by Jen Milligan
"Ahhhhhhhh!!!" is how I feel as soon as I Google 'sleep training and cortisol'. I’m pretty sure I found a research article to support every opinion. “The stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated when babies cry to go to sleep”; "Sleep training is essential for the health of you and your baby”; “Studies are inaccurate in their research”; “There is no benefit in sleep training”; “Do sleep training, it doesn’t cause any long term damage” ... and on it goes!
What are you to do as new parents?
One of the main answers to this question is “what does your gut say to do?”.
If you want to be up with your baby many times overnight, feed many times overnight and not allow your little one to cry, that’s OK! To ask you to help your child sleep through the night would be futile, as your heart wouldn't be in it. You may find it much harder to stick to a plan, and the plan then becomes counter-productive. You need to be keen and ready as parents.
I will say at this point, it is not ideal to try and help a baby sleep through the night before 4 months of age. There are certainly strategies you can put in place that may help your little one do it naturally, but to teach them how glorious a full night’s sleep is, isn’t suitable before 4 months of age.
So, who do you trust?
Here at The Nurtury, Ingrid and I have a significant drive to help mums and dads grow happy and healthy families, both physically and emotionally. The thought of a baby, alone in their cot, crying for hours on end, makes us very sad.
Both Ingrid and I worked very hard, with the 7 children we have between us, to help our kids have a solid night’s sleep. However, we never wanted them to feel unloved, abandoned, or exhausted with distress.
A HUGE help to us both, and the families we partner with, is the knowledge that cortisol levels (the "stress hormone") in babies who have a parent with them when they are going to sleep are significantly lower than in babies who are left to “cry it out” on their own.
There is a significant difference between us being present in the room and seen by our little ones, versus not being in the room. It isn't necessarily about whether we are touching them; the fact that we are there means the world to them.
We never want babies to feel unloved or abandoned, so by introducing a faithful soft toy that is always in the cot is a wonderful way for our bubs to feel as though they are never alone. You don’t need to spend too long with any child to see the joy they have in genuinely believing that their toys are real and living companions!
As a mum of 4 children (one of them being a foster child), I wanted to find a way for my children to sleep, knowing they were loved and safe but also knowing how amazing a full night’s sleep is. One of the methods that we teach our families requires mum or dad to stay in the room the whole time. This worked so beautifully for my little foster child as he certainly could not be left to cry and feel any more trauma or abandonment.
Another method that we recommend is to only leave the room for a maximum of 2 minutes at a time. We will always tailor our advice to your desires and personality.
Using these methods, my kiddies, currently aged between 7 & 16, are mentally well and healthy and still love their mum and dad! They are social and happy. (A concern of some studies suggested that 'cry it out' methods develop children who are less social and more depressed.)
A huge consideration….
Having guided so many families to a full night's sleep, the overwhelming outcome is joy and thankfulness. Joy at the renewed energy to enjoy their baby during the day, joy at the feeling of waking up refreshed, joy at being able to have time with their partner in the evenings. We must not underestimate the power and importance of sleep. After all, sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture.
When you look at it, what you are weighing up is your potential willingness and preparedness to let your baby safely cry a little whilst you are in the room following a loving plan, with the aim of teaching and supporting your baby to achieve a full night’s sleep ... which builds your baby’s immune system, helps them to grow and heal, enables happy relationships within the family and can make a HUGE and SIGNIFICANT difference to your mental health. It’s an interesting thought to consider, one that many studies don’t seem to address.
All day, of course, should be filled with smiles, singing, play, good sleeps, good feeds, fun and silliness! By doing this, you are building your baby up emotionally, meeting their every need, building relationship and giving them safety and security. All these things are critical for child development and are very hard to do when we are sleep deprived.
Our job as parents isn’t to create a perfect, stress-free life for them. They will bump their head, they will get sick, they will feel sad. Our job is to be there to support them through the sadness. Firstly, by staying with them whilst they gain the confidence to fall asleep with their soft toy, then by cuddling them when they trip and fall, nursing them when they’re sick, waving them off on their first day of school, and so on. Our job is endless; it is incredibly important and a huge privilege.
Ingrid and I are here for you if you are keen to chat. We are passionate about guiding you and your families towards achieving the gift of a good night's sleep!
Jen is a midwife with almost 20 years experience in a Sydney birthing unit. She now lives & works on the Central Coast, supporting new mothers as they transition into motherhood.
Ingrid is a birth & postpartum doula, living and working on the beautiful NSW Central Coast.