Parenting and the Theology of the Body– Can Babies “Self-Soothe”?—(UPDATED 4/4)

The Theology of the Body teaches us that the body has an innate self-donative meaning.  That is;  we are, literally, wired for love and connection, and that God’s plan for relationships can be discerned by prayerfully contemplating the bodies God gave us.  Science is actually backing this claim up, and is giving us some important insights into what–given this mindset–is God’s intention not only for adult pair bonding (i.e., marriage and sex) but parent-child  bonding as well.  This line of thought has significant ramifications for important parenting questions like, “How do we get our babies to sleep!”

It is conventional wisdom that infant “sleep training” teaches babies to “self-soothe.”  These are comforting ideas to tired moms and dads who are eager to be great parents and get a decent night’s sleep but what does it mean for a baby to “self-soothe” and is it even possible for infants to exhibit this skill


Proponents of self-soothing point to the fact that after several days of sleep training–which involves parents incrementally delaying their response to an infant’s night-time crying–the baby decreases the time crying and, eventually stops and goes back to sleep.  This is what happens, and it has been assumed that the baby is able to return to sleep because of “self-soothing.”  The problem is, until fairly recently, researcher never had a way to test the “self-soothing” hypothesis and that’s an important problem.

While, again, its a nice idea that would be lovely if true, infant self-soothing makes no sense from a developmental psych perspective.  For anyone–you, me, any human being–to self-soothe, two skills are required; self-talk and intentional, conscious redirection.  When you are upset, to get yourself back under control, you need to be able to 1) Talk yourself down (“Calm down, Greg.  You can handle this.  It’s going to be OK.”)  and 2) You need to be able to intentionally direct yourself to engage in some self-soothing activity (e.g, make a plan to solve the problem, do something that reduces your stress, etc).  The problem is that babies don’t have either of these skills.  Children don’t develop any self-talk capacity until at least 4yo (usually later) and although babies do have some soothing rituals like thumb-sucking, it is not known how effective these strategies are.   New research is showing that the answer is, “not very.”

Learned Helplessness and Physiological Stress

It turns out that after several days of sleep training the baby’s behavior and biology become un-hooked.  The sleep-trained child does stop crying, but research shows that the child’s stress homone level remain as high as when he was crying.  If the baby was actually self-soothing, the cortisol levels would decrease as the crying behavior decreased.  But that isn’t what happens. Instead, the sleep-trained infant’s cortisol level remains high, but the help-seeking behavior stops.  There is a disconnect between what the baby feels and how the baby acts.   In animals, we call this disconnect between the physiological stress response (i.e., high cortisol levels) and behavior, “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness is a well-established psychological fact. The classic learned helplessness experiments were done years ago and over 3000 studies later, learned helplessness is a foundational concept in the study of depression and anxiety disorders.  In the first experiments in learned helplessness, a dog was placed in a box that had a metal plate at the bottom.  A lid was placed on top of the box and a mildly painful electical shock went through the metal plate.  The dog would try to jump out of the box, but be thwarted by the lid.  After several repetitions the dog stopped trying to escape the shock. He just lay there helplessly.  This continued even after the lid was removed.  The shock would be delivered but even though the dog could escape, he learned not to try to help himself–he, literally, learned to be helpless.  Superficially, you could theoreically claim that the dog learned some mysterious way to “self-soothe” and ignore the shock, but you would be wrong.  Physiologically, the dog’s cortisol levels were elevated with the shock, but the help-seeking behavior stopped.  This is the exact same dynamic seen in sleep-trained infants and that should alarm us.

Learned helplessness actually damages the human and animal brain’s ability to process stress and is an established risk factor for depression and anxiety disorders in later childhood and adulthood.

If we take the Theology of the Body’s claims seriously,  that God’s intention for relationships is written into God’s design of our body, we need to listen to research that shows that sleep-training is antithetical to the donative meaning of the body.  Genesis tells us that “it is not good for man to be alone.”  Science confirms that this is true.  Especially for infants.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comments, especially the exchanges I’ve had with “Terri” and Dr. Berchelmann, a pediatrician and instructor of pediatrics at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

–For more information on how the principles of the Theology of the Body apply to parenting, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.





About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit

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  • Theodore Seeber

    I don’t know about self-soothe, but my wife and I made the opposite mistake. And because of that, we *still* have a 9 year old special needs child who just “wants daddy” or “wants mommy” and crawls into bed with us quite often (less often than when he was 6, but I suspect a lot more often than the normal 9 year old).

    • Knitted in the Womb

      If he is special needs, why are you comparing him to “normal” children?

      I would suggest that there is a vast middle ground between “sleep training” infants and a 9 year old getting into bed with his parents. In my family that is teaching older children who have trouble falling asleep or who have nightmares how to relax their body, mind, and soul though relaxation, deep breathing,listening to music, meditating on scripture, and singing peaceful praise songs to help them fall asleep.

  • Paul

    So those who sleep train their babies aren’t just psychologically harming their kids, they’re spiritually harming them as well?? That is simply ridiculous.

    Look, if attachment parenting is your thing, that’s great. Good for you. I don’t judge you. But don’t make those of us who sleep train our children out to be child abusers. Remember: your baby shares the same fallen human nature you do.

    • Dr. Greg


      Thank you for your comments, but in fact, you are judging me and I can’t begin to understand why. You–and several others who I will not post because their comments are even less charitable–have accused me, unjustly, of calling you a child abuser. Now, THAT is ridiculous.

      Paul, I’m both saddened and mystified by your comments. I don’t know you. I don’t claim to know anything about you. I did not attack anyone in anyway. I posted an article that summarized recent medical research. Baby cries, cortisol levels go up. If cortisol levels stay up, baby’s behavior becomes unhooked from his emotions which is exactly the scientific definition of learned helpnessness. Period. It doesn’t get more scientific than that. I then interpreted those facts through the lens of the theology of the body which says exactly what I said it does. I misrepresented nothing. You may take it or leave it. It makes no difference to me.

      Parents, own your parenting decisions. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, keep it up. If you’re not, change. But the one thing that makes no sense is lashing out irrationally and irresponsibly at people who parent differently than you. Parenting isn’t about making moms and dads feel good about themselves. Parenting is about loving kids. Let’s all try not to forget that.

      Thank you for your consideration. I wish you a most Blessed Easter season and I hope you will be a regular visitor to Faith on the Couch. May God bless you and yours.

      Dr. Greg

      • Terri

        Dr. Greg,

        Welcome to the Mommy Wars. Your original post did contain some judgement and condescension: “These are comforting ideas to tired moms and dads who are eager to be great parents and get a decent night’s sleep ” was followed by “its a nice idea that would be lovely if true, infant self-soothing makes no sense” because “research” showed babies became “uncoupled” like abused animals with “learned helplessness”. A classic persuasive essay showing that method #1 is best and anyone who might believe method #2 has merit is wrong.

        So let’s talk about research and stress. The study you linked to has a sample size of 25 and ended after 5 nights. There was no control group of hormone levels in crying but comforted children (how do their hormones rise and remain? is there a difference?) because it was actually a study of how mother’s hormones correlated with their baby’s behaviors and hormone levels. So this science is decoupled from your thesis.

        The best, unanswered scientific questions are “What is the mid-range and long-term difference in stress hormone with individual children in each method?” and “Is there a demonstrable developmental window where a baby benefits physiologically from immediate soothing that outpaces benefits from training?”

        You see, I would propose that children should be welcome members into a family and that any community needs balance in the hierarchy of needs. A healthy family can love kids well in a multitude of ways and still be off the “attachment parenting” spectrum. Theology of the Body is wonderful and powerful, but you must be aware that we Moms and Dads who work to follow it have many young children. And so, when you cite it to advocate “sleep-training is antithetical to the donative meaning of the body” you must not be shocked that we might want to push back and explain that in giving our lives to our families over the decades, we find your conclusions to be wrongheaded.

        Happy Easter! JesusChrist makes all things new!

        • Dr. Greg

          Hello Terri,

          Terrific comments, thank you. I’m a long time veteran of the mommy wars, having been at this since Parenting with Grace first came out over a decade ago. I’m used to it. But the self-serving pettiness does continue to surprise me. Intelligent criticisms like yours are more than welcome–and rare. Childish name-calling, ad hominem assualts, and baseless accusations are more par for the course. I fully anticipate push back, but I am consistently disappointed by the ignorance and hostility expressed around these issues. I criticised no one. I shamed no one. I did not “make” anyone feel anything. I made a blog post. Like it, don’t like it. What’s it to me? I thought it was interesting and I shared it. Why people feel the need to justify themselves to a total stranger who’s opinion they loathe is a mystery to me. It’s a big internet. If people don’t like what I have to say, go somewhere else. As for my tone, honestly, what you read as condescension was genuinely intended as sympathy. They are lovely ideas. Tired parents deserve whatever break they can get. Unfortunately, these ideas, though seductive, are not true.

          You are correct that I did only cite one study regarding cortisol levels and your criticisms are fair enough, but it’s only one study of dozens. I’m writing a blog post. Not a dissertation. If you want more, do a quick search on “cortisol levels”, “mental health”,”vagal tone”, “sleep training”, or read The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships by Louis Cozolino, or Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Seigel. You’ll find more than ample resaerch that echoes the claims I made in my original post. I, myself, came to this style of parenting kicking and screaming. I didn’t want it to be true. The strength of the data convinced me. That said, I teach research methodology to doctoral students and in a study like this, control group really isn’t necessary. What would you be controlling for? Crying is associated with elevated cortisol and all that means. High cortisol in the absense of help-seeking behavior is, in fact, the physiological definition of learned helplessness, which is a well-established factor in depression and anxiety. Its a simple observational study, not a multi-group treatment efficacy trial. Even if your criticisms were enough to cast shadows on the validity of this study, the post doesn’t rest on this one study. This study simply adds to what has been known for over 100 years about the process of self-soothing and learned helplessness. Developmental psychologists going back to Lev Vygotsky in the late 1800′s-early 20th century have known that emotional regulation is dependent upon “inner voice” (self-talk) skills which do not begin to emerge before age 4 and are not really fully present until 6-ish. Alan Shore’s book, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development is terrifically helpful here. Babies can’t self-soothe because they are cognitively incapable of willful self-redirection and self-talk. Period. This study, and dozens of others like it, are icing.

          The other questions you have asked have also been answered. From Erik Erickson to John Bowlby to the contemporary work by UND psychologist Darcia Narvaez and James McKenna of the UND Mother-Infant Behavioral Sleep Lab we know that prompt response to infant cries are essential for the development of trust, healthy attachment, and emotional regulation because it facilitates good vagal tone by reducing the presence of cortisol in the nervous system. You sound like a very intelligent person and I am confident you would find the work of these good people very enlightening.

          Regarding your theological points. Again, I respect your tone and your thoughtfulness, but I would argue that your understanding of a heirarchy of needs is in conflict with Catholic Social Teaching, specifically the ideas of the common good and the universal destination of goods. While the common good teaches, as you indicate, that needs must be addressed in a manner that is respectful of all the other needs in the community, the universal destination of goods teaches that if there is a hierarchy of needs, it is the person who is least capable of meeting his or her own needs who is at the top of that hierarchy. According to CST the weakest and least always get first claim on available resources. I agree that parents must take care of themeselves–we spent 30 minutes on our show today discussing the importance and various methods of mother-care–but parents must find ways to take care of themselves in a manner that does not short change their smallest and closest neighbor–their infant children.

          Finally, I may be misunderstanding your last point (and I welcome clarification if I am incorrect) but you seem to buy into the fallacy that full attachment is not possible in large families. This is not true. You can certainly parent the way I describe and have 8, 9, 10+ children. I know many families who do. The Sears themselves have 8. But as Kimberly Hahn has pointed out, you can’t have a large family all at once. You create a large family one child at a time. That is exactly what I am advocating. Generosity in the service of life involves openness to both actual procreation and integral procreation–the idea that children have a right not only to be born, but also to receive everything they need from mom and dad to develop to their full potential as children of God (c.f, Gaudium et Spes #50). As CST points out, it is not just the right to life that is fundamental but rather the right to life AND education–i.e the right to be born and to be formed into a fully-functioning, whole and holy person.

          Allow me to conclude by saying that intelligent, faithful parents may certainly disagree on these issues. Despite what some people would like to believe, I have never appointed myself some kind of pope of parenting. People are annoyed by the strength of my argument from both science and theology. They’re used to thinking of parenting in terms of opinion, not in terms of science and theology. And they are used to self-comforting platitudes like, “you have to do what works for you” (an idea that would be appalling in almost any other area of Chrisitian living). But the fact that people aren’t used to rigorous thinking about parenting isn’t my fault. I welcome intelligent counter-arguments. This post isn’t personal and I respect yours or anyone’s right to reject what I’m saying–with or without reasonable cause. My job is simply to present my case and let the chips fall where they may. Those who would attribute motives beyond these to me are over-reaching themselves and guilty of calumny against me.

          I do genuinely appreciate your willingness to discuss these matters in a forthright and intelligent manner. I don’t suspect I’ve convinced you of anything and it wasn’t my intention to do so. I have done my best to respond to your comment in as thorough and respectful a manner as a blog comment box will allow. I hope you will take it for what it’s worth. I welcome any further comments you might like to make and I hope you will be a regular reader of Faith on the Couch.

          May God grant you and yours abundant blessings in this Easter season.
          Dr. Greg

          • Marian

            Dr. Greg, thank you for this post and for all of your work. I am a firm believer in attachment parenting; your book and others like it helped me to chart my parenting course, and I am grateful. Right now, however, I seem to be hitting a rough patch. I have three children under the age of five, and I feel pulled in all directions. When my oldest was a baby, AP was “easy” (as infant care goes :) ); now, I just feel that, try as I do to meet the needs of a 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and baby, no one’s needs are fully being met. As a result of my overwhelm, I find myself yelling, tugging little arms, rolling my eyes at tantrums, etc.–things I swore I would NEVER do. I would love to have a large family, but I feel like I’m in way over my head already. Can you offer me any words of encouragement or advice? Thanks so much, and God bless you and all the Popcaks.

          • Dr. Greg

            Commenter Lauren is doing yeoman’s work offering some great insights. I’d like to second her comments. I think her advice is spot on and would be helpful for your situation as well. Of course, if you feel that such general comments don’t quite get at what you’re looking for, you can always contact me through the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

        • Kjersti

          Beautifully said! Could not agree more! : )

  • Katharine M

    If your child is truly special needs then it isn’t co-sleeping or other attachment parenting’s “fault” that he still crawls into bed with you. Your parenting style has told him that you are available when he needs you and his special needs mean that he needs you more, and for longer, than is average. As inconvenient as it may be I think it says good things about the relationship you’ve established with him.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Thanks, Katharine. I need that reminder from time to time. Especially in the last week and a half with the entire family down with a bad cold.

      He’s got CP in the language center of his brain, which means he doesn’t have the motor control effects most kids with CP have, but academically and emotionally he’s very much “9 going on 6″. I want him to always know that I’ll be there for him- regardless of “inconvenience”.

  • cminor

    What Katharine M. said. Also, sharing.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Oh, and his first word, at nearly three, was “Happy”. Can’t be too far off, can I?

      • Lauren (LPatter)

        That just made ME so happy! Beautiful. Thank you for your witness – your son and family certainly remind the world the meaning of love.

  • Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD

    Dear Dr. Popcak,

    I want to personally thank you for all your excellent writing. I’ve been a fan of yours from a distance for some time. I promote your work on my blog under “Parenting Resources” at:

    In general I am a supporter of most aspects of attachment parenting. I would, however, like to bring to your attention a September, 2012 article from the journal Pediatrics. In case you don’t have access to their full-text articles, here is a popular press summary of the study:

    I am assuming the study you refer to in your post is the August 2011 study from Early Human Development, “Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep.” It’s a very interesting study. I agree that persistently elevated cortisol levels show that there isn’t a lot of “self-soothing” taking place. But I think, as parents and health care professionals, we have to ask ourselves the larger question, “What are the negative consequences of this physiologic sign of persistent stress?”

    I feel it is a big jump to equate this persistent rise in cortisol of a baby who cries him or herself to sleep with the learned helplessness of the studies you cite above. The stressors in each case were different. They are not equivalent experiments. There is no data to suggest that babies who “cry it out” have an increase risk of depression or anxiety disorders as you suggest in your second to last paragraph. The Pediatrics study I cite above actually showed the opposite– that babies who “cried it out” did not have increased risk of emotional, psychological, or behavioral disorders at age 6. In fact, babies who were in the control group (not left to “cry it out”) actually had a higher risk of behavior disorders.

    Dr. Popcak, I also love Theology of the Body, and as a pediatrician I have found TOB an invaluable tool for teaching healthy sexuality to children and adolescents. Please see my project, Text4RealSex, To the best of my knowledge, however, Blessed John Paul II never mentions baby’s crying and sleep patterns in his development of Theology of the Body. When we elaborate on TOB themes and apply them to new situations, as I often do, I think it is important to indicate that these are our thoughts, not JPII’s.

    There are many tired parents out there struggling to deal with crying babies. I think we have to be very careful before we lead parents to think that they are causing irreparable harm to their infants or violating the teachings of the Catholic Church.

    Thank you for your faithfulness and your beautiful commitment to Catholic parenting and mental health.

    Warmest Regards,

    Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD
    Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital

    • Dr. Greg

      Dr. Berchelmann,

      Thank you for your excellent comments. I appreciate your wisdom and your expertise.

      As you know, good vagal tone is associated with healthy emotional regulation and greater resistance to both depression and anxiety. I’m sure you are also aware that long term cortisol exposure is antithetical to developing good vagal tone.

      I want to be clear that I am not saying–as some have accused me in an attempt to exaggerate my point to make it easier to dismiss me–that sleep training causes brain damage. What I am saying is that the idea of self-soothing in infancy is a convenient fiction. What is the mechanism or process infants use to self-soothe? How does this magic happen? Everything I know about developmental psychology says that it isn’t possible. Unless someone can show me the process of self-soothing, I have to assume that the idea that babies can self-soothe is wishful thinking at best and junk science at worst. There is just no evidence that it can be done. So, if the baby isn’t self-soothing, what IS happening? Well, the evidence would appear to show that what is happening is learned helplessness. When cortisol levels are sustained to the degree that help seeking behavior is extinguished in the presence sustained stress, that is learned helplessness.

      Now, it is a fair question to ask just how damaging this degree of learned helplessness really is, but I don’t think there is a question that it is, indeed, damaging to at least some degree. I don’t know of a single study that suggests learned helplessness is a good thing.

      I appreciate the study you cite, but to my eyes all it is saying is that sleep training gets babies to sleep and when babies sleep moms and dads are happy. But to go from that to say that sleep training is safe begs the question of how sleep training actually works. What is the mechanism? If the mechanism is self-soothing, then how does that actually happen? If the mechanism is learned helplessness, well then, let’s admit that and deal with the reality of the situation. Maybe a little learned helplessness is a good thing maybe its not, but let’s not be too cowardly to ask the question. Any pharmacologist will tell you that one really can’t say something is safe if one is unwilling to look at the mechanism of action. That is where the study you cite over-reaches. You cannot say something is “safe” if you don’t know how it works.

      Likewise, the study indicates that sleep-trained children were easier than children who were not sleep-trained, but if the mechanism of action of sleep-training is learned helplessness, this makes perfect sense. Parents typically report quiet children as better behaved. Children who have learned the pointlessness of crying will be quieter and seen as better behaved by parents. But is a quieter baby really a healthier baby? Or is a quieter baby a depressed baby? We don’t know because the study you cite refuses to look at the mechanism of action behind the efficacy of sleep-training.

      Finally, regarding TOB. I don’t believe I claimed JPII wrote anything on sleep training or crying-it-out. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that TOB is just about sex. JPII is the father of the theology of the body, but the theology of the body is it’s own theological discipline, like Christology or ecclesiology. Just because JPII didn’t write about it doesn’t mean it isn’t consistent with the principles of the TOB. I am happy to take full credit for being among the first people to apply the principles of TOB to parent-child relationships and family dynamics. That said, in my response to Terri, I referenced the work of Dan Seigel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out and editor of the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology. It might interest you to know that JPII was an admirer of Daniel Seigel’s work, and that he brought Dr. Seigel to the Vatican to present on Mother-Infant bonding and the developing brain. There is a great deal of evidence showing that JPII was very interested in understanding the process of attachment and bonding and his interest is reflected in his work on the feminine genius–which is foundational concept of TOB.

      In conclusion, I thank you for taking the time to write. I do appreciate and respect both your expertise and your tone and I hope you will be a regular reader/commenter. But until someone can show me how, exactly, an infant self-soothes, I cannot in good conscience do anything but remind people that the idea of self-soothing is a myth and that the mechanism behind sleep-training is, in fact, learned helplessness. I believe parents should have the right to use it as long as they can give informed consent and they can’t do that if they aren’t told the truth.

      May God Bless you abundantly,
      Dr. Greg

  • Guest

    Dr. Greg, I would welcome your thoughts on my experience.

    Before my first child was born I read something – don’t remember who or what it was – that said to make night time feeding as boring as possible for your infant to encourage them to return to sleep quickly at night. The idea was to keep the room darkened, provide nourishment and a dry diaper and keep the interaction to a minimum. Presumably it was to provide the infant with a clear difference between night and day and also not to give the infant any ‘reward’ to being wakeful at night (which seemed a stretch to me at first for an infant to understand).

    But long story short, I tried this with much success with my babies – in fact they soon got to the point where they nursed with their eyes closed at night and barely woke up as opposed to being wide awake with lot’s of eye contact while nursing during the day. They all slept through the night (6-7 hours) by 4-6 weeks of age. I also stuck pretty close to home the first couple of months after birth and didn’t expose them to a lot of disruption in the schedule they settled into naturally, including making sure they napped in their crib in a quiet room.

    I never had to let them cry once they woke up at night to try and stretch the time out, they did it naturally on their own. As they drank larger quantities, they slept longer. As they slept longer they awoke hungrier and drank larger quantities and then of course slept longer between feedings. They also slept alone in a crib, in their own room, from day 1.

    I honestly believe that co-sleeping just encourages frequent waking for children and parents. Children eat less at one time when they are put to the breast all the time and so their stomachs empty faster and they wake up sooner. It’s hard to break that cycle once they settle into it.

    I also didn’t let my toddlers come into bed with us when they woke up at night. I did the hard job of getting myself up and taking them back to bed and soothing them in their own bed/room. Again, because there was no reward (sleeping with mom and dad) for waking at night it rarely happened – usually only if they got sick. I believe I was a much better mom and wife for not being sleep deprived due to all the fractured sleep that I think most attachment parents have to endure for many months.

    • Terri

      Dear Guest,
      Thank you for your narrative. It mirrors mine and beautifully makes the point that loving, healthy babies are not determined solely by instant soothing. There are lots of good ways to parent well and, while there is certainly a “best” or ideal pattern of consideration for each individual child, what we do not need is to be told that babies require self sacrifice on an heroic, sacrificial scale. Your children and mine learned that they could trust our home and family to be a safe and happy place without extreme parental responsiveness.

      The weakest point about Developmental Psych is that it makes projections and extrapolates data based on controlled, total-deprivation situations that do not parallel real relationships. It cannot answer the basic scientific question “Why did severly abused child #1 go forth and have a wonderful life when similarly abused child#2 never had a happy or hopeful or productive moment?” Until there is practical and reilably repeatable success ‘proving’ these theories I will trust in your family results.

      • Dr. Greg

        “It cannot answer the basic scientific question “Why did severly abused child #1 go forth and have a wonderful life when similarly abused child#2 never had a happy or hopeful or productive moment?”

        Actually, it has answered that question. The difference is the richness of the narrative a person has about their childhood experiences. People who tend not to speak of their childhoods, or do so only under pressure and then only in short, limited sentences are significantly more likely to repeat their abuse. Those who, while maintaining appropriate boundaries, are capable of speaking openly, with sufficient detail, insight, and forthrightness about their childhood experiences tend to be able to leave their less-than-ideal childhoods behind them. It has to do with how language facilitates left/right brain integration, and how, when this integration exists, a person is less susceptible to unconscious motivations and able to act more mindfully and intentionally.

        “what we do not need is to be told that babies require self sacrifice on an heroic, sacrificial scale.” You are correct. Our children may not require this of us. Sainthood does. I’m sure you would agree that saint is the call of every Catholic parent. I’m also pretty sure you’d agree that we don’t become saints by being good-enough Christians, good-enough accountants, good-enough garbage collectors, or good-enough parents. We become saints by imitating Christ’s example of total self-donation for the good of our neighbor, doing whatever we do to the fullest extent possible for the greater glory of God. And in marriage, our closest neighbors are our spouse and children.

        “Until there is practical and reilably repeatable success ‘proving’ these theories I will trust in your family results.”

        I don’t understand what you mean by “trust in your family results.” As for “proving” anything, no scientist ever speaks of proving anything. The best we can do is “reject the null hypothesis.” That said, your argument isn’t an argument against my points. Its an argument against science itself. You won’t get far that way.

    • Amy Jeanne

      “I honestly believe that co-sleeping just encourages frequent waking for children and parents. Children eat less at one time when they are put to the breast all the time and so their stomachs empty faster and they wake up sooner. It’s hard to break that cycle once they settle into it.”

      Isn’t that the point of breastfeeding? Breast milk digests more quickly no matter where the baby sleeps, and if the baby is not put to the breast “all the time” the mother’s supply can drop significantly, especially in the first few weeks. I really think the frequency of feeding has less to do with co-sleeping and much more to do with the child’s temperament and nursing efficiency. My first child was a major comfort nurser and spent much of the night latched on to me for a long while. He did, however, gradually start sleeping for longer intervals when he got older, and slept through the night at a little over a year. My newest baby is not a comfort nurser and is VERY efficient at the breast, so she sleeps much longer than her brother did much earlier, and doesn’t stay latched on all night. We bed share with both of them. So we can swap anecdotal evidence ’til the cows come home, and come up with vastly different experiences. That’s why science doesn’t rely on anecdotal evidence.

      • Dr. Greg

        I agree with what I’m reading. But I’m not sure what your point is. This isn’t a post about co-sleeping. This is a post about responding to a child’s cries. Some babies cry more than others. All babies deserve to have their cries answered promptly whatever the frequency. Failing to do so disrupts attachment and bonding. Can you help me connect your point to all this? Thank you.

        • Lauren Smith

          If you cosleep, your child will usually (not always) not even get to the point of crying at night because you will be able to respond quickly to the child’s needs at the first stirring of wake up. Whether it be your child needs to cuddle, nurse, go potty, etc, you will be there to notice and respond. Then it becomes a non-issue because your child typically will not be crying at night.

          I’ve had exceptions during illness or teething, but most nights my children do not cry at night anymore since we started cosleeping. Before cosleeping? Several times a night, every night. Everyone gets more sleep cosleeping in our house. Sleep training did not work on our oldest. I let him CIO every night for months. Didnt work. Finally stopped one night after a 2 hour straight CIO sessions and he was shaking violently and gagging, ready to throw up. He slept in our bed after that night, and it was the best decision we ever made. We didn’t even consider putting our second child in a separate room or crib. Although, our second child is a much better sleeper altogether.

          • Lauren Smith

            I will add….the thing is, to most parents, it seems like a choice between 1) sleep training/CIO or 2) Cosleeping/respond to every need.

            The reason is, if a parent actually responds to the needs of children at night, to a child who is sleeping in their own crib in their own room, they will most likely be so exhausted from doing it that they will either just stop responding to the child’s needs (and do #1) or have to figure out a way to get enough sleep and meet babies needs which usually leads to cosleeping.

    • Rose

      I appreciated the comments given by “Guest” and “Terri” above. I am a young mom in the midst of pregnancy, breastfeeding, etc. My first child was very difficult for the first several months (doing attachment parenting) and I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Then I started doing some sleep training and similar things to what “Guest” mentioned and things got so much better for everyone, including our poor sleep deprived baby. She became a much happier, pleasant baby who slept well and learned to self-soothe. It involved very little crying. In fact, she cried less in a few days of sleep training than she did during the months of attachment parenting/not napping/being contsantly overtired. I started that way from day #1 with my second child and she is a wonderful sleeper and hardly ever cries, day or night. I plan to start that way with my third, due in a few months. And do you know what? If it doesn’t work, I will try something else! I do think that every family has to do what works for their family, what is making their baby/children/marriage thrive. Parenting is not set in stone like the 10 commandments and there is a lot of gray area. As far as studies go, I find them interesting . . . but also take them with a grain of salt. A few days ago I saw a scientific study done proving that people who are raised practicing a religion have more mental problems! Did this make me decide to stop raising my children Catholic? Of course not. Also, I appreciated the thoughtful words of Dr. Berchelmann above: “There are many tired parents out there struggling to deal with crying babies. I think we have to be very careful before we lead parents to think that they are causing irreparable harm to their infants or violating the teachings of the Catholic Church.” Thank you, thank you for saying that. I wish more people -on both “sides” – would have respect for others when they make different choices for their families – they who are in the situation, can use common sense, see all the many variables, and are trying the make the best decisions they can.

      • Dr. Greg

        I’m with you as far as that goes, but here are two things you have to reconcile.

        First, while I never claimed that parents are causing irrevocable harm to children through sleep training, since self-soothing isn’t possible for infants, sleep training is, in fact, dependent upon learned helplessness and there isn’t a single study that suggests learned helplessness is a good thing. You’re free to use it, of course, but you should

        Second, while parents are absolutely free to do what they need to do, saying that every parent needs to make the best decision they can isn’t the same as saying there aren’t actual “best practices.” For example, parents may choose to bottle feed and that’s fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that breast is, objectively, best. Likewise, all the data shows that reponding to childrens cries promptly is better than letting children cry it out with regard to attachment, trust, and future capacity for emotional regulation. Parents can do something different, but they need to know that quick response is actually best.

        We all do the best we can. We can’t do anything but, but we also can’t pretend that the best we can is always objectively best. We don’t have to feel guilty about that, but we have to acknowledge it.

        Finally, we can’t forget that, as Catholics, our obligation isn’t just to get throught the day the best we can. We’re obliged to bear witness to the world of the Catholic vision of love. THAT’s the goal. We all have to do the best we can to serve that goal. Some days, the best we can do is survive, but that can’t be where we set the bar.

  • Carrie M

    Awesome article!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Would love to share this for others, but the vitriol of the mommy wars is too great! Some very decent Catholic people morph into goblins and orcs if one publicly questions the “self-soothe” method. I can only offer kudos, good doctor. Keep up the good work.

  • Beth

    Are there any studies testing the difference between cortisol levels beyond the initial sleep training period in a child who has been sleep trained vs. one who has not. Any that test levels throughout the day as well?

    I ask this because I am expecting my second son. We eventually sleep trained our first when he could not fall asleep without hours of coaxing. After one night including a little over a half hour of crying he seemed to get it. He slept better and longer and napped more consistently. From appearance he seemed to have more pleasant and less cortisol filled nights and days. As hesitant as I was to do any sleep training, my son seemed to benefit greatly from it. I was of course pleased to get a little more sleep, but that was not my primary concern at all.

    I am so interested in this topic, and am excited to hear of any studies you know of that have tested levels in these situations or with different temperaments.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with all of us striving to be good parents!

    • Dr. Greg

      I’d need to know a lot more about your situation to answer. This isn’t really the place for individual advice although I appreciate your desire to apply what you’re reading. I’d suggest The No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley or related books by Dr. James McKenna.

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  • Anonymous

    Dr. Greg, thank you for this article, and for responding to the comments. It is so wonderful to connect TOB and parenting (this is my first time to your site, but I am currently reading “Parenting with Grace” and love it!).

    Perhaps you can point me in the right direction to find some help to take the information in the article one step farther. We co-sleep, breastfeed, and respond to our kids’ needs at night, but are having some issues with our 9 mo. old. She won’t sleep on her own; she wants to be nursed or held. This means she will only sleep for 20 mins. at a time and then wants constant contact. My husband and I don’t have any alone time, even for logistical things like light household chores (in the evening after bedtime, for example) let alone one-on-one connecting time. (I mostly nurse her to sleep, maybe this is the problem?) How do we respond to her needs, help her to sleep, and keep up our marriage? Sleep training is tempting us, but we don’t want to go there (esp after this article!). Thank you and God bless!! Keep up the great work!

    • Dr. Greg

      This is a terrible forum for giving personal advice and I’d need to know a lot more to be effective. I would recommend starting with No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley as well as her other resources. If you find you need more assistance, please contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute. We’ll be happy to talk you through some strategies.

  • Jayne

    Thanks for this post–I just posted it on a Mommy Catholic page and on my FB Wall (tagging a new, Mommy-to-be who may have never heard of this).

    I have to say–to the commenter up there who had it all done perfectly w/out having conditions that forced her to consider tactics that went against her original plan (that coincidentally went against all advise though with her instinct) b/c her baby self soothed, or even slept well at all–for years, I’m happy for you. Not everyone’s situation is the same and for some of us, it just doesn’t work out to keep things quiet and boring so our baby will go back to sleep. Some babies aren’t wired that way.

    For the rest of us whose babies’ sleep patterns aren’t the stuff of Utopic pediatric, bullet-point How-to’s, Attachment Parenting and co-sleeping saved my life. It may have saved my marriage and my husband’s job (well, we were never in trouble marriage wise–there was never conflict to say, have the baby in the bed like there is with some couples b/c one person complains–but we were so sleep deprived and stressed out that DH would lose his job over everything we were going through–we have a strong marriage and going through what we’ve been through has made our marriage all the more affectionate and stronger; this with us sleeping in separate beds for years b/c of our special needs kids–it’s a sacrifice we’re happy to make and we’re, ironically, closer for it–date nights nixed and all).

    When my older kids were little (that’s another thing, I was going to be the poster child of NFP, but God knew better and we had our first three in less than three years–and yes, we took the classes and I nursed exclusively–sometimes God just has another plan), I randomly pulled a Dr. Sears book in the book store. I’d never heard of him or Attachment Parenting. I was so affirmed!

    When we ditched the “expert advise” of similar Baby Wise parenting and went with our instincts (and corrected the mistake of sharing some of this w/ our pediatrician and our friends and family), everything began to change. I’m sorry, but the person saying co-sleeping means frequent waking up at night didn’t have my home-life. We sleep well because we co-sleep; and we didn’t sleep well until we did. We tried all of that other stuff (and no, we weren’t doing it wrong–not everyone’s kids are the same). I’m still a light sleeper, was an active baby, and so are my children. And being tired overloads mine like it did me–it didn’t mean they sleep all that harder and/or longer. E.g., a visit out of town that upset routine, or a long day without a nap meant that there would be no sleep at night and sometimes a week or two or three to recover. I am not exaggerating.

    Fast-foward years later and it turns out we have 2 (perhaps 3) special needs kids with retained infant reflexes like the Moro Infant reflex–that have led to mid neurological issues like sensory sensitivity/aversions and higher level neurological issues like reading comprehension issues, Executive memory issues, etc.

    And if we had not gone the route of Attachment Parenting–which very much meant and still means co-sleeping, we’d have not known this. I may have not homeschooled because I probably wouldn’t have read so many child development articles and such, and I wouldn’t have gotten to know my children on the level I do to understand that something wasn’t right. E.g., my daughter seemed fine to everyone, and even me, but I could tell something wasn’t quite as it should be. And I was right. So instead of them being in OT, they might have been misdiagnosed and medicated with stuff that only covers the symptoms (I’m not projecting or debating, this is my experience).

    All that to say, I have five kids (we’re always welcome to more, but as I say, I trust in God’s plan whatever it is) and am grateful for the Popcaks. Folks may take or leave their opinions–I don’t understand why people get so, er, defensive about all of this this. If what they’re doing works, great! I see no condescension or attacking here in the article. And as a science/philosophy oriented person, I appreciate the connections and thoughtful conclusions the good doctor has made a case for. Because Lord, knows, we’ve had generations of reasons/and junk science (I remember Dr. Sears book debunking the “developing the lungs by crying it out” for example), even bullying for the other side. (Hell hath no wrath like a strongly opinionated mother/mother-in-law whose daughter is going to do it differently).

    One can respectfully disagree w/out any of this being a Mommy War. To me, it’s akin to the SAHM/Homeschooling wars that in my experience the folks not staying home or homeschooling (not judgment or projection) feel defensive as if they’re not seen as a good mom and have to counter attack or over-explain.

    Ditto for the other side–the SAHM that has to justify to her career friends WHY she quit and “threw her degree away” (not my viewpoint, but it is the viewpoint of some); or the homeschooling mom posting article after article of how HS kids *are* socialized and do well in life, etc., etc., etc.

    Anyway…. All that to say, thank you so much. I figure this is part of Truth–loving, Godly parenting–and isn’t exempt from the world’s criticisms. :)

  • anna lisa

    Thank you for this! I still feel a pang of sadness for my oldest child whom I allowed to “cry it out” for months. Sometimes he would cry so hard he would vomit. I would find him covered with vomit! What a heartless and despicable practice. I finally followed my instincts and chucked the books from so called experts. Our parenting became peaceful and predictable. I raised all of my eight beautiful children this way. It also spaced them beautifully. After losing what would have been my sixth child in the 22nd week of pregnancy I underwent an even deeper change; when the next three would wake in the night, I would greet their need with *gratitude*, and a sense of privilege, that they had been entrusted to my safekeeping.

  • Nicole

    I believe this research may be on to something. I let my son (now 2 1/2) cry it out at 5 months. He has a hard time sleeping now. He throws tantrums, resists, etc. I hear it may be the age, but how I taught him to sleep alone may have had some impact according to this study. My youngest slept with us until he was 9 1/2 months. We attempted the crying it out thing, but it just wasn’t for him. Around 10 months he basically decided on his own that he was ready for his crib. Now, If he needs us, we rock him and give him a bottle (as he began refusing to nurse at the same time). Once he is calm and dozing off, we set him in his crib to sleep. He is a very calm and collected child. I think this study has some good info. Some kids with different personalities may respond a little differently to tactics, and you may have to adjust parenting accordingly. Nonetheless, as I said, I found the study to be interesting and informative. Thanks Dr. Greg!

  • needs help

    Dear Dr. Gregory,
    Can you offer eany general advice to a mom of many whose sleep-deprivation levels have reached a point bordering on hallucinations and also afflicted with post partum depression? While I prefer not to damage any of my kids, its clear that that kind of balance isn’t possible for our family. So, either the baby has to deal with learned helplessness or the other kids have a non-functional parent. In the long run, which is the lesser of two evils?
    I’m pretty sure, by the way, that that is where most of the angry comments come from… Desperate parents caught between a rock and a hard place, eager to grasp at any small help and hurt when that small help is declared off-limits.
    Thanks in advance for any help on this.

    • Dr. Greg

      Well, obviously no one is asking a parent to push themselves to the point of hallucinating, for Heaven’s sake. Moms need to be sure to nap when baby naps and fathers need to step up to make sure they are getting mom the rest she needs. Every situation is different, of course, but 90% of the times I see something like you describe, the dad is checked out and mom is running around trying to clean the house and cook when the baby is napping. In these cases the problem isn’t babies. It’s maternal perfectionism combined with an unsupportive husband that drives moms to despair. I have no way of knowing if that’s you, but if it is, stop. Get your rest and make sure your husband is doing his part.

      But whether or not this does describe your situation, counseling is probably indicated because clearly some boundaries need to be set that aren’t being set and mom needs to be empowered to create structures that see to her self-care without shortchanging baby. It isn’t just for the the rest of the family to place so many demands on a new mom that she can’t take care of herself. It’s possible to meet everyone’s needs. You just have to have the support and the structure to make it work. If you don’t have one or the other, that’s a counseling issue.


      • needs help

        And when you have four kids under six, the oldest three of whom don’t nap, when is the mother supposed to nap, then, without waking up to the house on fire? Also, is it fair to characcterize a man with a nine-ro-five job as “checked out”? If only there were resources for families trying to live out their faith, support their families and deal with a world in which the support structures for those families are non-existent, every family would be able to juggle all the guilt-inducing information that gets thrown at us. In the absense of that, however, what’s a tired parent to do?

        • Dr. Greg

          A blog is a terrible place to give personal advice. As I indicated, this is a situation that really requires counseling. If you are not currently connected to local resources, I would invite you to contact us through the Pastoral Solutions Institute at 740-266-6461 to make an appointment. I am confident we can assist you in creating the order you need in your home in order to be able to resolve the problems you are describing. Regardless, please be assured of my prayers.

    • Lauren Smith

      Sweetheart, are you cosleeping? I was a walking zombie with my first, before we started cosleeping. With cosleeping, I could nurse my child and sleep at the same time, I felt like a new person the first night of cosleeping.

      Try and take a nap. IF you have other kids, lock them in a safe room with you they can’t get out of. Maybe put on the TV and let them watch a movie while you at least lay down and rest (if you can’t fall asleep).

      Or, take a nap when Dad comes home. If its too late for a nap when he comes home, then lay down and rest at least.

      Please don’t take this last comment the wrong way because I am very pro-life. But also remember that Catholics aren’t required to have as many children as possible. IF you are at your breaking point, it may be in the best interest to postpoone having another child for awhile. Having so many children, that young, is very demanding. The Church allows natural family plannning for serious reasons. If you are depressed and hallucinating, I think that applies! Women in traditional cultures that practice normal breastfeeding (that is similar to ecological breastfeeding) usually naturally space their babies about 3-4 years apart. Science shows that having children spaced 3-5 years apart has the least amount of risks. Children born too close together can have low birth weight and mom and baby are at higher risk for death. Many women in our culture are failing to breastfeed, or only partially breastfeed and their fertility returns sooner than it would normally, and they get pregnant closer together than what natural normally would have done. Of course, some women do everything “right” and still have an early return of fertility but this is the minority. It’s very normal for women who ecologically breastfeeding to have babies spaced 2-3 years apart, even in our American culture. I have no idea what applies to you in your situation. Please don’t take my comment personally but as general statements.

      I have two young children (one 3 [almost 4] and another 18 month old). I didn’t eco-breastfeed with my oldest and had an early return of fertility and got pregnant with #2. It was too soon. My oldest had to make sacrifices he shouldn’t have had to make and I didn’t handle it well at times. I am doing eco-bfing with my second child because it best meets his needs. With this child (who even nurses less than his older brother), my fertility still has not returned and he is now 18 months old. It’s been great. Should my fertility return, I know I could not handle another child (well) at this time, so we would use NFP if necessary.

    • mia

      I co-slept (not every night, but when they wanted to) with both my children until about age 12. When my daughter was so tiny and nursing, I slept on my side and let her nurse. When she was done, I moved her a little ways away, but in the curve of my body and it worked great.
      One was adopted. in the beginning, I got resourceful and had another family take him one night a week, so I could sleep through. If you could find just half a dozen or so families that could each do this just twice for you, you would get through three months. This one night of undisturbed sleep reset me wonderfully. I was a single mom when I adopted my son. My fellow church members felt honoured to do this for me. He was dropped off or picked up at bedtime, and usually was home 8 hours later. This could work for a breastfed baby if you expressed some milk.
      Both my kids are very independent, not clingy, self-esteem is high. Also, both started sleeping on their own once they were past about 7 months, and their sleep cycles were longer. It just seemed to happen naturally.
      Hope this helps.

  • Michelle

    Thank you Dr. Greg, awesome articles your posting here. My husband and I are so greatful for your books and keep up the research and good work. There are others out there that truly believe in you and your family and know you are teaching the truth in light of God’s grace. Happy Divine Mercy Feast Day

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  • Valerie

    I found this article interesting and is giving me a lot to ponder–never heard of learned helplessness! Parenting is a beautiful example of self-sacrificial love, from the sleep deprivation the first weeks of baby’s life, to every moment of our child’s life when we respond to their requests for help. I am a new mother, and I think motherhood has been helping me learn about TOB more deeply while become a better person.

    On a different note, it seems to many there is only the CIO method or the Co-sleeping method. Personally, I love the idea of co-sleeping but I think for myself and many others this is not a practical option. I, for one, am a very heavy sleeper, and was concerned I would smoother my baby. I have heard others say that it has put a strain on their marriage. Many people pull this off just fine. I’ve used the Baby Whisperer method by Tracy Hogg, and as a new mommy it has helped me immensely, because it helps moms and dads create a routine where baby’s needs are anticipated and met, while baby (and parents!) get enough sleep to be happy and healthy. She discourages the CIO method, but teaches ways to sooth baby or figure out why the baby is crying. This resonated well with me because seems to fit in well with the concept of having a rule of life that is recommended by many spiritual directors (this orders our lives to our vocations, rather than spending the day merely reacting to stuff.) I’m sure there are other similar methods out there to try, so parents shouldn’t feel they are restricted to two polar-opposite methods that don’t work for them or their babies.

  • shocked

    why on earth would someone do that to a dog??

    • Dr. Greg

      Why on earth do parents continue to do this to children?

  • Sarah

    Dr. Greg,

    Thank you for an intelligent and cohesive defense of Attachment Parenting in light of Catholic Social Teaching. I am a soon to be 30-year old mother of a 2 year old and a 3.5 year old, faithful to the Church and determined to live as a witness for Christ, especially in the vocation of family life. So often, I encounter “traditional Catholic” advice to “put children in their place” and other such tidbits of “wisdom” which often lead to frustration and broken relationships (in my observation and experience). I fail to understand how such ideas have thrived in Christendom for so long, blatently ignoring that our babies are obviously part of the “least of these”, the “last who shall be first”, etc. Sadly, it is commonplace to hear CIO defended because babies will learn to be “manipulative” and sinful. Recently, I heard a Catholic political figure say that “children are not born good.” On one hand, I was not surprised… ideas like this pass for good, traditional, Christian ideology, but on the other hand, I am shocked, saddened and dismayed that so many educated, well-Catechized Catholics fail to see the inconsistency of applying the golden rule to everyone, except one’s own children.

    Thank you for making SO MUCH SENSE.


    • Sarah

      P.S.-I also meant to mention how very contrary this quotation, “children are not born good”, flies in the face of Catholic Social Teaching at it’s core… that humans are good, but flawed.

  • Tami

    Dr. Greg-

    I would love to see your thoughts on the effects of CIO on children brought up in orphanages and the corelation of RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) ? Thank you.

  • Juliana

    Thank you for this post I came across after hearing my brother had let his 3 month old cry for 20 min, him telling me it worked because he rocked her 3 times and she was fast sleep(of course it did, it exhausted her little body).Deeply disturbed and saddened and wanting to back up my advice I wanted to find something to explain to him(him being a faithful catholic and theology of the body believer) this was perfect.I myself have 4 children( 13,11,9,6) and with all co-slept. To this day I have no regrets and I never read anything on this topic. It just came naturally I guess, wanting to comfort them even to the expense of my own comfort.I get reassured when my 13 yr old boy just hugs me out of nowhere and I wish they were babies to do it all over again. Just wanting to Thank you for all the hard work you and your wife Lisa do. ( and being one of the most Joyful couples I’ve heard)
    From Texas, Juliana.

  • Anna O

    Thank you for your post! I am a new mother who promptly responds to my baby’s cries. I have already experienced some unsolicited advice from well-meaning friends at church who think I should force my baby to self- soothe. This science and theology post has encouraged me that I am parenting my infant according to the best, objectively. Sure, life would be more convenient if I were to make my baby learn helplessness, but I aim to be a devoted steward of this gift, who really belongs to God. He has trusted me with a child, and I do not want to knowingly give my child less than best.