New Research Says “Cry It Out” Method May Not Be Harmful to Babies After All

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

A few months ago, I attended a parenting conference and listened to an expert warn a room full of exhausted, stressed-out mothers that letting our babies cry it out was incredibly harmful.

“You know how football players and other athletes sometimes just drop dead in the middle of the field?” the speaker said, pushing her glasses up to her raised brows. “That’s because their mothers let them cry it out — the stress sometimes can open a hole back up in their heart.”

Imagine with me, if you will, the collective sound of that roomful of mothers rolling our tired eyeballs back into our heads, because wow.

I will fully admit to you that “crying it out” is one of the most polarizing parenting topics — right up there with breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and spanking — but I will also admit to you that I have, on more than one occasion, let a kid cry it out.

I believe that every child, every situation, and every parent is different. If all else has failed and I know that my kid and I both need sleep, then sometimes a sleep-deprived parent has got to do what a sleep-deprived parent has got to do. But then again, with “experts” such as Ms. Drop Dead On The Field and articles that have warned about the extreme dangers of letting a baby ever cry it out, I have wondered if I have unwittingly caused my children long-term danger with these occasional moments.

So it will come as great relief to parents like me, who are closet cry-it-outers, that a new study found that crying it out is 1) beneficial to helping babies sleep 2) doesn’t cause any more harm than other “gentle” methods.

The study looked at three different methods of helping infants sleep through the night: “graduated extinction,” (cry it out) “bedtime fading,” which involved putting the infants to sleep a little later each night in hopes that they would be more tired and thus sleep more, and a sleep education control group.

To measure just how much the “cry it out” method was messing up babies, the researchers tested their cortisol levels (the “stress hormone”) in the morning and afternoons and also asked the mothers to record the infants mood and levels of stress. As a follow-up, they also evaluated the infants again at the 1-year mark, just to make sure they were still not horrendously traumatized by their ordeals.

The study, which appeared in the June issue of Pediatrics was pretty solid in its conclusion:

“Both graduated extinction and bedtime fading provide significant sleep benefits above control, yet convey no adverse stress responses or long-term effects on parent-child attachment or child emotions and behavior.”

Overall, neither the moms nor the babies showed any short-term or long-term significant stress increases and the cry-it-out group showed the best results in sleep improvement at night, too, sleeping an average of 20 whole minutes longer at night. And let me assure you, 20 minutes of extra sleep is nothing to sneeze at. Minutes matter when we’re talking severe parental sleep deprivation.

But then again, however promising this study sounds to guilt-ridden parents like myself, it’s important to keep in mind that the sample size was very small, consisting of only 43 infants in Australia, so we certainly can’t jump to any giant conclusions from it.

At the very least though, let this be a reassurance to you that if your baby has cried it out once or twice in his or her life, it’s probably not going to be the end of the world.

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