Letting your infant cry it out: Will it hurt your baby?

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Jess, like many parents, has been hearing conflicting information about what crying can do to your baby.

She wrote: “So, my husband and I accidentally let our kiddo (5.5 months) cry it out. So of course, I’m spending all sorts of time on Google finding out that I’ve caused long-term damage to my son and he’ll be more likely to get ADHD and be dumber now that I’ve let him cry. I know the studies on cortisol show that some longer-term stress may be evident (at least for a few days), but are there any other real, scientific studies that show long-term damage due to cry it out? I’m pretty sure the other studies cited in the article above are irrelevant to this–am I right? I know you’ve written about cry it out before, but with all the hype, can you clarify?”

A friend of mine is working on a project called “Guilt Free Childbirth,” meant to dispel the guilt and hand-wringing that so many families seem to experience during and after childbirth. What if I need a c-section? What if I can’t do it “naturally”? What if I can’t “bond” instantly with my baby?

This cry-it-out worry—I think I could make an entirely new blog, “Guilt Free Parenting,” just to try to dispel this nonsense. Parents are so saturated with messages telling you that everything—I mean everything—we do is wrong, it’s a wonder we don’t all just curl up in a ball in the closet sucking our thumbs.

Wait, thumb sucking. That’s bad, too.

Anyway: the sky isn’t falling. We are not raising warped, worthless, sick, incompetent kids. There are always things parents could do better (including me!), but that doesn’t mean that if we don’t do everything “right,” our kids will suffer.

Back to cry-it-out: babies don’t always learn to sleep straight through the night on their own, and there are several competing “methods” to help nudge them towards independence. Some parents are very eager to help train, others take a more “easy-going” approach. How you tackle this depends on how parents feel about the importance of a good night’s sleep, and also on the temperament of the baby. I am not going to declare that any one method is perfect for everyone.

But if sleeping through the night is a priority, I have offered up one simple solution that works well for many families. Yes, there is crying. No, I don’t think there is any good evidence that shows any lasting ill effects from letting your baby cry some. There are certainly lots of websites, pro and con, and lots of people with strong opinions—sometimes they’ll even comment in ALL CAPS for emphasis. But you are not damaging your child by letting tears fall without instant intervention.

Babies have been crying for many, many years. It is how they get our attention. If crying were so damaging, well, I don’t think any of us would have survived.

Jess included an example of reporting that stressed the damage done by cry-it-out sleep training, a list of 10 reasons it’s bad for babies. Most of the reasons were undocumented opinions from the author, who has clearly made up her mind on this issue. The references that were included are rife with methodological issues—especially retrospective bias (of course parents with children who are thought of as problematic are going to report more sleep issues, in retrospect, when asked), or skim though the complex issue of cause-and-effect. That is, did the excessive crying cause the later problems, or are children who are temperamentally difficult more likely to resist sleep and more likely to later experience emotional problems? One thing may not cause the other, even if they are correlated.

Studies of levels of the cortisol rely on that hormone as a biomarker of stress, and cortisol does indeed increase with stress in humans and other animals. But is that bad? Didn’t human babies always have stress in their lives? Some studies point out that cortisol can change the way brains develop, or can perhaps contribute to the pruning of interconnections between neurons- but that is a normal process that occurs in the development of the human brain. Interfering with this process by avoiding undue “stress” may actually be harmful in the long run.

Or maybe not. I am not saying that babies need to cry to be healthy. Certainly I spent a lot of time holding and reassuring my babies (and even babies in my practice!) But these studies that some claim show cry-it-out = bad for babies, it’s a stretch. And it is not something that parents ought to be worrying about.

Though there aren’t a lot of great, long-term, clinical studies of the consequences of these different sleep approaches, one published last year was reassuring—a method that allowed more crying didn’t lead to scary consequences later.

Also: there are consequences to poor sleep, both for babies and for parents. Underslept babies are fussy and unhappy. Underslept parents are irritable and miserable, and may be more likely to get in car accidents, get divorced, or smack their child. It’s not unreasonable for parents to want to take an active role in pushing towards a good night’s sleep.

A great website with far more detail and insight into baby sleep issues is at www.troublesometots.com—including a detailed guide to one common-sense way to help babies learn to sleep better. Yes, there may be some crying. It’s ok.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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