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Should You Let Your Baby Cry Itself To Sleep?

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7 Min Read

Sleep training is a significant milestone sleep-deprived new parents feel they can’t get to soon enough. But what is the right way to get your baby slumbering peacefully? Are the pangs and trauma of “cry it out” worth it? If you’re worried that letting your baby cry itself to sleep may harm them, recent research might interest you.

The cry of a baby is enough to put any new mother or father on edge. Almost alarm or siren-like in its urgency, it has an uncanny ability to rouse you from your slumber or eject you from your seat, double quick! But when it comes to helping your baby go back to sleep after waking up late in the night or in the middle of a nap, “crying it out” may actually be the way to go. With arguments stacking up on both sides, what’s the verdict on the cry-it-out approach?

Modern Parenting Vs. Traditional Parenting

Tradition demands that a crying baby should be immediately attended to. And if that baby has woken up midway through sleep, that expectation of you, as a parent, becomes even more set in stone. However, down the years, Western parenting styles have moved away from this approach and looked at making the baby more self-reliant. But is this quest for progressive parenting actually a step backward? Or does your baby genuinely stand to benefit from crying itself to sleep? While supporters of modern parenting styles are unanimous on the need for parents to relax and let the baby cry it out, naysayers suggest that there is no society in which this is the traditional approach, making them question its basis.

Devil’s Advocate: When “Crying It Out” May Not Work

According to one group of researchers and child specialists, sleep training methods like “crying it out” may not actually work when tried too early in the infant’s life. That’s because newborn babies are far too young to control their crying on their own. Since infants cry because of an unmet need, they need someone to help them overcome whatever difficulty they have or meet whatever need they have, before they can stop crying. Which is why rushing into sleep training a newborn to three-month-old may not actually yield results. According to this school of thought, a cry-it-out method may be futile until the baby is about four-months-old.

There’s also a more practical reason that sleep training like cry-it-out can be difficult for newborns. That ever so central role of a parent at this stage is to change an endless stream of diapers. Nappy changes require parental intervention and many awakenings might be linked to a soiled diaper which will need attending to. This is an obstacle to successful self-soothing since the baby simply cannot meet this need on its own. Add to that the midnight feeding that a young baby needs, and you have multiple occasions where a baby will cry and will need to be tended to, rendering the cry-it-out approach ineffective and counterproductive at this stage.

Can “Crying it Out” Help A Baby Sleep Better?

Although many cultures do not condone this even with older babies, a strong case is slowly being made for the cry-it-out method. This approach involves a gentler form of cry-it-out sleep training where the child is eased into soothing itself to sleep, step by step.

In a 2016 study of 43 babies in Australia, different sleep approaches were used by the parents, including a control group that did not try sleep training. A year down the line, the children were reviewed for behavioral and emotional problems, and parental bonding was tested. Those who let the babies cry it out used the graduated extinction approach. This involved increasing the duration for which the crying infant was left on its own before parental intervention took place – starting with just a couple of minutes all the way up to 35 minutes by the end of the week. Soon this group was sleeping 3 minutes faster than those with parents around to help the baby sleep. The results were starker when compared to the control group, with the infants who cried it out sleeping as much as 15 minutes faster. The babies left to cry it out also woke up less often during the night and slept longer in total as well.1

Graduated Extinction Is Not Abandonment

What is worth noting here is that in this cry-it-out approach, the parents do not completely “abandon” the baby or leave it to its own devices. Instead, the child is left to try and soothe itself for a few minutes and then the parent steps in. The idea is to slowly build up the time apart to see if the baby can soothe itself to sleep. This is a departure from the more radical approach of letting a baby cry itself to sleep after as long as 30 minutes to an hour.

Stress Levels From “Crying It Out”

In addition to tracking the time taken to fall asleep, the researchers in the Australian study also evaluated the infants’ stress levels during the day (morning and afternoon), as well as the mother’s stress and mood. What emerged was that there was no significant difference in infant stress levels, parental stress, or in the attachment between the baby and the parent as a result of using the cry-it-out method to sleep train.2

How Early Can You Start?

Besides the obvious tangible benefits of better sleep, there are some other advantages to letting a baby learn to sleep on its own. The ability to soothe oneself and fall asleep is something experts suggest is a lifelong lesson and will stand the baby in good stead while growing up too.

As some experts interviewed for a report in CNN suggest, sleep training can actually begin quite early on in milder forms than the cry-it-out approach. If your baby has a safe crib or bassinet to sleep in, they can be put in when they are “drowsy but not yet asleep.” And this can be done as early as when a baby is two months old. For older infants of four to six months and up, employing sleep training techniques like graduated extinction can help instill this discipline.3

A key factor that should determine whether this is the right time to sleep train is the age of your baby. Even those who believe crying it out doesn’t work on newborns are supportive of sleep training older infants that are over four months and under six months.

Is Crying It Out For You?

Crying it out may be good on paper, but there are some real reasons why it may not work for everyone. For one thing, with the busy lives parents lead, bedtime is often the only time some parents get with their child. Taking this bonding away deprives both sides of the time together.

The cry-it-out technique may, therefore, be useful for parents and children that have experienced a lot of trouble at bedtime, with the onset of sleep taking inordinately long and stressing out the parent and child. It is also good for environments where the parent and child have had adequate time together through the day and can teach the child independence and self-soothing. Ultimately, it boils down to personal choice. As with any parenting practice, there is no clear right or wrong way. You will need to play it by ear and see what works best for you and your child.4

If you choose to try the method, don’t try and force sleep on an alert baby. Wait to see if your baby is drowsy and tired. Also, establish a good routine so that the baby sleeps to a schedule. Don’t start out by allowing the baby to cry for very long times. Build up by letting the baby cry for a minute or two, then go attend to them (feed or change them, or soothe, as needed). In general, avoid leaving a wailing baby for more than 15 minutes on its own.

References   [ + ]

1, 2.Gradisar, Michael, Kate Jackson, Nicola J. Spurrier, Joyce Gibson, Justine Whitham, Anne Sved Williams, Robyn Dolby, and David J. Kennaway. “Behavioral interventions for infant sleep problems: a randomized controlled trial.” Pediatrics (2016): e20151486.
3.It’s OK to let your baby cry himself to sleep, study finds, CNN.
4.Callahan, Alice. The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. JHU Press, 2015.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

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