Experts Explain How The Graduated Extinction Sleep Training Method May Affect Kids Later In Life

by Sarah Bunton

Part of being a parent is learning how to make tough choices. One of the biggest debates in the parenting community is about how to get your child to fall and stay asleep. If you've chosen a sleep training method like cry it out (CIO), ferberizing, or pick up put down, you may wonder whether any form of sleep training has a long term effect on your children, and more specifically, how graduated extinction affects your kid later in life. Whether you've already chosen to try sleep training with your child or you're still weighing out all the possible options, it's helpful to learn about the ways this type of training is effective, and if it has any effect on the way your child may turn out, in the near future and far.

As lovely as it would be to have a cut and dry answer, that's not usually how life tends to work out, and the topic of sleep training is no different. For every proponent of the sleep training method there are just as many who vehemently oppose such tactics. Thankfully, though, there are a few basics that most baby sleep experts can agree on when it comes to using graduated extinction with your little one.

When most parents think about getting their child to fall and stay asleep without any assistance, the Ferber method — named after Dr. Richard Ferber — likely comes to mind. According to Baby Sleep Site, on of the key features of Ferberization is that it uses the, "check and console," approach that has become synonymous with graduated extinction because it encourages parents to slowly lengthen the response time to their baby's cries during the night. In an interview with Parents, Dr. Richard Ferber describes it as such: graduated extinction is when "you delay your response time to your baby's wakings." For example, you initially might wait five minutes to respond to your child's nighttime cries. Then, you would extend the intervals to 10 minutes and so on until the baby doesn't require a parental presence to fall and stay asleep.

This differs from methods such as Weissbluth (in Dr. Marc Weissbluth's book, it's recommended that parents don't go in at all during nap and bedtime) and CIO (a broad term used to cover various methods that involve leaving your baby to literally cry it out) because it isn't as harsh or abrupt. Still, the fact that parents are phasing out their presence until it is nonexistent during bedtime can be an off-putting approach for some. Either way, this has plenty of parents wondering how this form of sleep training will affect their child.

As SleepTrain health and wellness consultant Hilary Thompson tells Romper, "graduated extinction is not appropriate for babies under the age of 6 months." Essentially, from newborn to 6-months-old, infants have not yet developed the skills necessary to process or cope with stressors, like being separated from their parent with no response given to their cries, as Thompson further explained. But let's look a little more at what graduated extinction really means and how it differs from other sleep training methods.

In a study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), researchers found that, "behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects, positive or negative." This can be somewhat encouraging that the study didn't determine any long-term harmful results from sleep training. But, others might still feel unsure since graduated extinction didn't really have any positive effects, either.

In additional studies, like those featured in the medical journals of the Public Library of Science and Society for Neuroscience, researchers have found a potentially harmful link between a lack of parental response and the development of the human brain. As psychology professor Dr. Darcia Narvaez told Psychology Today, "when the baby is greatly distressed, it creates conditions for damage to synapses, the network construction which is ongoing in the infant brain, and the hormone cortisol is released." Moreover, Narvaez stated, "in excess, cortisol is a neuron killer, but its consequences many not be apparent immediately."

The major takeaway could be that more research needs to be done on this topic in order to get an accurate picture of the effects. There does seem to be one key factor that determines whether or not a baby will become a well-adjusted adult or not. Regardless of how a parent puts their baby to sleep, it's an underlying sense of safety that is necessary for healthy emotional development.

In regards to the topic of graduated extinction, child sleep consultant Mylee Zschech tells Romper, "letting your baby cry throughout the sleep training process will not harm them [as long as] your baby is safe and secure with all of the love and attention you show them throughout the day.” Basically, if a parent and child have a solid foundation of trust in their bond, then there likely isn't much reason to worry about graduated extinction causing attachment issues later in life. In my experience, it's not about picking one, right way to do something. It's about knowing your child and picking the appropriate methods that best fit their needs. You may notice your baby is more on the sensitive side and consistently responds poorly to Graduated Extinction, thus needing a more attachment-based method. Or, you might see your child benefit from having a consistent and stable routine. In the end, though, it's up to you to decide what's best for you and your family.

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