STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The many anxieties that new parents face include a very simple one...
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
INSKEEP: ...Trying to get that new bundle of joy to sleep so that you can. Many desperate parents turn to a common but controversial practice called sleep training. But what does the science say about that? Here's NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: For the past 20 years, psychologist Jodi Mindell has helped thousands of babies and parents get more sleep.
JODI MINDELL: I have seen a huge number of babies. Yep.
DOUCLEFF: Mindell helps direct the sleep center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and she's authored one of the most frequently cited studies on sleep training. She says the mommy blogs, books and parents get many things wrong. For starters, many of them don't actually know what scientists mean when they say sleep training.
MINDELL: It's gotten a really bad rap because it's been equated with this moniker called cry it out.
DOUCLEFF: Cry it out, which sounds really cruel.
MINDELL: You put your baby into their crib or their room, you close the door and you don't come back till the next day. And that's not the reality of what we recommend.
DOUCLEFF: Or a version of cry it out, where you follow a strict formula, like the Ferber method, where you let the baby cry for very specific amounts of time. There's a popular belief that cry it out is the fastest way to teach babies to sleep independently, but there's no evidence that's true, and it's an old way of thinking. Mindell says in today's scientific literature, sleep training is an umbrella term that refers to a whole spectrum of approaches to help babies learn to fall asleep by themselves. These are much gentler methods, like starting off by sleeping next to the baby's crib or even simply educating parents about baby sleep.
MINDELL: It all runs together in the literature.
DOUCLEFF: In many of the studies, parents are taught to soothe the baby before leaving the room. They rub the baby's back, wait until she stops crying, leave the room. And then if she starts crying, check in.
MINDELL: Doesn't matter whether you come back every 30 seconds or whether you come back every five minutes.
DOUCLEFF: Mindell says the science suggests all the gentle approaches can help babies and parents get more sleep.
MINDELL: So it's a personalized formula for baby and parent. No question about that. So you just have to figure out what works for your family.
DOUCLEFF: In other words, parents don't have to hear a lot of...
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
DOUCLEFF: ...To sleep train a baby. One study even shows that baby sleep improves when parents learn about good sleeping habits like setting a regular bedtime routine. But don't expect a miracle from any intervention. It's not clear how much of an improvement you'll see, or that one method is faster than the other or that any method will work for more than a few months.
MINDELL: It's a made-up fantasy. It would be great if we could say exactly how much improvement you're going to see in your child. But any improvement is good.
DOUCLEFF: For example, one of the high-quality studies found that gentle sleep training reduced the probability of parents reporting sleep problems by about 30% in their 1-year-olds. By the time those kids were 2, the effect disappeared. And studies also show that for about 20% of babies, no method will work. Now the final question. Can sleep training hurt children? Dr. Harriet Hiscock is a lead author on a few of the studies that look into this. And again, these studies use gentle approaches.
HARRIET HISCOCK: Yeah, yeah. It's not the shut the door on your baby and don't go back to them.
DOUCLEFF: Hiscock is a pediatrician at the Royal Children's Hospital in Parkville, Australia. She and her colleagues ran a randomized control trial on sleep training, the gold standard in medical science. About 200 families were either taught a few gentle sleep training methods or given regular pediatric care. Then Hiscock checked up on the families five years later to see what difference sleep training had made.
HISCOCK: We concluded that there were no harmful effects of that intervention on children's behavior, sleep, parent mental health or the parent-child relationship.
DOUCLEFF: Which means by the time these kids were 6, you couldn't tell the kids who had been sleep trained from those who hadn't. For this reason, she says, parents shouldn't feel pressure to sleep train or not.
HISCOCK: It's really important to not make parents feel guilty for their choices and to give them evidence and let them make up their own minds.
DOUCLEFF: In other words, the controversy over sleep training is much ado about nothing. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.