The most outrageous expert comment I’ve ever seen

Today  I read the worst parent oriented advice quote I’ve ever seen.

“Positive stress creates growth in the child, in the form of coping skills and frustration tolerance that serve to be critically important throughout the life span.”

This quote came from Rahil D. Briggs, who is the director of well-baby/parent program called Healthy Steps program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Context is everything. In isolation this quote doesn’t sound so bad. There is good expert consensus that stress can sometimes be a positive thing, and that the experience of dealing with stress (a certain amount of which is inevitable in life), coping with it and recovering from it, can help children develop coping skills.

But do you know what this guy was talking about? Sleep training – babies crying in the night because their parents are trying to teach them to sleep through the night. He was commenting  in an ABC news story on the findings of a new study in the journal Pediatrics that detected no long term harm in a group of children who had been nightwakers as babies and whose parents had used sleep training techniques. The kids who were sleep trained were compared to a similar group of nightwakers whose parents just muddled through the way they usually did.  The researchers say the  kids who were sleep trained (with some level of guidance) did not have any more mental health or behaviour problems (nor higher levels of the “stress” hormone cortisol).

This the researchers say, proves that parents don’t have to worry that sleep training will cause harm.  Fair enough. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole study yet, so can’t comment on whether I think it was a good study.

However, based on these findings  there is absolutely no justification for this claptrap that letting babies cry in the night is a great way to teach them to handle stress. That is, well, it’s unprofessional. Mr. Briggs should know better. Don’t go to him for anything folks.

But something else needs to be said about this study. While all the headlines are trumpeting the long-term safety of sleep training,  the finding that is being downplayed is that sleep training has no long term benefit.  The nightwakers whose parents just muddled through didn’t have any more sleep problems at age six than the kids who were sleep trained. In other words the dark suggestions, made by many sleep-training apologists and researchers, that untreated nightwaking often leads to long-term sleep problems are a load of shite, as I’ve always known from personal experience.

I’ve never been one to condemn Ferberizing willy nilly. Nightwaking is a tough issue and parents need options. I’d rather see a parent give sleep training a try than have a nervous breakdown or shake their child in the middle of the night. But setting aside extremes, if parents feel they need to try sleep training, for their child’s or their own sake, basically, it’s none of my business.  What I object to is two things.  A) Telling parents that they ought to fix nightwaking with sleep training for the sake of their child’s future well-being and) Pretending that sleep training always works. It only works for some parents and kids. Study after study – even ones cited as evidence of the efficacy of sleep training – show the technique often fails.

Of course, I also object to the suggestion that other approaches parents use to cope with nightwaking – I’m talking about having your baby in bed with you – are maladaptive and dangerous.

But back to this study. If it tells us anything  it tells us that parents should not be pushed into sleep training. If they feel they need to do it, I’m OK with that, and according to this study, which I’ll take as read until I read it, they don’t need to worry about long-term harm from trying it.

You know what? We tried it.  Didn’t work. Actually it did seem to work briefly – but when the night waking returned, which it often does  — another of the big lies is  that once you’ve “trained” your child to sleep through the night, you’re in the clear  — we were definitely not up for repeated cycles of doing something that we were never really comfortable with and only tried out of desperation. We muddled through and we’re all OK.

That’s why I have no right to, nor will you ever you’ll hear me, criticize parents who feel they need to sleep train. But I’ll go after anybody who says all parents have to do it, or that it’s good for kids in the long term.  And I will absolutely ridicule anyone who claims that crying for Mom and Dad in the night is some kind of growth-inducing positive stress.

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About uncommonjohn

I am one of Canada's top parenting writers. My areas of expertise and interest include debunking bad parenting advice (especially about sleep), self-regulation, fatherhood, child development, children's mental health, childbirth and breastfeeding.
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4 Responses to The most outrageous expert comment I’ve ever seen

  1. Juliette says:

    I feel like I could have written this (but not as well). I agree with your conclusions completely, and I liked your take on the paper too. Thank you!

  2. Robin says:

    I’ve just stumbled across this blog and am thrilled to have found it. I love everything you’ve written – your words validate what I have just instinctively known since coming home from the hospital, but seem to read the opposite of at every turn. It is wonderful to read such a balanced take on parenting.

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