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Cortisol & Sleep Deprivation

Cortisol & Sleep Deprivation

There has been some media recently about possible negative benefits of teaching babies to sleep...primarily regarding infant attachment and cortisol levels.

Such media has said nothing about how continued adult sleep deprivation causes parental and post natal depression, marital stress, danger when driving, difficulties caring for children etc etc. Not to mention that sleep deprived children can suffer behavioural issues, development issues, learning difficulties and that sleep deprivation in the crucial early years can have a continued impact years later on cognitive development.

At The Sleep Store, we offer a range of sleep solutions, including detailed information on 'gentle sleep training' techniques. We recommend you are well informed about choosing a sleep training technique you are comfortable with using and have read about the issues of cortisol etc if you are concerned about that. We recommend reading a range of articles, not just those which only mention cortisol in relation to sleep training. There is a lot of information available online about the effects of cortisol and also the effects of sleep deprivation on wider health and behavioural issues.


We believe our advice on the different sleep training techniques techniques is comprehensive and gives parents a starting point for their research and decision making. Our information is based on significant research from a range of authors and we receive daily updates on relevant academic research in this area.

In particular we refer to "Behavioral Treatment of Bedtime Problems and Night Wakings in Infants and Young Children" - An American Academy of Sleep Medicine Review published in 2006 as a good overview of behavioral sleep training. This research looked of 56 academic studies specifically on infant sleep training, and assessed positive and negative effects from the sleep training.

This comprehensive academic review found "Adverse secondary effects as the result of participating in behaviorally based sleep programs were not identified in any of the studies. On the contrary, infants who participated in sleep interventions were found to be more secure, predictable, less irritable, and to cry and fuss less following treatment". Therefore the babies who learned to sleep using techniques such as controlled crying were much happier and more attached overall, with no negative effects shown.

This study also had a comprehensive look at the impact of infant sleep training on parental mental health. They found "Following intervention for their child’s sleep disturbance, parents exhibited rapid and dramatic improvements in their overall mental health status, reporting fewer symptoms of depression. They reported an increased sense of parenting efficacy, enhanced marital satisfaction, and reduced parenting stress."


You may also have read about sleep training effecting your baby's levels of 'cortisol', the body's stress hormone. This has been made a big deal of by those who disagree with encouraging babies to learn to sleep independently.

It's important to note that Cortisol levels can rise for a number of reasons - One of the key reasons cortisol levels rise in children is from the stress of continued sleep deprivation....this is never mentioned by those who disagree with sleep training.

We disagree with the view that waking frequently in the night to be comforted or fed by mum is necessary for older babies to form a secure attachment and have positive mental health as an adult. Or that it is best for a child to continue waking frequently in the night up to the age of 3 years rather than learn to sleep, as recommended by the Australian Assn for Infant Mental Health. However you can view the AAIMHI statement on controlled crying here and make your own judgement here.

What is sleep training?

At The Sleep Store, we have information on a wide range of approaches to teaching your child to sleep. We consider 'sleep training' to be a description for teaching your child to self settle and sleep independently, whatever the technique you use.

Often our advice for 'sleep training' means using a gentle step-by-step approach, addressing sleep associations or changes to day to day routine. And yes often we do recommend a sleep training technique such as verbal reassurance, as this is generally the fastest way to reduce sleep deprivation for your whole family.

We are upset that parents endure being sleep deprived for months or years, and children do not get enough sleep...through the media's portraying of 'sleep training' as harmful. Often the media mean 'cry it out' or the traditional form of 'Controlled crying' when they refer to sleep training...but actually sleep training can mean a wide range of techniques including those very gradual approaches with little crying.

It's a matter of choosing a sleep training approach that will work very quickly and that you are comfortable with.

How quickly should 'sleep training' work?

If you have chosen to use a technique such as verbal reassurance, you should see a significant improvement within your child's sleep in just a few days.

Very gradual techniques such as our program for weaning off being rocked to sleep will take longer, possibly several weeks before you feel you are making real progress.

Sleep training works quickest when you are using an appropriate sleep training technique, you use the technique consistently and have also addressed all relevant behaviour, routine, sleeping environment etc.

If you have embarked on a sleep program and do not see any improvement in your child's sleep after a few days, we recommend you get in touch with The Sleep Store through our Facebook Sleep Support Groups, and talk over what you are doing. Consistency is absolutely essential for sleep training of any type to work, and also ensuring that all relevant behavioural issues have been considered and changed where appropriate.

Yes sleep training will be stressful, and it potentially may be harmful if you are continuing with it for a long period of time. But the firm advice from sleep psychologists, medical professionals and academics we have consulted with is that the positive benefits of getting sufficient sleep far outweigh the short-term stress of 3-4 nights of learning to self settle.

Very quickly you will actually be reducing the already high cortisol levels your child is likely to already be suffering due to their ongoing sleep deprivation from frequently interrupted night sleep and inadequate day sleep. And improving your own mental health and well being at the same time, which we believe is incredibly important for parents.

Where to from here?

  • If you still have concerns about sleep training, read our article on 'Gently Wean your baby from being rocked to sleep' for a very gradual step by step sleep program. This approach can be adapted for weaning your baby off any sleep association that needs you to fall asleep, e.g. feeding to sleep, patting, using the buggy etc.

  • Read our article on Teaching your Baby to Self Settle, for an overview of different sleep training techniques.

  • You might want to GOOGLE some related topics, such as 'cortisol & sleep deprivation in children' or 'sleep deprivation and post natal depression'.