What is the Cry It Out Method and why should you never do it? What can you do instead to get some sleep?
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If you’re suffering from sleep deprivation because your new baby isn’t sleeping, you’ll probably be advised to just let your baby cry it out. But what is the Cry It Out Method and why should you never do it (according to child psychologists)? Find out from this post.
This is another excellent post from Genesis of One Stoked Mom.
We won’t bore you with too much of an introduction since you’ve met her before, but let’s just say that after a few emails between us, I ended up asking her if she wanted to write another piece for us.
“What Is The Cry It Out Method And Why You Should Never Do It” is a post that is dear to my heart (actually, “triggering” is more like it). Every maternal instinct I have screams against it. The fact that current research is very much against it only supports what my intuition is telling me.
So, without further ado, let’s go read Genesis’ post.
Have you been told constantly to just let your baby “cry-it-out”? That they need to “strengthen their lungs”? If your answer is yes, then welcome to the club.
What is the Cry It Out Method?
Crying it out (CIO) is a method where you leave your baby alone to cry, with little to no relief. Whether this may be for sleep or to get them used to “self-soothing” it is a common practice.
There are two types of CIO:
1. The ‘extinction’ method — The more (infamous) type of CIO, where parents are instructed to leave their babies alone at bed time, completely ignoring their cries. Junior is in another room, crying his little heart out because he might’ve soaked his nappy, pooped in it, hungry, thirsty etc.? Doesn’t matter what the reason is. He’s not getting any attention because it’s nighttime and he needs to learn how to self-soothe. These babies can literally cry it out until they have absolutely nothing left. Sounds fun, right (#bazinga)?
#2: The ‘graduated extinction’ method — Otherwise known as “controlled crying” or “controlled comforting” or “sleep training”. Parents are instructed to leave their babies alone at sleep time. They alternate between attending and not attending during crying spells, at increasingly longer intervals. We won’t link to any of them here as we are against sleep training in any way, shape or form (but a quick google will give you examples if you’re curious).
Why are we so against it?
We’ll refer to the research below but we’ll give a quick answer here.
CIO is purported to teach babies and young children the ability to self-soothe but, in truth, it is anything but “self-soothing” (research shows this claim as a fallacy).
Babies naturally learn to self-soothe over time without the traumatic effect of the CIO method – depending on their brain development, which no amount of sleep training will rush.
Think about it, really think about it.
Even us as parents and well-functioning adults have things we must do or have before bed.
For example, I can only fall asleep with “my pillow” and my fuzzy blanket. I HATE the comforter…Then there is this whole routine of showering, lotion, brushing teeth before bed.
How can we expect babies that have just been born to “self-soothe” or to be “independent”?
Doesn’t that sound absurd?
I do not have a degree on any of this nor have I done extensive research but I do have a daughter and the thought of leaving her crying sets my skin on fire (Jade: I have a son and feel exactly the same way!).
Why you shouldn’t use the Cry It Out method
If she is crying out for me, it’s because she needs me, because I can help.
I am her home, I am a safe place for her.
I have been for 9 months.
Why should I deny her that?
But hey, don’t just listen to me. I’m a mother with no degree in child psychology, remember?
Instead, you might want to read the following evidence-based articles, books and child psychologists. They have degrees, access to scientific research and years of experience under their belt.
Side Note: Of course, every parent has the right to raise their child as they please (within reason) but it is important to know the consequences of certain practices that have been popular and wildly supported in the past.
We now know that the mental health of new parents is important, but we must not forget about the mental health of infants. They are just as (or even more than) prone to psychological distress as are their parents.
Studies show that “when the baby is greatly distressed, it creates conditions for damage to synapses, the network construction which is ongoing in the infant’s brain. The hormone cortisol is released. In excess, it’s a neuron killer but its consequences may not be apparent immediately (Thomas et al. 2007). A full-term baby (40-42 weeks), with only 25% of its brain developed, is undergoing rapid brain growth. The brain grows on average three times as large by the end of the first year (and head size growth in the first year is a sign of intelligence, e.g., Gale et al., 2006). Who knows what neurons are not being connected or being wiped out during times of extreme stress? What deficits might show up years later from such regular distressful experience?”
Imagine yourself, upset or hungry or just physically exhausted while asking for help. Yet, no matter what you do, you are ignored and left to fend for yourself.
Eventually, you will give up, right?
The same goes for babies.
When they go quiet after crying their lungs out it’s simply because they know that no matter how much they cry out, no one is coming.
Even adults are recommended to speak and have the support of people around us but babies?
Oh no, babies should ‘be independent’.
Caregivers who habitually respond to the needs of the baby before the baby gets distressed, preventing crying, are more likely to have children who are independent than the opposite.
This happens because they will develop a sense of security over time. They will know that when they need you, you will be there… This is commonly known as trust.
The “recommended age for the CIO method is four to six months.”
When a baby cries it’s because they need something, usually that something is from a caregiver. Over time, as you soothe and care for your child he or she will be more independent. This will happen naturally through constant care and support.
Unfortunately, nowadays we are expected to go back to normal, to that pre-baby life as soon as possible. But, the reality is that you still have more than a decade to go for that.
You have ‘sleep trainers’ and ‘sleep coaches’ charging an obscene amount of money to ‘teach’ your baby to sleep by themselves. All of them will tell you that it will consist of some type of CIO method.
It pains me so much when I see and hear about these mothers who just ignore their children as they cry out for them.
I must be honest though, there are times when I need to leave my daughter in her crib by herself. However, if your baby is crying and you’re right beside her so she can actually see you and know you’re still there, that’s not actually CIO.
In some cases, your baby may be fighting sleep or is overly stimulated and they need time by themselves in a quiet calm place.
But, blatantly ignoring your child without at least trying to soothe them is borderline abuse. This is my opinion.
Professor James McKenna
Professor James McKenna is the Endowed Chair in Anthropology and the Director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame. On top of that, he’s also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of many medical advisory boards and, during 30 years of work dedicated to mother-baby sleep, he has published over 139 scientific articles in journals on co-sleeping, breastfeeding, evolutionary medicine and SIDS. He lectures not only to parents, but paediatric groups, and has published a book for parents, Sleeping With Your Baby.
Professor McKenna says: “[Medical authorities] do not realize that the practice of ‘crying it out’ is entirely a western, cultural construction, and nothing less than a form of abuse. Such ways of thinking only illustrate all too well mistaking social ideology for science. A mistake that continues to pervade western pediatric sleep advice in general. What remains true is that every infant and child will eventually — and without any instruction — learn how to put themselves back to sleep. There is no need whatsoever to be “taught” this behavior.”
In fact, Dr. Thomas F Anders, who helped coin the term self-soothing, stated that “the construct of sleeping through the night after six months of age had been embedded in pediatric lore since the writings of Drs. Gesell and Spock, but our videos demonstrated that infants at 6 months rarely slept more that 5-6 hours uninterruptedly without an awakening; that brief unobserved awakenings and arousals were common at all ages including in adult sleep; and that expectations of young infants’ sleeping from 8:00 pm to 6:00 am, through the night were unrealistic.”
Dr. Margot Sunderland
For those who don’t know her, Doctor Margot Sunderland is the Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health in London, an Honorary Visiting Fellow at London Metropolitan University, an Associate Member of the Royal College of Medicine, a Child Psychotherapist with over 30 years’ experience of working with children and families and the author of over 20 books in the field of child mental health.
According to her, “the level of stress caused to the infant brain by prolonged uncomforted distressed crying is so toxic, it results in:
✦ Elevated blood pressure
✦ Elevated cerebral pressure
✦ Erratic fluctuations of heart rate, breathing, temperature
✦ Suppressed immune and digestive systems
✦ Suppressed growth hormone
✦ Extreme pressure on the heart, resulting in tachycardia
Any uncomforted infant mammal will stop crying…it’s a process known as Protest-Despair-Detachment. A resigned, self-protective, giving up.”
Dr Howard Chilton, MBBS, MRCP (UK), DCH
Doctor Howard Chilton, a Consultant Neonatologist at the Prince of Wales Private Hospital and the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney states that the cry it out method makes no biological sense whatsoever because like other primates, humans are a ‘continuous contact’ species who were born the most immature and, therefore, have to spend a massive amount of time after birth engaged in the importance process of brain development.
Not only do we have to lay down life-long brain connections, but we also need to embed fundamental beliefs about safety, security, reliability, self-worth and love.
“This is a vital time during which they are learning from their parents (but their mother in particular) new things about the world around them and how to deal with stress. So it makes no sense at the darkest, scariest time of the day to abandon them to a regime of nocturnal neglect! Cry it out also contradicts the very basic parental instincts of nurturing and caring for those we love the most in our lives. It truly makes no sense.”
Not convinced yet? Check out this post for other experts’ (JADE: you know, experts who actually conduct scientific research studies and have years of experience under their belt instead of pretend experts who don’t actually have the qualifications but somehow became popular within parenting circles) opinion on CIO.
Alternatives to letting baby cry it out
I understand you may be sleep-deprived, believe me, no one understands better than me.
When I got home from the hospital after giving birth I began to understand what it meant to be exhausted. I barely got two consecutive hours of sleep with a newborn.
(Jade: I thought it was absolute torture and I was bed-sharing and breastfeeding so I can’t even imagine how much worse it would’ve been had I not been doing either of those things.)
Arm yourself with knowledge
This might be incredibly hard for you when you’re already sleep-deprived but I cannot even emphasise how important it is that you arm yourself with knowledge.
Get your hands into as many of the following books as possible (preferably before you give birth but it’s never too late for good sleep) and read the current research.
Avoid the more popular books written by so-called experts who have neither degree or any form of scientific qualifications (or even children of their own) and focus on those written by experts in the field of child psychology, psychiatry, neonatology, anthropology, evolutionary medicine, developmental psychology and child psychotherapy.
Set a good bedtime routine for baby
This might curb some of the evening activities you normally enjoy but for the sake of a few extra hours of sleep, your baby’s short-term mental health and long-term brain development as well as your own personal sanity, you might want to consider implementing some (or all) of the following strategies:
✦ Turn off the lights (or if you must use lighting, use red lights)
✦ Run the bath for the baby (but you can join for some lovely and relaxing skin-to-skin with her).
✦ Give her a massage if she accepts it
✦ Listen to some relaxing music, complete with accompaniments – rocking, patting or shushing
✦ Warm milk
✦ An even warmer embrace
In other words, you want to recreate the environment your baby is used to: a cozy, womb-like environment that makes her feel warm, nurtured, connected and loved.
Ask for help
“Sleep when the baby sleeps” is not a trite saying.
If you’re a new parent, that’s probably one of the most important things you can do.
The housework will always be there. It will really never end.
So, let it be for a while.
Or better yet, outsource it. Get family and friends to help – especially in the first three months after birth. If they’re not available and you can afford it, hire a cleaner.
If you really have no one, there are organisations that can help. In my area, we have organisations like Gingerbread, which helps single parents.
Alternatively, you can create your own organisation if there is nothing available locally.
Organise a babysitting group with other parents so you can each have a turn taking breaks.
You don’t have to do this alone.
Sort your own sleep schedule
If you’re like most adults, you don’t have a good sleep schedule. With an overflowing to-do list, you can barely catch a break and end up staying up too late just to accomplish them all.
What happens when you don’t sleep well in the first place and you add a baby who also doesn’t sleep well into the mix?
So, again, for the sake of a few extra hours of sleep, your baby’s short-term mental health and long-term brain development as well as your own personal sanity, go to bed earlier (preferably after that warm, relaxing bath we were talking about above).
Cut your screen time so that when you do end up in bed, you actually fall asleep instantly.
Side Note: But if you do have the time, do a spa-at-home day! In my experience, it’s the best way to get from exhausted to zen.
If you can, drink less coffee, tea and wine (sorry). Actually, anything with a lot of caffeine will interfere with your ability to sleep so, cut those too (or drink a lot more water to compensate).
Again, sleep when the baby sleeps.
And don’t feel pressured into thinking that you need to go back to your pre-baby self immediately after. Actually, you can never go back to your pre-baby self because you now have a baby and that’s a pretty life-changing event.
Consider co-sleeping (and even bedsharing)
This option is helpful as it still gives you a sense of space but also keeps you close to your baby and make it easier with night awakenings.
I was barely surviving and I thought about just letting her cry but I knew she needed me. So, a couple of weeks of that torture turned into me bed-sharing with my daughter.
Since then I have been able to sleep through the night with only a handful of nightly awakenings.
JADE: I thought I’d weigh in here to describe our experience as a breastfeeding, bedsharing family. Early on, we allowed ourselves to be convinced by our midwives that bedsharing was the worst possible thing ever (against every maternal instinct I have and every research study I’ve read). Within 2 weeks of waking up every 1 hour, we finally took Professor James McKenna’s recommendation and decided to bedshare.
My tiny infant then learned to breastfeed using the breastfeeding dyad position and I barely woke up during the night. I’d know that my little baby is rooting for milk and I’d know that he’s actually feeding but the nights of me having to rouse myself fully were gone.
Then we came across the book Sweet Sleep and our lives were never the same. For your sanity, read it. It says for breastfeeding families in the title but I believe that, with a few adjustments here and there, it will help any family – bottle or breastfeeding.
I know things may be different in your household but my recommendation will be to choose what is best for you and your baby. But make sure that you are basing your choice on correct information and with the knowledge that it does get better with time.
It doesn’t last.
Soon, that baby will be packing for college and you’ll always wonder how quickly time passed.
Do you have a technique to help your infant fall asleep on his own? Let us know in the comments section below!