing her daughter to wake up and fuss frequently.

At eight months old, Ophelia was learning to crawl. She also had her first front tooth. Her mom, Kayla Ten Eycke, is trying to follow a consistent routine at bedtime by allowing her to cry for short periods of time before intervening. She says the teething period has disrupted the bedtime routine, causing her daughter to wake up and fuss frequently. 

Getting a baby to sleep at bedtime can drive parents crazy. There are really only two solutions: Let a baby cry to sleep or soothe them into dreamland.

Since 1947, the guru of baby care, Benjamin Spock, an American paediatrician and author of the bestselling book Baby and Child Care, has advised parents to allow babies to cry, and eventually they’ll get the message.

Now, a Calgary researcher is asking if this crying-to-sleep approach harms or helps the child. In other words, does the child become more mature or more insecure?

Gerry Giesbrecht is a psychologist in the Department of Paediatrics at the Cumming School of Medicine and a member of the university’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

The study he is leading, "Parenting in the Dark: Does the Cry-it-Out Sleep Training Method Harm Attachment or Promote Self-Regulation," is relying on a group of Calgary women who are periodically reporting on their infant’s sleep, and in particular the tactics they use to get their infants to sleep at bedtime.

“This project has the potential to help parents and parent educators make informed decisions about infant sleep training. Because infant sleep complaints are common, parents and parent educators could use good information about the risks and benefits of sleep training strategies,” says Giesbrecht.

Sleep training is a stressful and tiring parenting challenge

“Putting my daughter Ophelia to sleep remains one of the most stressful parenting challenges that we face — me, my husband, and my daughter could all stand to get more sleep,” says Kayla Ten Eycke, a first-time mom in Calgary.

Ten Eycke and her husband have agreed upon a structured bedtime routine for their daughter Ophelia, allowing her to fall asleep on her own with the help of a pacifier. Although rare, if she cries when left alone, the couple allows her to fuss and cry mildly unless she cries in distress.

Throughout the night, the couple will feed her and console her when she wakes. Ten Eycke says she feels the relationship being established is healthy.

“I think the relationship between me and my daughter is strong and unaffected by our sleep training, and I think my daughter knows that I will be there for her if she needs me, however the downside is that it’s tiring.”

Study will look at infants' self control and attachment security 

Many parenting experts recommend behavioural sleep training methods for infants. The cry-it-out method is an approach in which parents eliminate sleep-related problems through systematic non-responsiveness to behaviours such as crying, tantrums and calling for parents. 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has found strong support for the efficacy of the cry-it-out method, with no evidence of detrimental effects. Despite this strong evidence, critics suggest that allowing babies to cry to sleep can damage attachment security.

In his study, Giesbrecht will assess attachment security based on a measure referred to as the Strange Situation Procedure, consisting of a series of separations and reunions between child and parent that remains the gold standard for assessing infant-parent attachment.

The infants will also be assessed for the ability to show self-control, which is associated in studies with cognitively and socially competent adolescents who perform better in school and can deal with frustrations and stress.

Cry-to-sleep method a divisive issue

“The cry-it-out method is a really divisive issue in parenting circles with experts on both sides of the equation making claims that don’t have solid backing in research,” says Giesbrecht.

Ten Eycke, who is closely following the study says, “I do feel a lack of guidance, and I am most often confused by the current state of sleep literature, and I would love some reassurance from research."

The study results will be available in 2018.

Giesbrecht received an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, in support of excellence in research. 

Led by the HBI, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals.