‘Cry it out’ method banished by Infant Mental Health Experts
The last decade has seen the birth of various ‘sleep training’ methods, (however the idea of allowing a baby to 'cry it out' was first promoted by experts in the 1800s and 1920s.)
Sleep training is a behavioural strategy that looks to extinguish a baby’s behavior of dependence on its parents to fall asleep and looks to teach a baby to fall asleep on its own. The idea is that this will also decrease multiple night wakings as the baby will ‘get used to’ falling asleep on its own. This is called ‘self-soothing’.
Most sleep trainers advocate using the method between 6 weeks and 6 months. Sleep training between 6 and 9 months is thought to be more difficult as babies have begun teething and have developed object permanence. ‘Sleeping through the night by six months’ is seen as a parental goal that can be achieved through disciplined implementation of this technique.
Parents have a very real need for sleep to cope with their often highly-pressured work lives as well as their social responsibilities. It is no coincidence that this method has become popular at the same time that the role of extended families has disintegrated. Often it is desperation and good intentions ‘we all need a good night’s rest’ that drive parents to implement this strategy or pay a sleep trainer to come and stay at their home for as many nights as is necessary for their baby’s deviant behavior to be extinguished.
Some practice ‘gentle’ sleep training using only a measured amount of crying (anything from 30 seconds to 3 minutes) before parents are ‘allowed’ to comfort the child (some will only allow this for 1 minute, others until the baby has calmed down, but not fallen asleep). Others are ‘stricter’ advocating a few days of marathon crying with parental intervention only when completely necessary (so for example, if the baby vomits from distress). There is a belief that the more comfort is offered, the longer it will take a child to become independent and sleep through.
Some parents rave about their sleep training experience as ‘all it took were a few tricky nights and now their babies have learned to fall asleep on their own in their cot until morning’. Others will lament that ‘perhaps it could have worked, but they just couldn’t see the crying out through’. Many parents will admit that ‘it worked for a while and then he got sick so we gave him more attention, and now he has gone back to waking up and crying for us’.
After years of examining the neuroscience, mental health experts have great concerns about this behavioural strategy and have stated that 'crying it out' is dangerous and to be avoided.
Here are their concerns:
- There is no evidence to show that this strategy helps babies acquire healthy sleep patterns in the short or long term.
- There is plenty of evidence to show that stress hormones negatively impact a baby’s brain development. Stress hormones are released when babies cry.
- There is no evidence to show that 'crying it out' is safe for human babies. Animal studies that have used rats have shown such negative outcomes that no researcher can get ethical clearance to do these same studies on human babies.
- Most sleep trainers are lay people who have no vested interest in the family or baby’s health and happiness. They are not health professionals and do not carry professional indemnity should something go wrong during or after the sleep training.
- Parents must turn off their natural responsiveness and practice what is called ‘detachment’. Detachment is one of they key precursors for neglect and abuse.
- Babies use crying as a method to communicate their needs. Studies show that babies who have high parental responsiveness (during the day and night) develop faster and become more independent.
- Babies who cannot rely on their needs being met if they cry, go on to become children displaying anti-social behaviours such as aggression, alienation, anxiety and unwillingness to co-operate.
- There are no clear guidelines to say if 'crying it out' is less harmful for older infants/toddlers.
If you are facing a sleep crisis, there are alternatives to sleep training. Have a look here for some ideas.
For a full list of the research mentioned and more reading material regarding infant and maternal health go here.