Letting children ‘cry it out’ is controversial, but for some, it works

2 ways you could help put your baby to sleep
WATCH: 2 ways you could help put your baby to sleep

No parent wants to see their child in tears, but when it comes to sleep training, some parents let their child “cry it out.”

This controversial technique (also known as CIO) has been debated in the parenting, sleep and health community for years: should you allow a child to cry themselves to sleep? Then there is also the Ferber Method, where parents let their child cry for a specific period of time before intervening.

In a recent post for Cafe Mom, writer Lauren Gordon argued letting her child cry it out was the only way she was well rested. 

“We were dubious at first. There was no way letting that sweet little thing screech was going to be beneficial for anyone,” she wrote. “But doubt had quickly turned to desperation. After a few hours of debate, we decided to give it an honest try.”

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Gordon tried the “gentle” Ferber Method which revolves around a strict routine.

READ MORE: Will swaddling your baby increase the risk of SIDS?

“We established a bedtime ritual that worked for us. Without fail at 6:30 p.m., we’d begin by giving him a bath. Once that was done, we ‘d lotion him up, get him in his comfy PJs, and read him a book. After that, it was bottle time,” she continued.

“As soon as he finished, we’d turn out the light, give him a hug and say the same thing before we laid him down: I love you so much, it’s night-night sleep tight time, and put him to bed. Then (and this was crucial) we’d walk out of the room. ”

She added he started to cry instantly, but instead of picking up her son, she would allow him to cry for two minutes before going in and patting his back. Gordon said she did not spend more than a minute in the room.

“After the minute was up (and he of course would start screaming) we’ve leave and wait three minutes before repeating. Then five minutes, then seven, and so on and so forth until he soothed himself to sleep. The max crying time we allowed before going in to check on him was 20 minutes.”

Why some are against it

Early childhood consultant Julie Romanowski of Miss Behaviour in Vancouver, told Global News parents should avoid the CIO method.

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“[The] cry it out method was designed with the final result in mind — at any cost,” she explained. “What we have found out about this method is that it came with the cost of the child experiencing emotional abandonment… as well as the erosion of the parent/child relationship which affects their attachment.”

Romanowski said she would never allow her child to cry it out. “I have no problem with him crying because [he’s] upset both during the day or night. However, I would always be there for him emotionally to let him know he is not alone.”

In 2011, Dr. Darcia Narvaez, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana, argued CIO was damaging children in the long-run.

“We can confirm now that forcing ‘independence’ on a baby leads to greater dependence. Instead, giving babies what they need leads to greater independence later,” she wrote. “In anthropological reports of small-band hunter-gatherers, parents took care of every need of babies and young children. Toddlers felt confident enough (and so did their parents) to walk into the bush on their own.”

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She added a child’s neuronal interconnections are also damaged.

“When the baby is greatly distressed, it creates conditions for damage to synapses, the network construction which is ongoing in the infant brain.  The hormone cortisol is released. In excess, it’s a neuron killer but its consequences many not be apparent immediately… a full-term baby (40 to 42 weeks), with only 25 per cent of its brain developed, is undergoing rapid brain growth… 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?”

But there is some research that disprove these notions.

READ MORE: Sleep machines may be harmful to babies’ hearing, speech, study warns

One Australian study in 2016 suggested letting babies cry themselves to sleep did not cause any emotional, behavioural or parent-child attachment issues. Researchers said it is natural for parents to worry about their children crying, but often, thoughts around abandonment were formed without scientific evidence.

“We have personally had individuals state to us that it is commons sense that the technique is stressful to babies and thus there would be long-term effects. Others propose long-term damage. However, theories are only as good as the scientific evidence to support them,” Dr. Michael Gradisar, lead research, previously told Global News.

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In the research, the team worked with 43 babies who had difficulty falling asleep. Babies who were left to cry it out fell asleep 13 minutes faster than babies who didn’t. Researchers added there were no differences in stress levels and measurements of cortisol in the children either.

READ MORE: Sleep training — Letting your baby ‘cry it out’ won’t cause emotional issues, study suggests

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study adding that sleep training was a healthy part of a child’s development, and babies who were training with the CIO method or Ferber Method were not at a “higher risk of emotional, behavioural or psychological problems by age six,” What To Expect noted.

‘Crying it out’ for sleep training

Sleep consultant Alanna McGinn of Good Night Sleep Site told Global News the CIO method is used by many parents and is also offered through her sleep training service.

“When you hear the term ‘sleep training,’ that’s the first thing we think about — cry it out.” she said. “Typically, we don’t start applying any method, gradual or more direct like a cry-out, until the baby is at least four to four-and-a-half months.”

McGinn said she understands why parents are hesitant or nervous about CIO and similar methods, but for parents willing to try it, they need to be ready for the work involved. It goes beyond training them to sleep at night and includes napping routines and changing a baby’s sleep environment.

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“It’s also important for parents to understand crying is going to happen with whatever method you use,” she explained. Often, babies are crying as a result of a change in their routine.

READ MORE: Canadian doctor shares her tips for falling asleep and staying asleep

“While there’s a lot of crying with cry-it-out, it’s short-term crying. While there’s less crying with a gradual method, it’s normally a long-term [process]. So it’s a longer method with less crying each night but more nights of crying.”

While this works for some of her clients, McGinn said parents should never feel forced or shamed for not wanting to try this method. And on the flip side, parents who try this method shouldn’t feel ashamed either. A baby’s sleep can also be thrown off if the child is sick, for example, or if there is a disruption in their routine (as a vacation).

And while she understands why some parenting experts are against the idea altogether, she stresses no child is guaranteed to be a perfect sleeper.

“I look at sleep as a skill,” she said, adding that over time, children develop a habit from these methods. “If sleep is being put on hold for whatever reason, whether it be travel, illness, [or] developmental milestones, when you get back on track with that sleeping, you never have to start at the beginning again.”
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Romanowski said for parents who are uncomfortable with this method, it’s about being patient even when their child is crying.

“Think of it as a baby or child taking a course and knowing they need time to learn, adjust and grow,” she said. “Expecting a child to stop crying the first time you say it, would be like giving the final exam on the first day of school. It’s not fair and that isn’t how children learn. It is through instruction, connection, role modelling and repetition that children learn best.”

— with files from Carmen Chai
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