When sleep training goes wrong

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“Our first baby was fairly easy going. We had a bit of trouble getting her to sleep when she was tiny – I think because we didn't realise how much sleep babies need, or how quickly they get overtired – but it wasn't too much of a drama and she slept well at night, which made life much easier. She did wake at night, as you would completely expect, but quickly settled after a feed,” says Alice, a mum of four.

“At nine months, after I had returned to work, we did controlled crying for two nights. It was so tough, but on night three and thereafter she slept through and we though ‘gee, that was good’.”

For so many parents, like Alice, broken sleep can take its toll. With a lack of support, and pressure that it will only take a few nights of ‘tough love’, sleep training starts to sound pretty darn good. But what if it doesn’t ‘work’? Or what if it does, but there’s a huge trade-off for your baby’s longer-term well-being?

You see, there’s increasing evidence that baby sleep training can have long-term repercussions that can fill parents with guilt and regret, that awful feeling of ‘if only we had known’.

Although sleep training ‘worked’ for Alice’s first baby, the experience with her second baby was vastly different – and so was the outcome. She says: “He was a challenging baby from the get-go, very spewy – it turned out he had reflux – and rarely slept. I sat with him sleeping on my chest for eight weeks straight. He would wake six to eight times a night and was nearly impossible to comfort or get to sleep, day or night.

“After three months of hell we had a maternal and child health nurse come out to help settle him and give us some advice moving forward. She couldn't even get him to sleep, but we did see a little improvement. We tried a soothing CD, white noise, light on, light off, sitting next to the cot, co-sleeping, an osteopath and more ... so many things!

“By six months things were worse than ever, and we were absolutely wrecked. In desperation we sought assistance from a sleep consultant (locally referred to as the ‘Sleep Nazi’). She would come out to your home, spend the night with you and would then call daily for a couple of weeks to coach you and follow up. The premise was that your child would sleep through within three nights.

“We saw minimal improvement, but she assured us that we were making progress and he'd soon be sleeping. So we kept at it, and at it. My alarm bells should have been clanging, but in desperation, and feeling like we had tried and failed at everything else, we kept going and going and going.

“I now realise that we let expectations and what everyone else's babies were doing make us feel like we were failing. Having zero support from family or friends (they live hours away) left us exhausted, defeated and willing to do anything. I had no idea to what extent it would affect my gorgeous golden haired boy.”

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Alice’s son is now six, and is suffering anxiety, OCD-like symptoms, and difficult behavior – and Alice believes the sleep training may be responsible.

“His behaviour affects the whole family, particularly his siblings, but also me and my husband,” she says. “I feel as though I have let my son down and I second guess myself whenever I question why sleep training worked so easily for our daughter. Were we just lucky with her?

“We are currently waiting to have him assessed by a series of medical professionals who will hopefully equip us with the skills and coping mechanisms to help our son.”

Although some sleep studies and experts claim there’s no evidence of harm from practices such as controlled crying, there is a vast difference between 'no evidence of harm' and 'evidence of no harm'.

‘Harm’ as Alice describes can’t be proven, but there is research showing that children with anxiety disorders have a higher level of sleep difficulties as infants. Although these studies weren't about controlled crying and I’m making no direct connection, perhaps some of these babies who have sleep difficulties need extra help to regulate their emotions, or are more sensitive to stress – so it’s possible that these little people would be more at risk if they’re exposed to controlled crying.

Ultimately, you know your baby best. If your child is not responding to a parenting technique, it’s up to you to follow your instinct and change your tune.

Pinky McKay is the author of Sleeping Like a Baby: gentle sleep solutions from birth to three years. She is holding a baby sleep seminar in Brisbane on Saturday March 29, with other venues coming up - get more info on her website.

Pinky is also speaking at the Baby and Toddler Show in Melbourne (April 4-6).