Hot Topic: Cry it Out
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The Bump Editors

Point & Counterpoint: Cry It Out

Is cry it out the best method for getting a fussy baby to bed, or a harsh technique that's way too tough for your little one? Read as our experts battle it out.Plus:Cry it Out TheoryHow to Sleep TrainBasic Bedtime Routine

Safer to Soothe

Dr. Michael Commons, PhD

“When infants are crying and not being attended to, their brains release stress hormones. There’s increasing evidence that this changes the whole physiology of how they’ll deal with stress for the rest of their lives.”

Stress on Developing Brain

These are very young children with rapidly developing brains, and when the hormone cortisol is secreted under stress, it can damage the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls emotion). There’s also some evidence that it can damage the hippocampus, which deals with memory. And the longer babies cry, the more of this hormone gets secreted. There are a number of studies where they’ve stressed animals and then looked at their brains — I don’t think this is very controversial.

Long-Term Damage

We know from retrospective studies that the worst possible condition a baby can be subject to is abandonment for periods of time. With a little extrapolation, you can see that in some cases, when babies are not getting attention and have to scream and yell to get it, it can do damage. It’s probably good for every baby to avoid this – we’re talking about long-term effects here. Impaired attachment creates some of the most severe mental illnesses — borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder — and is also seen in psychopaths. The studies are pretty clear on the long-term effects of disordered and ambivalent attachment.

Too Tough for Babies

There’s something pathologically wrong with people who want to be tough on babies. There’s this whole sort of notion that the tougher you are with children, the better they’ll be as adults. But actually, there’s research that supports the idea that giving children safety and contact early on leads to more secure children.

No Evidence

There are all sorts of myths about things that are good for babies, but there’s just no evidence that these harsh child rearing practices are good for kids.

Dr. Michael Lamport Collins, Ph.D. is an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Patrice Marie Miller, Ed.D. is a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a professor in the Department of Psychology at Salem State College.

Crying is Okay

Dr. Jamila Reid, PhD

“If your goal is to get your child to sleep in her own crib, crying it out is often the thing that ends up working when other things don’t.”

Tears Quickly Decrease

Yes, it is pretty tough the first few nights — there’s just no getting around it. I’ve done all this research, yet doing cry it out with my own son was still one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The first night he cried for an hour and 45 minutes, and he was miserable and so was I. But the next night he cried for only an hour, and the night after that, half an hour. Within a week or so, your child will be sleeping a lot better. It’s hard, but it will work.

Doesn’t Harm Babies

If a baby is crying all the time, every day, all day long, that’s certainly stressful and not very good for the baby. But when you’re doing cry it out, it’s probably only for two or three nights that your baby is crying a lot, and it gets better every night. This is a very short-term intervention — it’s not the same as exposing a baby to something that makes her cry for hours and hours every day on a continual basis. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

Happier Families

There’s really no evidence showing that cry it out is harmful for kids — there’s actually research showing it doesn’t form attachment problems later on. It doesn’t make kids more insecure; in fact, there’s data that supports the exact opposite. We’ve seen that parents and kids who use this technique are happier, maybe because they’re getting more sleep. If parents are feeling frustrated, they can be assured that letting babies cry it out won’t cause any harm.

Parents Need Sleep

For most parents, there comes a time when cuddling their baby to sleep isn’t working, and they need to get some sleep. And a sleep-deprived parent really isn’t a good thing for kids. If you’re not getting enough, you’re probably not functioning so well as a parent during the day. Though cry it out is stressful for a few days, within a few weeks, you’ll be better able to parent, better during the day, and much less cranky and irritable.

Dr. Jamila Reid, PhD, is a clinical child psychologist and co-director of The Parenting Clinic at the University of Washington