Demystifying Sleep Training: Does It Actually Work? Exploring Effectiveness and Real Results
In the ever-evolving landscape of online parenting advice, there is a constant discourse on identifying the 'best, safest, or most effective' sleep training technique. Every parent I've engaged with has faced an influx of opinions on sleep training options prior to making the crucial decision to embark on this journey.
Should you use a parental presence more gentle option, or just get out of the room and let them cry it out?
These are questions not only parents want to know, but scientists too.
In 2022 the study Implementation of Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems in Real-world Settings was published in the Journal of Paediatrics.
This study looked at over 2000 parents with a baby aged 3 to 18 months and used video monitor data as well as questionnaires to get more information on the babies sleep patterns, and if the parents sleep trained and their success.
The study compared 3 different approaches, unmodified extinction which most parents call cry it out, modified extinction, which we use a lot and call this approach spaced soothing, and finally parental presence which allows the parent to stay in the room and be present while their baby learns to self settle. A more gentle and very popular approach with out clients.
These scientists wanted to be really objective and not just look at which method parents preferred but also look at how effective the behavioural sleep training intervention was, as the safety of the approaches.
This involved comparing how much the infants slept, how much the parents slept, depression, and infant and parents bonding, using a control of groups of parents who did not sleep train at all.
Interestingly the average age to start a behavioral intervention was just 5.3 months. We find most parents want to start working on self settling between 4-6 months which aligns with these findings.
I also personally think after helping thousands and thousands of parents, that 5 month is the sweetest age to teach self settling. I even have a blog just on this!
Interestingly parents in this study found the unmodified and modified extinction the most difficult to implement but also found it was more helpful!
Shorter time sleep training over all, which is true for a lot of our clients also.
This means when considering gentle parental presence based methods, we need to be aware that while we will be able to be in the room and support our babies with this option, overall in the weeks it may take, they might cry more overall.
Food for thought!
The modified and unmodified extinction group also found their approach got faster results and managed to have longer and more consolidated night sleep than the parental presence groups.
The great news is that no differences were found in things like depression, or infant parent bonding when scientists looked at the sleep training groups vs the non sleep training groups.
On top of what the parents reported these scientists used video monitors to analyse sleep, and found that the babies from the cry it out or spaced soothing had longer sleep durations, fewer night time wake ups and, needed their parents less throughout the night compared to families who either didn’t sleep train, or used parental presence/gentle sleep training.
Good news for parents
Despite what people online might tell you online about sleep training being harmful, these findings showed that using cry it out, spaced soothing or parental presence as sleep training techniques were not associated with poor parents sleep, depression, or any bonding problems.
These findings are in accord with previous studies which have to date failed to find any support for claims that sleep training has adverse impacts on babies or their parents.
Researchers concluded that concerns around the safety and efficacy of sleep training with any method are not really backed by available evidence.
If we are to say we're following evidence based practice… sleep training is both safe and effective!
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the Block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education.
Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.
Reference: Implementation of Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems in Real-world
Michal Kahn, PhD, Natalie Barnett, PhD, Michael Gradisar, PhD