What does “cry it out” have to do with education and learning?

Well, maybe not that much, directly.

My son is now 20 months old and sleeps through the night, mostly.  A few days ago I saw this article about a new study on infant sleep, and then I read the full research journal article.  The article references another recent study about the effects of letting infants cry to learn to self-soothe to sleep.  Both research teams confirm that sleep training is safe and effective and does no lasting damage to babies.

So why did these articles still bother me?

My son was clearly not harmed by sleep training.  We did a modified version of the Ferber technique at four months, and then had to do it again at various points after travel, teething, or illness would send his sleep routine into craziness.

The most recent study categorized the infants into good “Sleepers” and what they (generously) called “Transitional” sleepers, who sucked at sleeping.  These transitional sleepers were only about 34% of the total babies in the study, but I’m sure they caused about 99% of the distress in the parents.  They would wake up again.  And again.  Yes, my son was one of those.

And it was my first real exposure to the push and pull between my heart and mind in parenting.  Even at two months old, when the death grip of colic was peaking, it was abundantly clear that my son was not going to be a temperamentally easy sleeper.  It took Herculean efforts to get him to fall asleep.  I read through the Happiest Baby on the Block so many times that it was falling apart, as I desperately marked pages to explain to me how to do the most vigorous swinging techniques.  My husband and I both did all those stupid 5 Ss — shushing, swinging, swaddling, sucking, lying on his side — sometimes both of us at the same time.  We had noise machines, swings, exercise balls, every swaddling blanket and contraption available on the pages of Amazon, Moby wraps, five types of pacifiers, gripe water.  It made no difference.  He cried.  And cried.  And I felt like I was losing my grip on sanity.

I quickly did what I thought any rational person would do in the midst of this insanity:  figure out how to get my baby to sleep.  I read book upon book.  I read Ferber, Sears, Mindell.  We eventually hired a sleep consultant (who was wonderful).  She created a sleep plan, and my husband took charge.  Yes, my husband.  I could not — and still cannot — stand to hear my son cry.  Even though I could cite all the research studies about why babies need to self-soothe, why cry it out does no harm to babies, why disrupted sleep is bad for babies, this knowledge was powerless in the face of my visceral feelings of panic and my instinct (of course, wrong) that my son must be in pain.  My strongest memories of my first days in Buffalo last year after we moved from Boston was walking around my unfamiliar neighborhood on beautiful summer evenings, in tears myself, and hearing my son’s crying from the down the street through the open windows.  It was awful, but things got much better.  He’s still not a great sleeper though.

And, still, what does the horrors of sleep training have to do with future parenting?  What these researchers conclude is that some kids have difficult temperaments, and they’re more likely to have trouble as sleepers.  But these researchers are unable to tease out how much of this “temperament” is innate and how much is the result of parenting practices.  In other words, it’s impossible to know if bad sleepers are made and not born.  It’s the classic nature vs. nurture.  I’ve been reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, and particularly his chapter on violent children and their parents as I tried to make sense of the Newtown tragedy.  Solomon seems to be coming down much more strongly on the side of inherited personalities and characteristics. And of course these traits are shaped into identities through experiences and relationships.

I’m just not so sure.  I think that there is so much we don’t know about the role that parents play in the future development of children.  Yes, a lot of kids are born with gifts or deficits, intellectual and otherwise, but how much of these qualities are the result of parental influence?

Do you think that future science will find that kids are the way they are mostly because of their inborn traits or because of their environments and parenting?

2 thoughts on “What does “cry it out” have to do with education and learning?”

  1. Pingback: Are today’s parenting practices hurting kids’ brain development? | School of Smock

  2. Pingback: Sleepless in Boston and Buffalo: Colic, Co-Sleeping, and Coping - School of Smock

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