Being a new parent is exhausting. It’s hardly news – but unless you’ve been through it yourself, it can be hard to appreciate just how demanding a brand new baby can be. They don’t have a circadian rhythm, so forget about sleeping at night; wake up every few hours at random intervals, want to be fed or changed, or burp; and their only way to communicate is to scream wildly while you desperately try to figure out the problem after about four hours of sleep.
Not surprisingly, an entire global industry has grown up around getting babies to sleep better. Infants are ferberized, shushed and patted; parents discover disappearing chairs, buy shares in earplugs, and sometimes just give up and crawl into the crib themselves.
One of the most controversial methods of sleep training is to let the baby “cry it out” – a term that is loosely defined but usually refers to allowing the baby to cry for a period of time without intervention.
Ask some parents and they’ll call this method excruciating; for others it is bona fide salvation. But what is the truth? What does science have to say about letting your baby cry to sleep? Can it really work?
What is “crying”?
When you hear the phrase “cry it out,” you may have visions of parents closing the door on a distraught newborn and not coming back until the next morning, tears be damned. That’s generally speaking no what sleep training experts advise today.
“This is not the reality of what we recommend or what parents typically do,” Jodi Mindell, a psychologist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Division of Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine and associate director of the Children’s Hospital Sleep Center in Philadelphia, told NPR in 2019.
Modern sleep training methods tend to be a bit gentler than all that, she explained. “[It] it doesn’t matter if you go back and check on the baby every 30 seconds or if you go back every five minutes,” she said. “If this is your first child, you log in every 20 seconds.”
Whichever method you use, there’s a big caveat: don’t start too early.
As early as seven months after birth, babies lack object permanence: “they don’t know that if you’re not in the room, you’re not gone from the planet,” explained Wendy Hall, a pediatric sleep researcher at the University of British Columbia. BBC.
At this point, any form of sleep training that involves leaving the baby to cry alone is “psychologically harmful,” Hall said. There are “a lot of people who just put herpes on and start working with parents and telling them what they should or shouldn’t do without understanding what they’re potentially doing to these babies.”
Is it bad to let my baby cry?
Even within these limitations, is crying a good idea for your baby? It’s a difficult question to answer—although dozens of scientific studies have been conducted, relatively few of them have come without fairly significant limitations and biases.
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t good information out there. In 2015, Hall recruited 235 families for a randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of a sleep training method known as “controlled crying” (or the slightly more dystopian-sounding “gradual extinction”), in which a parent soothes an infant for two to ten minutes , then leaves them to fuss and moan and hopefully fall asleep on their own. If this last miracle does not occur, the parent returns to soothe the baby again, but the time the child remains must be lengthened as the evening progresses.
The results seemed overwhelmingly positive. “Our main findings (adjusted from baseline) showed a significant improvement in parental perceptions of the severity of the infant’s sleep problem, a reduction in the number of nighttime awakenings from the sleep diary, an increase in the duration of the longest night’s sleep by actigraphy, and an improvement parents’ “infant sleep knowledge, fatigue, sleep quality, and depression in the intervention group compared to the control group,” the paper notes.
But were the interventions really as successful as they sounded? Look again and you’ll see a qualification in almost all of these results: they’re reported by parents. Now there’s an obvious reason for this, which is that babies aren’t good at thinking about the nuances of sleep quality – but it has an important bearing on the results.
Were no looking at objective measures of how well babies sleep. Instead, in almost every case, what was being measured was the parents perceptions from their babies’ sleep. When we compare these to the only objective outcome listed—the actigraphy readings—it reveals something more subtle going on.
“At six weeks, there was no difference between the intervention and control groups for mean change in actigraphic awakenings or long awakening episodes,” the researchers explain. Therefore, the fewer parent-reported nighttime awakenings do not reflect babies who slept through the night—just babies who have learned to go back to sleep without crying.
Many other studies have found the same thing: sleep training, if successful, will significantly reduce the number of times a baby wakes up at night crying for its parent. While it’s hard to define “not waking up multiple times every night” as a bad thing, an anxious new parent might wonder: Is my baby self-soothing? Or is it learned helplessness?
Well, don’t worry: most experts think it’s the former. “Don’t underestimate children’s ability to self-regulate,” Hall told the BBC. “Parents can help them learn to self-regulate by giving them opportunities to self-regulate.”
“Here’s how you can look at self-soothing,” she added. “This is an opportunity for them to calm down.”
Is it okay to let my baby cry it out?
So it looks like letting your baby have a little cry at night probably won’t scar him for life—and might let you catch a few extra Zs as a bonus. Should we all be sleep training our babies this way?
Let’s face it: there’s probably a reason you’re reading this article, and that’s because if leaving a crying baby felt good or natural to everyone, it wouldn’t be so controversial. For some parents, even the promise of a vaguely normal sleep schedule isn’t enough to bear listening to their distraught child cry all night—it’s just too exhausting.
On the other hand, we have seen the benefits of sleep training. Without it, will these babies ever learn to self-regulate and fall asleep without a parent on constant vigil? Are actually the parents who do not leave their babies to cry at night, who are doing something wrong?
Well, the answer certainly seems to be “probably not.” In fact, whether or not a baby is sleep trained seems to have little effect on their personality and development in the long run. A 2012 randomized five-year follow-up trial found “no evidence that a targeted population-based intervention that effectively reduces parent-reported sleep problems and maternal depression during infancy has long-term harms or benefits effects on child, child-parent, or maternal outcomes up to 6 years of age.
This suggests that such techniques “are safe for long-term use up to at least 5 years after the intervention,” the authors point out — but it also means that giving them up won’t make much of a difference to your child either. Other studies have found that the positive effects of sleep training can wear off even earlier, by age two, and almost three-quarters of babies who regularly wake at night at five months will be sleeping through the night by 20 months, regardless of whether they are are you left to cry or not
Meanwhile, even when successful in the short term, no method is a guarantee of good sleep: “I don’t expect sleep-trained babies to wake up less often,” Mindel told the BBC. “I don’t always expect them to sleep more than an objective measure.”
In other words: of course, if you don’t let your baby cry, it might mean you’re getting less sleep right now – but it may not be. Sleep training can be incredibly stressful for both parents and children, and it doesn’t work for everyone. “Your child may not be ready for sleep training, for whatever reason,” explained Mindell to NPR, who put the number of these sleep-resistant babies at about one in five. “Maybe they’re too young, or they’re going through separation anxiety, or there could be an underlying medical problem, like reflux.”
Maybe they’re just extra sensitive. Just like adults, all babies have their own personalities, and it’s worth noting that despite the link between fewer parental visits at night and falling asleep more quickly on their own ° Сorl.d means that crying is good for babies, the reverse may also be true: that children predisposed to need help with sleep need parents willing to comfort them more often.
So it’s entirely possible that for some parents, sleep training just isn’t worth the stress—and if there are some benefits to letting your child sleep alone, the same goes for the other extreme. Research has found numerous benefits of co-sleeping with your baby, including better, longer sleep for both parent and child, better short-term psychological outcomes and lower stress for both, and even positive effects on milk production.
For many, the answer may be somewhere in the middle. “If you’re rocking a baby to sleep at four months, they wake up once a night, that works for the family, why mess with success?” Mindell asked. “Why would you sleep train? […] We really only recommend it when there is a problem.”
So, should you let your baby “cry it out”? The answer really comes down to one question: do you want to?
As long as your baby can handle it – remember that sleep training is not considered useful before six months of age and should not be used on babies who have experienced trauma or are anxious or sensitive – and while you can handle that too, have at it. You’re unlikely to do any lasting psychological damage to the child, and you might get a good night’s sleep from it.
However, if you do not you want to sleep train your baby, that’s okay too. Eventually, they’ll learn to sleep no matter what you do—and they’re unlikely to want to sleep in your bed for long once they know how restless parents really are.
“Parents are looking for the most effective method [to get the baby to sleep],” Mindel told NPR. “But what that is depends on the parents and the baby.”
“It’s a customized formula,” she added. “There’s no arguing about that.”
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