Monday, April 5, 2010

Sleep Training the Natural Way?

On Becoming Babywise” by Gary Ezzo is an extremely popular sleep-training book. It is subtitled

Learn how over 500,000 babies were trained to sleep through the night the natural way”.

After reading the 1998 version of this book, I considered that the subtitle begs two important questions:
1. Is the Babywise baby really "trained to sleep"?
2. Is this method really the "natural way"?


In Babywise, author Gary Ezzo uses terms such as “parental guidance,” “teaching” or “helping”  the infant to sleep. An infant, he says, needs to “learn the skill” of sleeping.

The Skill?
Webster defines skill as an ‘ability to use one’s knowledge effectively in doing something.’ Sleep, however, happens quite naturally and effectively, without any training and even in the least knowledgeable of creatures!

Webster’s definition of training indicates there is some form of instruction, education, or discipline involved. Unfortunately for the Babywise trainee, however, the baby is expected to accomplish this “skill” without instruction, education, or assistance. Here are some examples of "Training," Ezzo-style:

“When naptime comes, baby goes down. It is that simple.” (Page130)
“This is one time when non-intervention is best.” (Page 148)
“Also bear in mind that at naptime some crying is not unusual. Napping is a skill. It needs to be learned. Avoid the myth that your baby is signaling a need to be held and rocked every time he cries.” (Page 178)

Another example of Ezzo’s “parental guidance” says:
“When your baby awakens, don’t rush right in to him or her. Any crying will be temporary, lasting from five to forty-five minutes. Remember, this will be temporary!”

Most parents help their babies fall asleep. They rock the baby, talk softly or sing lullabies to calm them. Some dance or sway or use similar rhythmic movement to help the baby relax. They use a pacifier or breastfeed to encourage the baby toward sleep. Some lie down next to the baby or bring the baby to bed with them, modeling the desired behavior. This isn't generally considered "training" but are merely common methods used to help babies adapt to their parent's world.

What Should I Do When My Baby Cries?
Babywise has an entire chapter on crying, and describes the proper response for the Babywise mother:
“She listens, she thinks, and then she acts on her assessment.”
She Listens:
She is told to simply listen to the baby cry,  observing  how long it continues. Thus she  can establish the typical pattern of crying as "normal" for her child.
She Thinks:
As she ponders the "typical"cry she is strictly warned against reacting to her natural feelings of compassion:
“Mother’s decisions without assessment can be dangerous.” and“Emotional mothering can set the stage for child abuse”(Pg 150) [emphasis added]
She Acts:
In this section there is no mention of any action taken. No instruction, education, or encouragement is offered during this “training” period. In fact, the mother is warned against responding to a crying infant, or else she will be guilty of “digging for yourself that big black hole of endless sleepless nights into the toddler years.”

The book claims most babies stop night waking by eight weeks. However, it turns out that whether baby has learned the 'skill' or not is irrelevant: When the baby reaches the age of eight weeks, mother is instructed to withdraw all attention to the baby at nighttime, period.
“Any crying will be temporary, lasting from five to 45 minutes… Generally, it takes three nights.” (Page 123)
“Most of this takes place over a three-day period and the crying bouts average between five and thirty-five minutes… it takes three to five nights for a nine-week-old” (Page 132)

CONCLUSION: The "training" Babywise recommends is rather like "training" a person to swim by throwing him overboard!

Is the Babywise method the "natural" way

1. In the Preface of the book, Ezzo twice calls this program “an infant management system” which sounds more like a factory engineered product than a natural way to nurture a growing family.

2. Ezzo himself admits the training doesn’t occur naturally.
“Expecting babies and young children to sleep through the night is very realistic. But this all-important life skill is rarely achieved apart from parental guidance.” (Page 43) [emphasis added]

3. The eat-play-sleep schedule Ezzo promotes is not “natural.”

  • a) Babies commonly and naturally fall asleep while feeding,

... i. because of a full tummy,
... ii. because of the sleep-inducing hormone cholecystokinin, [CCK] released during nursing.

  • b) When the baby does naturally fall asleep at the breast, Ezzo says parents must not permit it: 

“The parents must keep him awake until the feeding is over. Rub his toes, change his diaper…” (Page 111) “… undress her; rub her head or feet with a cool, damp washcloth. Do what you must to keep her awake.” (Pg.175)
... i. This is odd, since Ezzo himself suggests sleep deprivation could be dangerous to baby’s still-developing central nervous system?
  "Imagine your spouse getting no more than three hours sleep at a stretch for one week…. Now consider an infant whose central nervous system is still developing. Even more is at stake. To what extent, then, does sleep deprivation negatively impact an infant’s developing central nervous system?" (Page 55)
... ii. Not only are babies kept awake during feeding and after feeding, they are woken from naps.
"Do not let your baby sleep longer than three hours during week one." (Pg 172)
"If you need to awaken your baby during the day to prevent him or her from sleeping longer than the 3-hour cycle, do so! Such parental intervention is necessary to help stabilize the baby’s digestive metabolism.”(Page 112)
“Wake your baby and feed her at three-hour intervals during the day …start with a preset time for the first morning feeding. From there, wake your baby and feed her.” (Pg 173)
Rule 1. Mom, not baby, decides when the nap starts.
Rule 2. Mom, not baby, decides when the nap ends.
Rule 3. If baby wakes up crying… she has not had sufficient sleep
. (Page 133)

4. The program relies heavily on watching the clock to tell you when the baby must eat, sleep and play. Adjustments of 15 minute increments are suggested. Is this "natural" parenting?

5.  It is NOT natural to ignore a baby’s cry.

  • a)This is especially true for new mothers with their surging maternal hormones. A baby’s cry is 20 decibels louder than speech, ensuring the baby is heard. Ezzo devotes an entire chapter to convince the reader that the mother must deny her natural God-given hormone-driven motherly desire to care for her crying baby.
  •     b.) It IS natural for parents to try to soothe a crying baby and quite natural to rock the baby to sleep. Ezzo calls these loving actions “negative sleep props.” (Page 56) That is an interesting choice of words: a “prop” implies an unnatural, artificial add-on used to support a structure.

“Carefully consider the long-term negative effects of sleep props.”( Page 58)

Again on page 158 we find another interesting choice of words:
“Why choose a prop? Instead, confidently establish a basic routine to naturally and beautifully enhance restful sleep.”
i.Why choose a prop?” This implies conscious decision-making, as if parents have chosen to go against nature to add an unnatural “extra” to the baby’s life. But nursing, rocking, cuddling or sleeping with baby - the so-called "props" - are the things parents around the world do naturally to soothe babies – quite instinctively.
ii.Establish a basic routine” This schedule does not naturally occur. A daily routine may occur but the decision to regulate the baby’s feeding time, wake time, and sleeping times in a specific order and according to the clock takes planning ahead.
iii. Finally he says the routine will “naturally and beautifully enhance restful sleep.” Notice that the things parents naturally do are called “props,” and the schedule imposed on the baby is labeled “Natural and beautiful.”!

It appears that you CAN actually "train" babies the "natural" way; the secret is to alter the meaning of words to suit your purposes!!!
"Ignoring" is the new "teaching a skill" or "training your child."
"Clock-watching" is now "natural and beautiful"
Rocking your baby is a "sleep prop."
A mother showing love and compassion for her baby is now "emotional parenting," "dangerous," and "potential child abuse!"

Good Luck!

Sheila Stubbs


  1. Generally great article.

    Small quibble, I believe it is the amino acid tryptophan that helps induce sleep during nursing rather than cholecystokinin.

  2. True. CCK acts as a hunger suppressant (among other things)and satiation aids in inducing sleepiness. Both help explain why babies fall asleep while nursing and half an hour later wake up for more, something Ezzo calls Metabolic Chaos. Thanks for posting.

  3. I just want to say that, while I LOVE this blog and think you've done an excellent job of exposing Ezzo's self-centered, dysfunctional parenting model, the point about waking a newborn after 3 hours of sleeping actually may have some merit. Newborns need to nurse frequently in the early days, as you've noted elsewhere; my midwives and lactation consultants urged me not to let my baby sleep more than 3 hours at a time day or night until she had regained her birth weight, something that ended up taking a few weeks due to latch problems early on. And the 3-hour limit helps ensure a minimum of 8 feedings a day (and hopefully several more).

  4. You are right about the 3-hr sleep limit.

    Here's my concern: I've read of a case on the Ezzomoms forum where the baby had just fallen asleep after crying for over an hour, when it had to be woken for feeding time. Of course it was exhausted and nursed to sleep, and that's a no-no. So they undress the baby and put cold cloths on it like the book says to keep it awake until naptime.
    The baby fusses and carries on without nursing well. So now it's sleep-deprived AND milk-deprived, and when put down for a nap it cries and screams again, using up more calories.

    So yes, it's better to wake the baby up after three hours of sleep. But I hate that the ORDER of the schedule is more important than the timing of the schedule.

  5. All sleep training methods have massive blindspots, fail to address outliers, and are not based on science; because the science does not exist. It's a crap shoot.

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