On Letting Infants “Cry It Out”

One of the most emotionally and physically taxing parts of being a new parent may be deciding if you will let your infant cry him/herself to sleep by self-soothing or attending to your baby after you have put him/her to bed for the night. Though you will (most likely) receive advice on this subject from parents, grandparents, friends, physicians, and strangers on the street, the research conducted on this topic is difficult to sift through.

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Darcia Narvaez Ph. D. takes a firm stance in her article for Psychology Today, “Dangers of ‘Crying It Out’” stating that experts began giving this advice to parents in the 1880s when it was still believed that infants should be touched as little as possible to avoid contaminating them with germs and to keep from transmitting infection. This notion of leaving a child on his/her own continued into the 20th century, encouraging mothers not to coddle their babies in order to keep them from becoming hyperdependant as they mature. Mothers were instructed to cater to their infant in a nurturing way, but “the mother should stop immediately if her arms feel tired” because “the baby is never to inconvenience the adult (Blum, 2002).”

This indifferent parenting style, Narvaez cites, is partially due to adult children moving away from their extended families and raising their own children without the knowledge of how to attend to an infant that would have been learned from their parents and grandparents had they remained closer to home. Traditionally, humans worked together and learned from each other to raise children. Most new mothers instinctually want to cater to their crying infant, and Narvaez believes that ignoring this instinct, and the child, damages the symbiotic mother/child dyad as well as damaging the child’s neuronal interconnections.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) addresses this issue by stating that “sleep training methods such as ‘controlled comforting’ and ‘camping out’ improve infant sleep and reduce maternal depression in the short term.” The AAP cites the same study 2012 study out of Australia Narvaez references in her 2014 article which followed 225 children whose parents reported sleep problems from 7 months old to age 6. Half of the parents were offered a “controlled comforting” technique, in which “parents respond to their infant’s cry at increasing time intervals to allow the child to self-settle” and the other half were offered the “camping out” method, in which “parents sit with the child as the child learns to independently fall asleep, slowly removing their presence from the child’s room.” The researchers concluded that “the sleep techniques are… safe to use” and that “no marked long-lasting effects (positive or negative)” were found as a result of behavioral sleep techniques.

Narvaez is concerned that parents are being mislead by mainstream parenting media, especially in the July 2014 issue of Parents magazine article which claims to debunk myths about sleep. In her article “Parents Misled by Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Reports,” Narvaez states that the research on infant sleep training is flawed and does not taken into consideration many variables, such as infant age and development level. Most mainstream information regarding sleep training does not offer specifics such as ‘at what age is it appropriate to begin sleep training’ and ‘how long should I allow my baby to cry before intervening?’ “Controlled comforting” and “camping out” are not often explicitly explained to parents and the practice of letting an infant cry it out may be confused by total extinction, or “leaving the baby in the crib until crying stops, however long that takes (Narvaez).”

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Regardless of your sleep technique practices, Mayo Clinic’s article “Crying baby: What to do when your newborn cries” suggests that parents and caregivers must access the situation first to deduce what the child needs or desires:

  • Is hungry child hungry?
  • Does the child want something to suck on (such as a pacifier)?
  • Is the child tired?
  • Does the child need his/her diaper changed?
  • Does the child want to be mobile?
  • Does the child want to be swaddled?
  • Is the child too hot or too cold?
  • Is the child lonely?
  • Is the child over stimulated?

Mayo Clinic goes on to state that if you have exhausted all other possibilities, you can consider letting your baby cry it out and states, “sometimes the only way to stop a crying spell is to let it run its course.”

The AAP offers many useful tools for new parents in their Coping with Crying downloads, such as the Temperament Tip Sheet, which helps parents get to know their new babies; Swaddling 101 Guide for Parents, which explains how to, and why to, swaddle infants; and a Crying Pledge Contract for parents and caregivers to sign as a reminder of how to cope with a fussy baby.

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For more information about crying it out and calming a crying baby, please visit the following links:

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