Blog Post 36-Six Popular Myths About Children’s Sleep

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
by Marc Weissbluth, M.D.

A Healthy Child Needs a Healthy Brain,
A Healthy Brain Needs Healthy Sleep.

If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.

Six Popular Myths About Children’s Sleep

  1. Teething disrupts children’s sleep.

Direct observational studies document that when the crown of the tooth erupts through the gingival tissue, sleep is not disrupted.

This myth is extremely popular in part because it is the oldest myth and if many generations of parents pass this down to their adult children and everyone knows it to be true, then it must be true. Also, this myth is the original smokescreen that doctors hid behind to conceal their ignorance regarding children’s sleep and because almost all doctors repeated it, it must be true.  Other doctors might repeat this myth to parents because they are in a hurry and do not want to spend the time needed to determine why the child is not sleeping well. Another reason why this myth remains popular is that many products such as gels, drops, and teething rings are sold to prevent teething pain from disrupting sleep.  This commercial interest requires advertising so again, parents are lulled into believing that, if untreated, teething will disrupt sleep.  One popular product, Orajel (benzocaine) is no longer recommended under the age of two because benzocaine products have the potential to cause a condition called methemoglobinemia. Methemoglobinemia is a potentially deadly condition that causes blood to carry less oxygen.

2. Graduated extinction and extinction disrupt the mother-child relationship.

Blog Post 24 details relevant studies proving that this is a myth.

This myth claims that because the child “gives up hope” that the mother will come when she or he cries, letting your child cry at night to help your child sleep better will interfere with “attachment” with life-long adverse consequences. Those that believe in this myth cite animal studies and studies that are not relevant to the specific question of whether allowing the child to cry at night to help the child sleep better actually harms the child.  

3. Graduated extinction and extinction stresses the child which causes elevated cortisol and elevated cortisol causes brain damage.

Blog Post 24 details relevant studies proving that this is a myth.

Those that believe in this myth cite animal studies and studies that are not relevant to the specific question of whether allowing the child to cry at night to help the child sleep better actually elevates cortisol which, in turn, causes harm to the child.  One researcher published a 5-day study but did not include baseline data or data on days 4 and 5.  Cortisol levels did not increase but she nevertheless argued that letting the child cry to sleep better was harmful.  In fact, although not statistically significant, cortisol levels decreased over day 1 to day 4.  After extensive email exchanges, the author reneged on her promise to me to perform an analysis comparing day 1 data to day 4 (or day 5) data and separately, comparing baseline data to day 1 data which might have, or might not have, supported her conclusions in her published paper regarding cortisol.

Professor Gradisar studied infants 6-16 months and observed a statistically significant large decline in cortisol in the graduated extinction group and a moderate decline in the bedtime fading group.

(To be continued.)

DO I HARM MY CHILD IF I LET HIM CRY AT NIGHT TO LEARN SELF-SOOTHING?           

• Studies show that children are not harmed (Blog Post 24) when extinction or graduated extinction is used. Blog Post 25.

IT IS NOT NECESSARY TO MAKE YOUR CHILD CRY TO HAVE A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP

WHAT A PARENT CAN DO

• Ignore myths such as sleep regressions or that teething or growth spurts disrupt sleep or that late bedtimes are fine because your young child is an “owl”. Blog Posts 36 and 37

• Focus on timing: The time when drowsy signs (Blog Post 9) begin to appear is the time when you start your soothing to sleep. Blog Posts 2835.

• It may be difficult to begin or choose a sleep solution. Blog Posts 23 and 26.  A Community Sleep Consultant may be helpful. Blog Post 27.

• No television or digital electronic devices in child’s bedroom (Blog Post 21), if possible. Blog Post 22.

• Some babies sleep better than other babies. Develop coping strategies to reduce stress if your baby has extreme fussiness or crying.  Plan to encourage self-soothing skills at 2 to 4 months of age. Blog Posts 20.

•  ‘No Cry’ sleep solutions (‘Fading’ and ‘Check and Console’) may solve sleep problems. Blog Post 19

•  Communicate with each other and coordinate nighttime parenting practices.  Consider delaying your response to nondistress sounds your baby makes at night by 5-10 seconds, especially after 3 months of age.  Blog Post 18.

•  Encourage partner to help care for baby daytime and nighttime.  Be emotionally available at bedtime.  Seek help if your child is not sleeping well and there are symptoms of anxiety or depression for yourself or partner.  Blog Post17.

•  Encourage self-soothing; the earlier the better.  Consider leaving the room after putting your child down to sleep. Provide opportunity for naps based on drowsy signs.  Encourage partner to help care for the baby daytime and nighttime. Blog Post 16.

•  Plan for healthy sleep by focusing on sleep quality, not just sleep quantity. Provide opportunities for naps. Blog Post 15

•  Make a sleep plan that you are comfortable with; be flexible and tolerant.  Blog Post 14.

·  Become more aware of the difference between how you feel when well-rested versus mildly sleepy. Blog Post 13.

·  Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule.  Blog Post 12.

·  Try to not respond immediately to every quiet sound your baby makes at night.  Blog Post 11.  

·  Practice soothing to sleep and bedtime routines, every night, if possible. Blog Post 10.

·  Watch for drowsy signs. Blog Post 9.

·  Respect your child’s natural sleep rhythms.  Blog Post 8.

·  Encourage an early or earlier bedtime (even a slightly earlier bedtime may produce better sleep.  Blog Post 6) especially at 6 weeks.  Blog Post 7.

∙ Recognize that a healthy brain requires healthy sleep. Blog Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

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