This was the exact question that I got asked yesterday and I love this question! Unfortunately it isn’t a short yes or no answer, but there is some concrete information out there that can really help parents. But there are also a lot of emotions out there that can really complicate this topic.
So the shortest answer?
There are two extremes:
- Cry-it-out extinction where the parent leaves the child alone in the room for the night is on one end
- Attending to every single whimper so that the child never cries is on the other hand.
Neither of these is recommended by a single expert.
So now for the longer answer:
Your child is going to cry at some point. That is OK and is normal, expected, not going to cause any harm and is actually recommended with you there to support your kiddo.
You and your child are going to go through transitions as they grow. You will eventually stop night feedings, your child may develop fears, you might return to work, your child will develop separation anxiety, your child will drop naps, your child will develop independence, and with each of these transitions, there will be some adjustment to the change.
There will be tears.
You can be there to support those tears.
You can also give some space.
So on one end of the spectrum cry-it-out might look like this:
Your 6 month old baby sleeps in a crib in another room. You have your baby on a pretty good schedule but she is still waking every two hours at night. You make a plan with her and your husband that you are only going to feed her two times at night. You tell her that she can do it and that you will be there for her. Then when she wakes when it isn’t time to feed, you or your husband are there to comfort her. You may lie by the crib or you may rub her back for 2 minutes and then leave for 5 minutes until she stops crying. After a couple of nights, she gets used to the new schedule and only wakes to feed twice a night.
And on the other end of the spectrum, cry-it-out might look like this:
You share a bed with your 13 month old. You feed her when she asks but it is getting to be too much because it is every one to two hours at night. You would like to bring the feedings down to one or two feedings per night. You make a plan with her and your husband that you are only going to feed her two times at night. You tell her that she can do it and that you will be there for her. Then when she wakes when it isn’t time to feed, you or your husband are there to comfort her. You may sleep in another room while your husband comforts her so that she doesn’t try to get milk. Or you may just remind her while rubbing her back or cradling her that there isn’t any food until a certain time. There will be crying and you will be there for her and comfort her while you cut back on night feedings. After a couple of nights, she gets used to the new schedule and only wakes to feed twice at night.
What does the research say about cry it out?
You have probably heard that there are studies that say that cry-it-out will cause long-term damage to your child. You may also have heard that cry-it-out is just fine for your baby. There are actually only two heavily referenced studies on cry-it-out and both of them only give limited info on the subject. The only thing experts truly know about this is that we don’t know enough and we could do a plethora of studies to learn more.
The cry-it-out is bad for babies study
This study was done with a group of babies in a lab and it was testing the synchronicity of the mother’s and baby’s cortisol levels when they were crying-it-out. We don’t know much about how the babies were supported but what we do know is that after 3 nights, the mothers’ cortisol levels went down and the babies’ cortisol levels remained high. We do know what cortisol levels are an indicator of stress and we do know what certain amounts of stress are bad. We also know that it good when mothers are in tune with their babies. So yes, there will be a certain amount of stress with crying-it-out. Does it cause long-term damage? This study doesn’t show that it does.
The cry-it-out is fine for babies study
This study was done over five years with a group of families and one group of families was given sleep training information and the other group got no additional information. After 5 years, they couldn’t tell much of a difference in either behavior or sleep habits. So what does this show? Nothing really. It just says that the babies who may have been sleep trained turned out fine and that the parents who didn’t sleep train have children that sleep just fine.
Your babies are going to cry and that’s OK. All babies will cry.
You choose the level of support and when you want to make transitions.
It isn’t recommended by anyone to leave your baby to cry for hours alone. You baby may cry for hours, but you will be there to support them.