Dangers of Crying It Out and Gentle Sleep Training Alternatives
Last night I had an epiphany as I tried to lay the baby down for bed. Whereas she normally falls asleep within a couple minutes, last night Mary was mad. Super mad. She was hollering and unhappy with me. While she cried, I hurried and tucked the big kids in bed, and then I went back into her room. Our normal sleep process of laying her down, leaving the room, and checking on her every couple minutes was not going to cut it – and I could tell that Mary simply wanted me to just be with her. I laid my hand on her cheek, and she closed her eyes. But if I moved my hand, she popped her eyes opened and seemed to beg me to stay. So I did. Her sobs quieted, and her breathing calmed down. As I stroked her hair, she eventually rolled away from my hand and fell asleep. The whole process took about 2 minutes, and I tiptoed out of her room thinking, “Why are we told to let babies cry? All she needed was reassurance that I was there. She’s still independent; she rolled away when she was tired enough. Why are we told to let babies cry it out?”
As I pondered the relationship between parents (especially mothers) and babies, I kept thinking about the need for a baby to feel comfort and reassurance. Isn’t that our job as parents? To make the world a safe place for the baby? So why in their distress to we pull away and teach a baby to handle distress alone? How is a feeling of abandonment supposed to reassure anyone?
It’s not a baby’s job to operate around the conveniences of parents – it’s a parent’s job to make life comfortable and reassuring for the baby.
I also pondered about the parents I know that use the official “cry it out” method where you don’t go back in the room ever. I’ve heard a father beg to comfort a baby that had screamed for over an hour – an hour! – and the mother didn’t want to be bothered by the baby. “Just let him cry. He’ll figure it out,” she said. Not even one year old, and this child was learning that he was an inconvenience to his mom. I felt bad for the father, who was reprimanded for wanting to comfort his son.
Now, I know this can be a hot topic. Everything about parenting revolves around different opinions. Obviously the age and personality of your baby will form your opinion. In the past, my husband and I have used the gradual cry method, where we checked on the kiddo every couples minutes until they fell asleep. Luckily, my older kids didn’t cry for too long back then, and I was willing to pick them up and rock them if I had to. But, back then I didn’t know about the potential damage “cry it out” methods can cause, and I am now choosing to employ gentler sleep training methods with my youngest baby.
My research into the risks of the “cry it out” method also came from my own curiosity. I watch other parents (and sometimes judge other parents) on their parenting skills. (I am a counselor after all, and I teach parenting skills to clients in my office.) I started to recognize a pattern of negative behavior in the kids that grew up “crying it out.” I wondered if these obviously more naughty toddlers acted that way because of their sleep training. You know, the kids that seemed to always be hitting or biting or stealing toys or getting into mischief. I wondered if the saying that “Negative attention is better than no attention” had some root, because these kids had learned that crying wouldn’t get their parents’ attention – but hitting would. Perhaps the kids are learning that the only way to get one-on-one time with Mom or Dad is to whack another kid, and then when they are sitting together in time-out, they are getting the closeness they are not getting at bedtime.
With those theories in mind, I did some research on the infamous “cry it out” method, and the results surprised me.
- Yes, kids that “cry it out” usually are sleep trained faster. It does “work.”
- However, instead of an independent child, you are more likely to raise a “whiney, unhappy, aggressive and/or demanding child, one who has learned that one must scream to get needs met. A deep sense of insecurity is likely to stay with them the rest of life” (Darcia Narvaez Ph.D)
- The extreme distress of crying it out for long periods may damage the neurons that are forming in their brains. Human brains develop rapidly the first year of life, and important synaptic connections may not develop.
- Parents who learn to tune out their baby’s frantic crying may become less likely to soothe and nurture the baby in other aspects of life. Their “hearts are hardened” per se; likewise, the baby may learn that adults cannot be trusted or counted on.
- Dr Margot Sunderland cautions parents that it’s not an achievement when you hear a baby’s distressed crying stop: “It’s a process known as ‘Protest-Despair-Detachment.’ It’s a resigned, self-protective, giving up.” Words like detachment and despair threaten the attachment between young babies and their parents.
- Finally, all sorts of crummy stuff like elevated blood pressure, suppressed immune systems, tachycardia, and cerebral pressure should be a red flag to parents. Some doctors even label the “cry it out” method as emotional abuse in young babies. Read more doctor opinions against the practice here.
Like I stated earlier, there is a big difference in age, personality, and stubbornness with kids (and parents). Healthy parents need a healthy amount of sleep too! After researching both sides of this issue, I recognize that this comes down to parental opinion; however, I would urge parents to research gentler sleep training methods. My opinion has been formed by watching other parents use this method and the results I see: more naughty behavior in toddlers, more selfish parents that feel “burdened” by the baby’s needs, resentment towards the baby, and harsher discipline with toddlers. Perhaps all those negative patterns could be erased with a gentler sleep training method?
The unwise behaviorists of the early 1900s that made the “cry it out” method famous ignored the maternal wisdom of centuries for soothing babies. John Watson, the psychologist that pushed for this method, also urged parents not to kiss or hug their children. He said emotion was to be avoided at all costs. His wife, also a clinical behaviorist, wrote in their book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, “When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.” Yes, you read that correctly – motherly love is dangerous and will stunt your children for life. Unfortunately, their two sons both suffered from alcoholism and suicide attempts, with one son committing suicide. The surviving son explained, “I honestly believe the principles for which Dad stood as a behaviorist eroded both Bill’s and my ability to deal effectively with human emotion…and it tended to undermine self-esteem in later life, ultimately contributing to Bill’s death and to my own crisis.” Watson’s granddaughter also wrote a book about her struggles with rocky marriages, suicide attempts, and addiction, which she relates back to her grandfather’s behaviorist parenting theories.
Is that the man you want parenting advice from? I don’t think so. . . So, move beyond the ill-advised “cry it out” method to safer, more gentle sleep training methods.
Some great advice for setting the stage for successful sleep can be found here, written on Mother Mag.com. These tips can help you know how to prepare the baby for a restful night’s sleep. Again, it’s not the baby’s job to make life easy for parents; it’s a parent’s job to make a baby’s surroundings feel reassuring and calm. Plus, happier babies lead to happier parents. Advice about bedtimes routines and gradually substituting independent soothing methods can be found here on The Baby Sleep Site. I really like their suggestions for sleep training babies out of the “only nursing to sleep” struggle. Finally, you can find tips for helping parents relax here, get a good night’s sleep here, and multiple books that outline gentle sleep training methods here.
The evidence is very clear that no form of sleep training should be used in the first six months of your baby’s life. Between six and 12 months, any modifications to your baby’s natural sleep pattern should only be undertaken if she is feeding and growing well, and has no underlying health issues. – See more here.
As one friend wisely wrote on my Facebook page, there’s a difference by “sleeping fussing,” where kids drowsily squirm until they fall asleep and distressed, prolonged sobs. If kids fuss and moan for a few minutes, then nod off, I imagine no attachment damage if happening. Loud sobs and screams for over 5-10 minutes (in my opinion), with no reassurance from parents, may be harmful. Listen to your parental insight – if you feel like they need you, then comfort them. Go into the room, pat their head, offer a hug, or keep your hand on their cheek until they fall asleep. After all, they are babies. Babies. Not little children, not teenagers. Babies. Teach them with love, because love is the most powerful force in the world. Show them, by your loving actions, that they are worthy of your gentle attention. Send babies off to sleep with your reassurance, not your isolation.
I understand that not everyone will agree with my opinion. Hey, that’s parenting! But if your kid seems to thrive off negative attention or always be in trouble, then consider your sleep training methods. If your child seems distant or withdrawn, consider your sleep training methods. If you are both exhausted, every day, and feel like you can’t go one more day without a good night’s rest, consider your sleep training methods. Love (and sleep) can change the world.