How to Interpret Research for Sleep Training Methods and Find What Works for You with Macall Gordon
Trying to wade through all the data on sleep training methods? In today’s informative episode of the Gentle Parenting Podcast, Kim West sits down with a longtime friend and certified Gentle Sleep Coach, Macall Gordon. Macall holds an MA in Applied Psychology from Antioch University, Seattle with a specialization in infant mental health, including attachment theory, the development of emotional regulation, and parenting psychology (including transition to parenthood, postpartum depression, etc.). She also has a BS in Human Biology from Stanford University. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the graduate Counseling Psychology program at Antioch University Seattle.
Kim and Macall sat down to discuss Macall’s research on critical literature review on the use of extinction in infants under a year, and large parent surveys on experiences with sleep advice, the “upsides” of “difficult” temperament, and the impact of temperament on parents’ experiences with sleep and sleep training.
The Beginning of Macall’s Research on Sleep Training Methods
Our guest, Macall has been researching children’s temperament and sleep training since the “dinosaur age” before there was a field of information available on the internet. She was puzzled when she would flip through parenting magazines and on one page, it would say that parental responsiveness was key to brain development but then the next page would advise having babies “cry it out” in order to sleep train. As time went on, she found that the age for “appropriate” sleep training kept dropping lower and lower until it hit 4 months as an acceptable time to begin letting babies cry it out in order to sleep.
Weeding Through Sleeping Training Methods Research
As a parent, it can be so puzzling to understand all the sleep training advice out there. One study will say crying it out won’t cause emotional trauma, while the next will say it absolutely will cause trauma. Macall says that something to remember when reading research is that it takes an average. If research says leaving your child to cry it out will absolutely work, what parents need to remember is that in most research studies, that only worked for 50-70% of the children in the study. That means that there can be over 30% of children do not react well to crying it out.
Something to be noted in studies is what ages they consider as “infants.” In one largely quoted and cited study on the positive effects of the Ferber Method (also known as the extinction method) the age considered an infant was actually ages 4 months – 52 months. That’s a 4.5-year-old! There is no data that shows exactly how many 4 months old were in the study, yet many sleep training professionals have taken that research and cited it to parents of 4 month olds, saying crying it out will work for them.
A lot of sleep training methods research and advice out there has to talk parents into crying it out. Macall questions that if we have to work that hard to talk someone into something, then maybe it isn’t the right approach. This isn’t to say that crying it out won’t work for anyone – it may work for you! But, Macall’s biggest piece of advice is to really start looking at the nuts and bolts of any sleep training methods research so you can understand it and interpret if it will work for your child and family.
Can You Really Create Bad Sleep Habits?
The amount of advice that’s out there makes parents feel like they’re walking among land mines. If they make one wrong move, they think they’ve ruined their child’s life. It really isn’t like that with sleep. With sleep, you can decide what’s a problem, you can decide when to intervene and you can decide if it will work for you. Macall says that the research around sleep training methods doesn’t give parents an out. Research makes it seem like babies should be sleeping 8 straight hours at 4 months, and that sets a high and stressful bar.
Macall reassures parents who are using methods like feeding, rocking or holding to get their babies to sleep: she says that babies under 6 months cannot even form bad habits, let alone life long bad habits! So much research is centered around “self-soothing” but what exactly is self-soothing? Babies under 6 months just can’t developmentally access the toolbox they need to self soothe. They can hardly put their hand in their mouth or replace a binky – especially not when they’re hysterically crying. Comforting and soothing your hysterically crying child will not take away their ability to self-soothe later in life. Feeding, rocking, or holding your young baby until they fall asleep will not take away their ability to sleep through the night later down the road. Macall says that information really puts pressure on parents to achieve a certain goal, and that pressure is completely unnecessary.
But What Should Parents Do?
It can be hard to find a clear-cut takeaway from sleep training research. Macall advises a few things. First, try to wait until 6 months to officially “sleep train” in whatever method you choose. Second, understand that there are OPTIONS for sleep training, and pick something that you can do consistently. Don’t feel pressured to do something that doesn’t resonate with you.
Macall’s last “aha” moment is to compare sleep training to other steps of parenting. So often in sleep training, research is telling parents that they can’t help their child fall asleep because that will give the child future sleep issues. But, do we refuse to help our children get dressed in fear that they won’t ever be able to dress themselves? Refuse to spoon-feed an infant in fear that they’ll never be able to use a spoon themselves? No! There is nothing wrong with comforting your child while sleep training.