Should You Let Your Baby Cry It Out?

March 19, 2015

Crying it out may help your baby self-soothe, but do the risks outweigh the benefits? Here's everything you need to know about this controversial sleep method.

Ask 10 of your friends how they got their babies to sleep through the night, and you'll get 10 different answers. There are many sleep methods that parents subscribe to, but none as hotly contested as letting your baby cry it out (CIO). Since all families are different, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. "Each family situation and child is unique, and one method will not work the same for each child," says Stephanie Finn, pediatric nurse practitioner at Atlanta Center for Holistic & Integrative Medicine. Here's the lowdown on this controversial method to help you decide what works for your family.

  • The Method: What Is It?
    Proponents of CIO believe that falling asleep on your own is a skill that your baby can learn when given the opportunity. The idea is that if your child gets used to having you rock her to sleep, or she always falls asleep while nursing, she won't learn to go to sleep on her own. According to Alanna McGinn, certified sleep consultant and founder of the Good Night Sleep Site, the true CIO method -- also known as the extinction method (it sounds scarier than it is!) -- involves putting your baby down in her crib while she's still awake, giving her a gentle pat on the back and leaving the room until morning. You can expect lots of crying until your little one learns to settle herself down for the night.

    In his 1985 book "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems," pediatrician Richard Ferber presented one sleep method that has become practically synonymous with CIO, although it's slightly different. As with the extinction method, you put your baby to bed while she's awake and leave the room. However, with the Ferber method, you wait a predetermined amount of time before going back in to soothe your little one. Throughout the night, McGinn says, you increase the amount of time between visits -- such as five-, ten- and then fifteen-minute intervals.
  • Pros and Cons
    Letting your baby cry it out is often one of the quickest sleep training methods, with most parents seeing results in three or four nights. "Babies practice self-soothing skills and learn them quickly," says McGinn. She also doesn't believe that it causes emotional or psychological stress on little ones. "Toxic stress can be categorized as children being emotionally or physically abused. As long as her needs are being met, she will be fine crying for a few nights."

    Though your child will be fine, you might not be. McGinn points to the distress that you and your spouse may feel when hearing your baby cry as a potential drawback. This could lead to less consistency -- in other words, going back in to soothe your child when using the extinction method -- which could confuse your child and cause him to regress.

    Some experts do believe that letting your baby cry can have negative effects on his development. "There is the possibility of detachment and distrust between infant and parent," says Finn. "The infant's trust in the parent as a source of comfort and security has the potential to diminish." She also points to the possibility that parents may not search for an underlying reason for their child's cries when using the CIO method, which could leave potential issues undiagnosed.
  • Age and Environment Matter
    McGinn warns that any sleep-training method may not be safe until your child is 4 to 6 months old. "Before this age, they are not able to self-soothe because their circadian rhythms are not yet developed," she says. She also recommends setting up your baby for ideal sleep. Keep your little one's room dark, quiet and cool. Make sure that your baby has plenty of naps throughout the day and has an age-appropriate bedtime. According to the National Institutes of Health, your 4-month-old should sleep for six to eight hours at a time and up to 12 hours by 6 months. So a bedtime between 7:30 and 8 p.m. for little ones of this age is ideal. Also, prepare for some tears whenever you sleep train. "Regardless of the sleep method you choose for your child, crying is inevitable because you're teaching new skills," says McGinn.

    Need some ways to deal with the crying? Here are 7 Ways Couples Can Cope.

Rebecca Desfosse is a freelance writer specializing in parenting and family topics.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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