When this article about how to get your eight-week-old to sleep through the night appeared on The New York Times‘ parenting blog, the controversy around it didn’t surprise me. “Cry it out” is one of the most hotly debated topics among parents, and the idea of sleep training at eight weeks may seem barbaric even to those who Ferberized later on. But after the article showed up several times in my Facebook newsfeed, what did surprise me was that the condemnation of the practice by my online friends went so far as to label it child abuse.
I am certainly not advocating or condoning sleep training at eight weeks. Yes, I did sleep train my son, but the idea was so repulsive to me that I waited until he was almost a year old. Prior to that, I responded to his every call, nursing him multiple times throughout the night. Eventually, though, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Sleep training was a last resort.
But in my discussions with other moms about early sleep training, I found myself on the defensive. Not because I agreed with it, but because I was hesitant to call it neglect or abuse. “To leave a helpless infant locked in a room for 12 hours sitting in their own urine and feces? I’d call that neglect,” one mom wrote in our online debate. But my son, who currently sleeps through the night, does just this – I certainly am not going to wake him up to change his diaper, and we have a gate at his door so he can’t escape.
To the poster’s point, though, my son is not in distress. Is the defining factor of neglect whether or not the child is crying? Even then, where is the line drawn? Again, let me be clear, I think it is horrible to let a newborn wail for five hours, as one of the parents in the article did. But is one hour OK? Half an hour? Ten minutes?
As I said in another recent post, I am not in favor of the authorities becoming involved in parenting decisions. How are the police to know if a child is crying because he is locked in a room alone, or because he has colic and no amount of soothing by their parents can calm him? How much time can pass until “concerned” neighbors feel it is their duty to report the parents of a crying child?
And if it is criminal to sleep train an eight-week-old, when does it become OK – at three months? Four? Six? Are lawmakers going to be the ones to tell parents when it’s allowed, not their doctors? Even if the American Academy of Pediatrics issues a recommendation, every child and parent deserves individual care from their pediatrician, and those decisions shouldn’t be questioned by those in lawmaking who have no background in child development.
I do find that this entire argument begs the question of what parent would feel the need to sleep train an eight-week-old. Well, in the United States short-term disability payments run out six weeks postpartum for a vaginal birth and eight weeks postpartum for a C-section. Many moms cannot afford the extra leave that the federal government provides because it is unpaid. And in order to function at work, and to drive there and home safely (driving while tired is just as dangerous as driving drunk), parents need sleep. This does not make them horrible people – it makes them human.
Maybe if our government stepped up and realized that we need paid maternity/paternity leave, maybe if we had more support for new mothers, especially when trying to breastfeed (because most breastfed newborns need to nurse throughout the night), we wouldn’t feel the rush to get them to sleep through the night. Sleep training an eight-week-old goes against what is natural. But for desperate parents, it may be the only choice they can see. Let’s not criminalize them for it.
What do you think about sleep training? At what age is it OK? Should it ever be considered abuse?