Should You Let Your Baby Cry It Out?

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Sleep training is something we’ve came across a lot as new parents. Everyone has an opinion on how to best parent… Right?

One of the most challenging parts of being a new parent is adapting to the new sleep schedules mandated by infants. It’s normal for them to wake up several times throughout the night, and it can be a stressful endeavor to soothe them back to sleep.

It’s not uncommon to lose out on sleep and have worse overall sleep quality, which makes everything all the more difficult given how important sleep is for mental health and stress resilience.

The past century has been filled with research attempting to address these issues by investigating if we can “train” infants to sleep better. One of the most popular methods is extinction training, better known colloquially as the “Cry It Out” method.

The premise of the cry it out method is simple: gradually increase the time between soothing sessions overnight until the baby learns to soothe itself and no longer requires the caretaker. For example, when the baby starts crying, you may respond immediately, then wait 5 minutes before responding the second time, then 10 minutes, and so forth.

Much to my surprise, it’s incredibly popular among moms. I can’t stand to hear Lux cry. It physically hurts me. I couldn’t even imagine not soothing him when he is calling out for help. Yet, so many moms push through in seek of false promises for better sleep, as seen in the comments (and FB groups) on my last post on this topic.

Please don’t engage in this barbaric practice. It doesn’t benefit you and it certainly doesn’t benefit your little one.

Just think about it: choosing not to respond to an infant’s crying goes against a fundamental evolutionary drive. Infants do not have the necessary language skills to communicate their pain, hunger, or discomfort. Instead, they cry.

To ignore infant crying is to ignore potential danger to the infant. From the infant’s perspective, by learning that parents will respond to their needs in a loving and attentive way, infants typically enjoy better social, emotional, and educational outcomes. They develop secure attachment style. It’s also less stressful on the mother (because what mom wouldn’t be stressed from hearing her baby scream?).

When the baby instead cries it out, they learn that they can’t rely on their mother (or caretaker) for comfort. The illusion of self-soothing is really just the beginnings of an avoidant attachment style where the baby stops expressing its needs and discomfort, something that will permeate through its subconscious for the rest of its life.

In other words, the baby didn’t learn how to soothe itself, it learned to stop communicating with you because… why? Why should it waste time and energy asking for help when no one will provide the help it needs. This isn’t a “you” issue, either. You are literally your baby’s world, and you are denying it comfort. To the baby, the world is dead and unreliable. It goes beyond just “you”.

And, as if that wasn’t enough to sway you away from this practice, a systematic review of 43 studies found that sleep interventions (including cry it out) do not have reliable benefits for infant sleep or mother’s mental health.

Instead, all they do is risk the emergence of unintended outcomes in the mother-infant adaptive system because they lack a logical biological rationale (babies are supposed to wake up throughout the night!), undermine the mother’s confidence in her capacity to read their baby’s needs, and increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Something else to consider is that research has demonstrated repeatedly that when an infant is under stress it’s not conducive for learning. What is occurring when we allow them to “Cry It Out”? High levels of stress, crying, and unresponsiveness from caregivers. When needs are unmet—including emotional needs—they are in a stressed state and not primed for learning. How do you expect them to learn anything, let alone how to self-soothe, in this type of emotional state?

Now, for anyone reading this who has previously done the cry it out method, you did what you thought was best. You are not a bad person, but you also shouldn’t perpetuate the myth that such means are effective now that you are aware of the potential long term implications of this method.

Video can be found here.

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