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Sleep training: Child abuse or life-saver?

The family blog from the New York Times is often very interesting, posing great questions about relevant parenting topics such as discipline, school choice, and navigating life as a working family. Every once in a while a story really hits a nerve and goes viral. Such was true when Aimee Molloy wrote Sleep Training at 8 Weeks: ‘Do You Have the Guts?’—her experience discussing sleep training with her doctor. Aimee is mother to an eight-week-old infant who she describes as “giving us six- to eight-hour stretches of sleep pretty consistently.”

Her pediatrician, Dr. Michael Cohen of Tribeca Pediatrics, allegedly informed her that if she had “guts” she could get her daughter to sleep 12 hours a night, every night. Dr. Cohen is a very popular pediatrician and author, but his advice about sleep training at 8 weeks is controversial. The Motherlode readers quickly sounded off, often railing against the idea that you should ignore a crying 8-week-old in order to teach them to sleep at night. The reader comments were so interesting and showed just how passionate parents feel about sleep training!

Is Dr. Cohen suggesting something totally absurd? Not necessarily. While most 8-week-olds are still getting up several times a night to nurse, there are a few who sleep more. In fact, with six- to eight-hour stretches, Aimee Molloy seems to have a naturally great sleeper on her hands. A six-hour stretch is the definition of sleeping through the night at that age. When Dr. Cohen gave Ms. Molloy that advice, I can only assume he was already aware that her daughter slept eight hours at a time as well as whether she was breast or bottle fed and her growth (which we do not know from the article) to account.

Most parents, however, are still experiencing much more frequent awakenings at eight weeks. Babies are still eating every four hours or so, and I think the suggestion of leaving them without any human contact or food for 12 hours is extreme. Not to say that parents should jump at the first sigh or twitch; babies move and moan in their sleep unrelated to needing to eat. The goal should be one longer stretch of sleep—not necessarily a marathon—that allows for the whole family to get a few uninterrupted hours.

I think the suggestion that a parent has “guts” if they sleep train at eight weeks is what really got everyone upset, implying that parents are weak, emotional messes if they cannot accomplish this goal. This, of course, is not true. Parents are naturally inclined to respond to their crying infants both during the day and at night. Feeling unsure or unsafe about leaving them alone for 12 hours is not lacking in “guts” but being attached to one’s gut feelings. The comment also implies that babies are manipulating us by crying at night, which is also simply not true. Babies need food, diaper changes, and reassurance, especially in the first few months and do not use crying as manipulation but as communication.

Nevertheless, sleep training and helping your infant self-soothe is an important part of their development. In our practice, we begin talking about good sleep habits from day one. We take into account feeding, sleep patterns, and the needs of the entire family when offering advice. I do, on occasion, recommend a bit of crying-it-out but not at eight weeks, nor do I think parents need “guts” when sleep training.

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About Dr. Sara Connolly, Bundoo Medical Director

Sara Connolly, MD, FAAP, is a Board Certified Pediatrician who practices in Palm Beach County, Florida. She completed her residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital at the University of Miami, where she served as Chief Resident. She has a passion for child advocacy and has worked on the local, state, and national level to increase access to care for children. Her interests include nutrition, breastfeeding, and parenting skills.

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