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Babies Left to “Cry it Out” Feel the Stress, Even after the Crying Stops
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by in Parenting


We parents get a lot of advice from a lot of places. We’re told that we shouldn’t hold our babies too much, lest we might spoil them. We’re told our infants should be placed on a feeding and sleeping schedule, and that any cries during sleeping time should be ignored; the baby will learn to soothe itself. That may seem true, considering the fact that the baby does, eventually, stop crying, it may be doing infants more harm than good.

Experts are pretty split on the issue. Sticklers for the “cry it out” method like childcare guru Gina Ford, who say that babies should learn how to operate on a schedule and that the infant will learn how to soothe naturally. And parents are likely to experience some benefits, such as not having to put their infant to sleep each night. Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, you have some pretty passionate critics like childcare expert Sheila Kitzinger, who says that parents should be guided by instinct rather than prescriptive routines or the latest fad. So who’s really right?

“Although the infants exhibited no behavioral cue that they were experiencing distress at the transition to sleep, they continued to experience high levels of physiological distress, as reflected in their cortisol scores,” said Wendy Middlemiss, a researcher at the Unmiversity of North Texas.

According to a recent study, stress hormone cortisol levels remained high in “cry it out” babies, even days after they had learned to “soothe themselves.” What does that mean to parents? Essentially, it means that the baby is still upset; they’ve just learned to keep quiet about it.

In the study, researchers followed the hormone levels of both infants and their mothers while implementing the “cry it out” technique. All of the infants involved in the study were aged between 4 months and 10 months. Many of them had difficultly falling asleep without being comforted or struggled to fall into a sleeping routine.

At the designated sleep times, infants were put to bed and left to soothe themselves to sleep. Researchers logged the length of time the infant cried. In the next room, the mother sat and listened to their children cry, but they were not allowed to go in the room and comfort the child.

By the third night, infants were starting to calm down and cry less, but their cortisol levels were still very high. Mothers, however, experienced lower cortisol levels on the third night when compared to the first night they had let their infants “cry it out.”

“Overall, outward displays of internal stress were extinguished by sleep training,” said Middlemiss. “However, given the continued presence of distress, infants were not learning how to internally manage their experiences of stress and discomfort.”

Siobhan Freegard of the British parenting advice website Netmums had this to say about the study results:

“I don’t think anybody would ever say that you shouldn’t use controlled crying – it is about getting the balance right. If you are on maternity leave with your first child and can have a nice lie-in and breastfeed the baby in bed, that is very different to being a single mum who needs to go out to work or no one will eat. I have been advised many times to try controlled crying, but it caused me more stress than picking up the baby and doing what comes naturally. But I know other mums who have found controlled crying short, sharp and successful.”

The study does not indicate whether or not the infants’ cortisol levels drop off eventually, and they are now planning to do a larger study to determine if infants do eventually learn how to cope with going to sleep alone.

I disagree, completely, with something that Freegard stated. I believe that there are people who will and do say that you should never leave a baby to cry it out. This study may have provided more scientific evidence to back it up, but the fact that leaving an infant to “cry it out” causes undue stress to both the infant and mother is far from new. Generally speaking, mothers have heightened instincts about many things. When your instinct tells you that it’s best to pick the baby up, your instinct is probably right.

I fully understand the need for sleep, but there are ways to make that happen without causing stress for you or your baby. Take the time to learn the 5 S’s; they are practically invaluable. Learn techniques that will help your baby become tired.

A few examples: create a bedtime routine early, eliminate loud noises before bedtime, keep the lights dim at bedtime and start the routine the same time each and every night. These are natural ways to help your baby follow a sleep schedule without having to cause stress to you or your little one. It might take a little longer to show results, but at least your baby will know that you are always there when they need you.

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About the Author

Cathy is a wife, a mother of five littles and a freelance writer. She nursed all five of her children and is an advocate for breastfeeding rights and benefits. She has made her own cloth diapers and enjoys reading to her children when she has free time. Cathy and her family are learning how to live green and changed to a vegetarian lifestyle about a year ago. They are currently working on moving into a complete vegan lifestyle.

Comments (4)

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  1. Jenni June Baby Planner & Sleep Consultant says:

    Cortisol levels naturally rise and remain in any human or animal while learning a new skill; in this case, self-soothing to sleep. This study was done on babies who had not yet learned that skill while also commenting that cortisol levels were not elevated in babies who already had learned to self-sooth to sleep.
    Keep in mind also, that cortisol and stress levels are also elevated in babies who are over-tired, because they are not properly sleep trained by a certified professional or the very likely sleep-deprived parents. http://www.jennijune.com Certified Sleep Consultant, Pre/postnatal Stress Manangement Coach and Baby Planner

  2. dablondieca says:

    I tried to let my first daughter cry it out- she cried for a whopping 4 torturous hours before falling asleep, and for days afterwards would cling to me- terrified when we walked close to her room….
    I tried again with my second daughter- friends of ours have done it, and it worked, and I just felt the need to SLEEP! She cried for an hour, and fell asleep, then on the second night an hour and a bit, then on the third night- she cried harder than ever. I don’t know how long she cried, but it was horrible- I took her up, and we are co-sleepers! She wakes from a dead sleep if I try to move her to her crib- Cry it out traumatized my girls… this method is not for us!

  3. Happy Mummy & Baby Club says:

    My little girl is almost one and has been co-sleeping since birth. I tried the CIO technique one night for 15 minutes recently and my poor little girl was hysterical. She even did stress farts ..which is why I decided no matter how tired I felt that I would never do that again! I felt terrible that I tried the technique out!! ..even for just a short time.

    At 11 months old (a few weeks after the CIO trial) she’s now sleeping through in her own cot which is butted up against the bed with a bed rail inbetween.. No waking and sleeping 12 hours a night in it. I do not feel the CIO method is a healthy way to put your baby to sleep.

    I think babies become independant in their own time.. No doubt lil one will want to go into her own room before I know it. I’m planning on enjoying every minute of having my lil one feeling safe and secure whilst she needs me. During the day she’s happy go lucky and confidently plays rather than needing to be picked up so I am positive the cosleeping has helped….

    Btw I am still exclusively breastfeeding which is why cosleeping makes sense for us.. But guess each to their own

    • Lisa Arneill says:

      My youngest son was that baby that would wake every few hours to feed, whether he needed it or not. At 6 months old I introduced a pacifier but he still wanted me 3 or 4 times a night. Everyone suggested CIO and it was a disaster. He was hysterical, the whole house was awake and my husband and I fought the whole time. I will NEVER suggest anyone try it ever. Even if the wisest, bestest mother in their family says it is the right thing to do. Eventually my son started sleeping through the night(@ 17 months) but that was after I went away for business and wasn’t home for feedings in the middle of the night. My husband says the first night was a challenge, but he learned to sleep all night not long after.

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