The Truth About Stress & Sleep Training

How can we help babies learn to sleep?
Can babies learn to sleep?
Does sleep training cause stress?

Does sleep training cause stress? We’ve all read warnings that sleep training causes stress to a baby, leading to cortisol (a stress hormone) flooding the brain, killing neurones and altering development. It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? So naturally, as parents we’d want to stray away from something like this. Throw into the mix the fact that parents who choose to self-settle might struggle with thoughts of “my baby is stressed and anxious” when they’re crying (not to mention the stress and anxiety a crying baby can cause to us parents!)

As with anything you read, we need to interpret these signs correctly. Chronic, toxic stress, such as that found in severe neglect or abuse cases does cause damage to a baby’s development and brain. This has lead to the suggestion of “self settling is damaging.” Now, despite decades of research on sleep training, these don’t give us an accurate representation of the effects of sleep training in a nurturing, loving environment where the baby is guided and supported through the steps of learning to sleep independently which is a very healthy thing to do.

So, tell me how do you respond to positive stress? Think of your boss giving you a new task at work- initially you might feel anxious, a little worried, maybe your heart rate increases slightly as the deadline approaches, but do you thrive under that pressure? I’m going to say yes! A positive stress response, defined as one that is “brief and mild to moderate in magnitude” can be applied to child sleep training too.

What does the research say?
A recent study in infant stress (American Academy of Paediatrics’ (AAP) ‘The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress’ 2012) defines 3 types of stress responses in children: A positive stress response defined as “brief and mild to moderate in magnitude”; a tolerable stress response occurs because of a “non-everyday event like a death in the family, divorce, or a natural disaster with the support of an adult”; and a toxic stress response “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship”. For now, lets focus on the extreme sides of the scale and look into the positive and toxic responses in relation to child development and sleep training.

In the vast majority of families, sleep training is nothing like the sad situations that cause toxic stress. Most parents find that sleep training takes only a few nights, or if done more gradually, no more than a couple of weeks. If it causes weeks of prolonged crying, then something isn’t working, and parents need to find a new strategy to help their little one.

Events that can cause positive stress responses include “dealing with frustration, getting an immunisation, and the anxiety associated with the first day at a child care centre.” The research then goes on to say, “When buffered by an environment of stable and supportive relationships, positive stress responses are a growth-promoting element of normal development. As such, they provide important opportunities to observe, learn, and practice healthy, adaptive responses to adverse experiences.” Makes sense, doesn’t it!?

Now let’s look at the other side of the scale, a toxic stress response can include chronic stressors such as child abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse, and maternal depression. In early childhood, toxic stress may affect brain circuitry and disrupt the development of normal physiologic stress regulation. It can also compromise immune function and cause inflammation, both of which have been linked to a number of chronic diseases later in life.

Given this framework, can we predict what type of stress response sleep training produces in a baby? Is sleep training more like starting school, coping with a divorce between the two most important people in your life, or being raised by someone abusing drugs?

To me, sleep training involves making changes in a baby’s sleep habits so that he learns to self-settle, and it almost always involves decreasing parental involvement and some crying. I know that many readers revolt at the mere mention of sleep training, but this article talking about the influencing factors of change and stress may be helpful even to those considering gentle ways of shaping children’s sleep – such as transitioning to a separate bed or night weaning. Learning to fall asleep in a new way isn’t easy, but by being their for your little one in a soothing way helps to adjust and helps them to fall asleep by themselves so everyone can have that all important night sleep.

The science behind sleep
Let’s get scientific for a moment, and look into the biology of sleep. We know that our bodies are programmed to work with nature to establish a body clock and tune into night and day, these signals are called circadian rhythms and are literally learned by natural daylight and darkness. These natural rhythms are easily unbalanced, so it is helpful to give your child a nudge in the right direction and help them to fall asleep by themselves. Other things like bright lights, noise, device screens (iPads and iPhones), tv, noise stimulate the brain, telling him to wake up and allowing the release of cortisol, which acts in a similar way to adrenaline. If you’ve ever seen an over-tired child, you’ll know that they’re not going to be nodding off in a corner, in fact they’re more likely to be hurtling around like the Duracell bunny. This is why your child may seem wide awake or “wired” when they’re actually over-tired. Cortisol is not a problem unless it is elevated for extended periods of time as in the case of chronic stress and further complicating matters. This is why it is so important to have a natural wind-down bedtime routine in place so your little one understands it is time to go to sleep. Consistency is key here!

What do you think?
There will always be those that judge sleep training to be unacceptable and offer the worst possible examples of childhood stress to incite fear in parents, but I believe that we have to put it in context. Stress is a part of life – it is more likened to a challenge than actual stress in many cases and barely qualifies as stress as you and I know it. It is important to recognise that making changes to a baby’s sleep routine is stressful for everyone involved and we aim to minimise the challenge as much as possible. However, a baby’s total stress load comes from a multitude of factors, and sleep training may actually alleviate other stressors. Telling parents that they must protect their babies from stress and do everything they can to stop a baby from crying, at all costs, may be counter-productive to their development and may cause bigger challenges as they get older. Crying is a baby’s way of communicating, but it does not always communicate despair, and it is not always accompanied by a cortisol response. In fact, some studies suggest that crying may release tension and reduce the activity of the cortisol response, so by lovingly allowing your baby to practice coping with stress in the process of learning a new skill must only be a healthy thing.

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