Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Battle of the Opinions: Letting Infants “Cry It Out”

Most new parents come face to face with this question at some point in their first year of parenthood: Should we let our baby “cry it out”?  Sometimes both parents are in agreement and other times the votes are cast in opposite directions.  What should YOU do?  Most baby/parenting books present only dogmatic prescriptions without giving you all the facts.   Why don’t they trust you, Mom and Dad, to know what is best for your baby?

A core belief of an Intelligent Nest is that parents are experts on their own children.  They, and only they, can understand their family’s unique set of stressors, resources and needs.  What is right for one family, isn’t always right for another.  So when it comes to letting babies “cry it out”, what is the right choice for you and your baby?  You decide!

The baby cries and calls mum from a bed

3 Arguments AGAINST Letting Baby “Cry it Out”

1)  Many of the most current and renown minds in child development say, “You can’t spoil a baby”.  The idea of “spoiling” is an antiquated notion from the past (along with giving a baby brandy for teething and using diaper pins).  Instead,  responding to an infant’s cries leads to the development of “trust” (one of Erik Erikson’s key psycho-social needs for healthy development).  When a baby’s cries are not answered, the baby may cry less, but this is due to the baby withdrawing his attachment from his primary caregiver.  Baby thinks, “Why would I exert the effort to cry, if no one does anything to help me?”  A withdrawn baby will develop insecure attachments and may experience difficulty in developing healthy relationships later in life.

2) “Crying it out” causes infants to release an excess of the stress hormone  Cortisol.  Extra Cortisol in the body can send blood pressure through the roof, reduce oxygenation to the brain and, according to some experts, can even kill brain cells.  Keeping the biological explanation simple, excess Cortisol throws the infant’s body into “fight or flight” mode, redirecting all the baby’s resources to fighting a loosing battle (loosing because mom and dad are not coming to help).  Some researchers project that this useless fight can negatively affect the infant well beyond their younger years and into adulthood with anxiety syndromes, addictions, ADHD and other antisocial disorders.

3) “Crying it out” doesn’t work.  Parent’s may grab an extra night of sleep here or there, but every time the child experiences a big transition, teethes or hits a developmental milestone, they have to repeat sleep training.  Repeating sleep training reinforces all the negative lessons the baby has already learned about his security and attachment to his caregivers, as well as introducing more Cortisol into the baby’s body.

3 Arguments FOR Letting Baby “Cry It Out”

1) Reserach points, repeatedly, to the necessity of a good night sleep, not just for mom and dad, but for baby too (there are volumes of data on this topic, all with unequivocal results).  Lack of sleep in parents can result in depression, poor relationships, mood swings, aggression and other problems.  Even the best and most supported parent will feel more agitated and will demonstrate less patience with their infant after loosing sleep at night.  Infants also demonstrate irritability, neurological dysfunction,  difficulty with digestion and lack of desire for social engagement after loosing sleep.  Crying it out will help a normally developing baby to receive the sleep she needs for healthy development.

2) Learning to self-soothe is an essential skill.  Without it, children will have trouble learning to navigate life without mom and dad.  A newborn baby most certainly needs mom and dad all throughout the day, and is not yet ready to self-soothe, but as the infant grows he becomes more ready to take on new challenges.  Research dictates that 6 months of age is an appropriate stage in development for a baby to take on the challenge of self-soothing.  Parents who hold their children back from taking on new, appropriate challenges prevent their children from progress, purely for their own need to keep their babies dependent upon them, reinforcing their own parental value and worth to themselves and society.

3) Another heavily studied area of child development is the impact of a baby’s family dynamic on the baby himself.  Most child psychologists and developmentalist will agree that one of the best gifts a parent can give their child is a healthy marriage (if the child has parents who are married).  Relational dysfunction is a key predictor of future and present problems for the child academically, socially and emotionally.  Therefore, parents are advised to set appropriate priorities for their family.  Even if “crying it out” isn’t an ideal way for your baby to learn to sleep through the night, it may help mom and dad to preserve their marriage (and sex life!); thereby, securing a healthy, stable relationship in which the baby can enjoy a secure future.

The Aftermath…. I can’t resist the urge to opine

Now Moms and Dads, we all know someone out there who tried to let their babies “cry it out” or choose to wake up every time baby cried, but still got it all wrong.  The truth is, there are lots of healthy, happy kids who are products of both methods.  Is there really one right or wrong way?

Choosing to let a baby cry it out is a very personal decision (personal because the right answer is completely up to you).  Resist the urge to jump on the sensational ship headed in the direction of either camp.  Before choosing your method, consider:

  • How do you handle loosing sleep (emotionally, physically)?
  • Does your or your spouse’s job (ability to provide) require a sharp, well-rested mind each morning?  
  • How is your marriage doing… is the baby’s crying causing you and your spouse to squabble or sleep in separate rooms or just feel distant from each other?
  • Are you generally a patient person (don’t feel bad if the answer is no.. you are in good company) or do you feel a bit of resentment when you are continually woken up?
  • Do you have a support system in place with relatives, friends or hired help to pitch in when you have a long night?
  • How do you feel about hearing your baby cry (are you OK putting in ear plugs or do you cry along with them)?
  • Is the crying affecting other people besides you (think neighbors, other children, spouse, etc…)- how are they are handling it?

The bottom line for deciding (yes… this is where I opine) is to evaluate the realistic effect of crying it out or waking up at night is on your entire family.  Consider the Intelligent Nest’s motto:

Happy Baby = Happy Parent  &   Happy Parent = Happy Baby

You can’t give one party everything while completely depriving of the other, because parent and baby are inextricably tied together.  Many studies have shown that parents who choose to answer every cry and need (giving up all sense of self and needs) have a higher rate of developing depression, which will have a profoundly negative effect upon the child.  For various reasons, some parents are prepared to answer every cry and some parents are not able to without sacrificing other very important variables in the family’s overall well-being.   Letting a healthy baby cry it out, from my research, seems to have no significant long term effect upon the child’s health and, in my opinion, cannot be yielded to as the highest parenting priority.  

It is no surprise that our family fell into the second camp.  Yes… we let our babies cry it out.  For many reasons, we needed our children to sleep at night so that we could provide for them and meet the majority of their needs.  Staying up all night, made the days and nights miserable for everyone (baby included).  We were the experts on our own needs and our child’s well being so we made a tough decision.  While our kids cried it out, I sat by the baby’s closed door crying.  My husband put in ear phones and worked on the computer.  Bottom line, we all handle things differently and we all love our children deeply, whether or not we let our babies cry it out.


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