It's 3 a.m., and Baby is crying. You fed her just after midnight and cuddled her back to sleep... but now she's awake again.
You wonder: Do I have to keep doing this? If I teach her to go back to sleep herself, will it make her hate me? Will it damage her psychologically? Will she grow up thinking that the world is a bad place?
The answer, according to a new study, is no.
Researchers in Australia really wanted to answer these questions that torture parents in the middle of the night. There are already studies showing that techniques to teach babies to sleep through the night are, for the most part, successful -- and that they not only help parents sleep better, but improve parent mental health and parent-child relationships. Amazing what getting some sleep can do.
And yet, there are voices warning of the dangers of getting babies to sleep independently. Some people, even doctors, say that if you don't respond consistently and sensitively to babies, it screws up bonding and sets kids up for future stress as well as mental and emotional problems.
Nobody wants that.
But lack of sleep has a way of screwing up bonding too, as well as causing all sorts of stress and mental and emotional problems. It's hard to be a good parent -- or a good spouse or a good employee -- when you are always sleep deprived.
Letting a baby cry and cry without responding at all is not a good idea -- it's way too stressful for both the baby and the parents. But there are other ways of teaching babies to fall asleep independently, such as "controlled comforting," when parents respond to crying at slowly increasing intervals (an approach recommended by Dr. Ferber, who retired recently from Boston Children's), or "camping out," when parents sit in the room with children as they fall asleep and slowly, over time, work their way out. What, asked the researchers, are the long-term effects of these kind of techniques?
To find out, they looked at children that had been part of the Infant Sleep Study. In this study, the families of infants with sleep problems at seven months were randomized to one of two groups: a group that got training in teaching their baby to sleep independently and a group that got "usual care" (general information about babies and sleep, but no training). They followed these infants out to when they were 6 years old, and did all sorts of tests looking at the mental health of the children and their parents and at the parent-child relationships.
There was no difference between the two groups. There was no harm from being taught to sleep independently -- and no benefit, either.
This is important: "no difference" means just that. So not only does it mean that it's okay if you change your baby's sleep patterns to get more sleep, it means that if what you really want to do at 3 a.m. is get up and cuddle with that fussy baby, go for it. If your mother or mother-in-law or whoever tells you that you are going to spoil that baby and turn her into a dependent, screwed-up kid, ignore them.
That's what's so great about this. It's not often that we parents get told to do what we want to do. Usually we're told to do something because it's better for our child -- and whether we have the ability to do that thing, let alone the time or energy, doesn't enter into it. And we don't want to complain, because we all want what's best for our children.
So enjoy this wonderful bit of parenting slack. Do what you need to do. You've got science to back you up.
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire