Meet the baby whisperers who shun 'crying it out'

baby sleep
baby sleep Photo: Getty Images

For parents with nocturnal babies, the advice of a "baby whisperer" or "sleep trainer" can be extremely divisive. 

Tizzie Hall, author of Save Our Sleep, for example, has sold thousands of books, and no doubt has just as many satisfied customers. However, her sleep training methods and philosophy also attract a great deal of criticism and there are entire communities of mothers who oppose her.  

But while many mums associate the words "baby whisperer" with controversial sleep training methods such as  "cry it out" (CIO) or "controlled crying" (CC), many of these experts shun the "tough love" sleep training methods all together. 

Sleep consultant Anita Vitanova runs the Baby Academy in Sydney and has been helping families with their babies sleep for the last 12 years. She is passionate about supporting new mums and dads transition into their new roles as parents. “It’s a pretty special job,” she says. 

While Vitanova is clear that she does not judge parents that do choose CIO or CC, they are not methods that she endorses for her clients. “I believe that many sleep problems can be solved by making changes in the daytime routine, diet, activities, environment without resorting to leaving a baby to cry,” she says.

Vitanova says she finds the idea of CIO and CC upsetting. “Imagine if you were a baby and had all the comfort of having your mummy next to you, being fed whenever you requested, comforted whenever you needed it to then being left by yourself to cry and no one responding to your needs,” she says.

Instead Vitanova uses the gentler “gradual withdrawal” method, which she acknowledges does take some time. “Every baby will change their sleep habits at a different pace. If it took them four, eight or 12 months of falling asleep one way, it will take longer than one night for your baby to learn how to fall asleep in a different way,” she explains. 

Sleep consultant and naturopath Emma Sunderland of Calm Bubba says that she believes that CIO puts the babies emotional wellbeing into jeopardy. “Babies are hard wired to require close contact, to be constantly reassured and nurtured,” she says. 

“Being left alone in a state of high stress is not conducive to optimal neurological development and teaches the baby that switching off their emotions is the only way to get through,” she explains.

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Sunderland says that when it comes to educating parents about the potential risks of CIO she asks them to put themselves in the babies’ shoes. “Babies do not manipulate, they are responding to their biological needs. All babies can protest cry, but if it escalates into a scared cry then it’s time to go in and respond with reassurance,” she explains.

However, having been “pushed to the limits” by sleep deprivation with her own daughter, Sunderland says that she can understand the “absolute desperation” that drives some parents to opt for CIO.  

Sunderland’s sleep training techniques vary from baby to baby as she says that they all have individual needs that need to be addressed. Some of the basics include ensuring that the sleep strategy is age appropriate and checking that the right foundations are in place.

For example, Sunderland says that environmental factors such as temperature, light levels and exposure to toxins should be considered. “Often you see marked improvement in sleeping when you have taken a week or two to improve these foundational elements,” she says.

Helen Stevens, a registered nurse, midwife and maternal and child health nurse, says she has had a complete change of heart with regards to CIO and CC.  

“I was trained in CC and had told many families how to do it from my office desk. But I had never been with a child, nor had I felt the gut wrenching experience of hearing a baby screaming and not being 'allowed' to respond or offer comfort,” she explains.

After experiencing CC first hand, Stevens decided that she didn’t want to continue with her role as a maternal and child health nurse because she didn’t want to keep endorsing CC to sleep deprived parents. She is now the director of Safe Sleep Space.  

While Stevens does not condemn those that have chosen to use CC (that would be “pointless”, she says) she does try and educate parents about the alternatives.

Stevens notes there are no circumstances in which she would now recommend CC or CIO. Instead, she encourages parents to interpret cries and behaviors as the sign that the baby has a need that has to be met.

“There was a time that CC was my default position because I knew it worked,” she says. “But now all our work is based on responding to the cues and behaviors of the infant, thus refining the parents ability to connect with their infant or child.

“This connectedness is the foundation for relationships throughout life and are at their most active in terms of development in the early years of life, especially the first year.”

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