Is sleep training a form of neglect or harmful?
One of the most popular schools of thought regarding modern parenting is that not immediately responding to an infant's (typically age 6 months to 1 year) crying will result in long-term emotional damage.
This argument is usually brought up in response to the suggestion of employing one of the various methods of sleep training that involve allowing the baby to cry for varying periods of time in order to help train them to sleep through the night (e.g. the Ferber Method).
The idea that allowing a child to cry is harmful is widely espoused, particularly by notable Parenting author and Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics Dr. William Sears.
He lists a variety of reasons why children crying should immediately be responded to, every time. Among these reasons are:
- Since the cry is a baby's language, a communication tool, a baby has two choices if no one listens. Either he can cry louder, harder, and produce a more disturbing signal or he can clam up and become a "good baby" (meaning "quiet"). If no one listens, he will become a very discouraged baby. He'll learn the one thing you don't want him to: that he can't communicate.
- Baby loses trust in the signal value of his cry – and perhaps baby also loses trust in the responsiveness of his caregivers.
- When you go against your basic biology, you desensitize yourself to your baby's signals and your instinctive responses. Eventually, the cry doesn't bother you. You lose trust in your baby's signals, and you lose trust in your ability to understand baby's primitive language.
- Baby loses trust in caregivers and caregivers lose trust in their own sensitivity.
I have heard these arguments repeated from a variety of sources. However, I have yet to see any evidence that these are anything but speculation on the part of someone who has, by his own account, written over 30 books on the subject, and therefore has a vested interest in exaggerating risk in order to sell more copies of his books.
Is there any reputable scientific evidence to back up the claims of long term communication problems resulting from delays between a child crying and their parents responding? Let's exclude newborns from this, as no one seems to advocate for allowing newborns to cry as a means of sleep training, so we'll define our target population as anywhere from age 6 months to 2 years.