I remember the worst of it in painful fragments—blurry shapes, warm babies swaddled up tight and wailing in my arms, the steady throb of a headache that never yielded. Every step felt like a contest between the little strength I reserved and gravity. Several times, I arrived at work, closed my office door, collapsed face first over the desk and sobbed for five minutes or more. On the best of those bad days, I cried carefully, in church tones—a volume so low the sounds could never escape into the hall or adjoining rooms. On the worst of those bad days, I cried unreservedly.
The problem was sleep: After my wife and I had fraternal twins boys, Jack and Eli, we regularly subsisted on no more than a few hours of sleep, earned through two or three short naps.
Few of us, particularly in our high stress, work-first society, realize the importance of sleep. And research subjects under tightly controlled conditions can stay awake for 8 to 10 days straight without serious medical problems. This means most people can cheat themselves, sleeping less than the recommended seven to nine hours without paying a noticeably steep price. But even in those heavily supervised studies, “awake” can be tricky to define. Prolonged sleeplessness causes altered states of consciousness, which sleep experts refer to as “micro sleep.” All the participants suffered severe reductions in basic cognitive functioning. In other words, they couldn’t think straight.
In these terms, my wife and I slept. But for about six to eight weeks, we never—not once—enjoyed two-and-a-half to four hours of uninterrupted sleep, the most meaningful sleep it takes to feel rested. Medically, this is a sure fire recipe for memory loss, cognitive distortions, anxiety and depression. I never knew how deeply I might hunger for sleep, how the lack of it might swell into what seemed like a direct threat to my survival, till Jack and Eli came along.
The bond my wife and I share, our ability to talk honestly about how desperate we felt, helped pull me through. But the stress provided all the impetus we needed to research and commit to the “cry it out” method, sometimes referred to as Ferberization, and sleep train our babies. Sleep is so natural, the idea of “training” babies to do it seems silly. But parents (and their doctors) know that getting babies and children to sleep regularly, without all the drama of a Broadway show, can be difficult.
In reality, “cry it out” is less a method than a philosophy, with lots of permutations. But the key and most controversial aspect of such sleep training is that babies are allowed to cry for some period of time before a parent intercedes. In the harshest version of this training, parents put little Jane or Johnny in the crib at bedtime and simply leave them there, no matter how much they cry, till their morning feeding arrives.
Research out of the Centre for Community Child Health, at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Parkville, Australia, followed 326 children in the study till they were six years old and found no adverse health effects from employing less severe forms of the training. The study found babies and parents got more sleep in the short term without causing any long-term psychological damage or weakening the parent-child bond. Another study, closer to home at Temple, also suggests letting babies learn to self-soothe results in fewer night-time awakenings, less irritable children and less depression in mothers.
Neither of these studies claims parents should put kids to bed, close the door and throw away the key till morning. But both studies caused an uproar among proponents of “attachment parenting,” who favor responding to a baby’s cries immediately.
After enduring those first four months with our twins, my wife and I felt our choice was forced upon us. There is no “trading off” childcare in a house with newborn twins. When one twin is fed or put to sleep, the other must follow suit or chaos ensues. This means mom and dad are both up or down, together, all night long. I take critics of letting the baby cry seriously. A stressed out baby releases cortisol, the key chemical component of post traumatic stress disorder. But while proponents of giving babies a chance to self-soothe can point to longitudinal studies showing no ill effects, opponents—well, not so much.
My own sister wrote a column at our sister site last week in which she reported on a study in which the authors link numerous modern child-rearing techniques, including crying it out, to poor outcomes. But they seem only to have found a correlation they prefer to call causation.
Further, I’m curious if cry it out critics have ever actually met any babies. The little lovies cry relatively frequently just in the normal course of living and growing up. Is letting them cry for several minutes, here and there, as they learn to self-soothe, really going to tip the scale from normal to “traumatized”?
I doubt it. But the difficulty of letting our babies cry is such that the cry-it-out method becomes a kind of improvisational dance among parent and baby. Yes, some parents simply go full Pirate and let their baby cry however long it takes. But books like Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child include many “outs” for parents who can’t tolerate letting their baby cry for overly extended periods. Some parents “check and console” the baby, slowly increasing the amount of time they leave them alone and weeping. Some sit in the same room with their baby and slowly increase their distance from the crib, till finally they escape into the hall.
My wife and I started giving our babies time to cry it out and self-soothe, and, well, I’m no longer suffering from any low-level depression or psychosis. We get at least one dose of two-and-a-half to four hours of sleep per night. And when we go get our little ones in the middle of the night or the morning, it’s a love fest up in there. They seem less traumatized than in love with us, and we feel the same way. I’ll describe our version of “cry it out” in a later column, but for now, just understand that the best way we could find to take care of our babies included just a small nod, in the scheme of things, to taking care of ourselves.
Steve Volk is Philadelphia magazine’s senior writer. A new dad to twin boys, he blogs about the ups and downs of modern-day fatherhood here on Be Well Philly. Read the series from the beginning here.