Cry It Out – Do We Have It All Wrong?

Cry It Out

This is by far, the most controversial sleep training method.

Many think that cry-it-out involves putting your baby down, leaving the room and shutting the door behind you, allowing your baby to cry for as long as it takes until they fall asleep.

This most emphatically is not the case.

There are many variations and it is the most misunderstood of the sleep training methods. Most parents will, whether intentionally or not, incorporate some sort of variation of the cry it out method because the truth is, most parents don’t adhere strictly to one method. If they are sleep training unaided, they do whatever they can to get the job done, which usually involves a hybrid approach.

When it comes to cry it out, everybody has an opinion. There are those who swear by it and others who demonize it, with some experts describing parents who use the cry it out method as being “emotionally unavailable”. This  label can leave parents who have used or are planning to use cry-it-out feeling inadequate and like they have done the absolute worst thing for their child. Any parent will tell you that it is agonizing to hear their baby cry, and if this is the method chosen to teach their baby to sleep, the very last thing they need is to be made to feel inadequate in any way. While the cry it out method is certainly the toughest on parents, if you can stick to your guns, it is often the fastest.

Here’s what you need to know

Cortisol is a buzz word in sleep training that is bandied around far too much and far too often by people who don’t fully understand what it is, or its’ purpose.

Cortisol is the “awake” hormone. It is released by the body when we are waking up and our brain needs to be conscious and actively doing things. It is also one of the hormones released by the brain when the body experiences stress. The majority of articles written on the cry it out method will focus exclusively on how damaging cortisol is, and warn parents that they could be permanently damaging their child. Unfortunately, these articles aren’t written by people who are experts in endocrinology (the study of hormones) or  stress, and stress and hormone release in babies is a very misunderstood subject.

The Plain Facts

Studying stress in babies is extremely difficult and it is a field of ongoing research, but here’s what we know.

Not all stress is created equal. It is a huge topic, but for the purposes of understanding cry-it-out we will focus on the two main categories. Chronic or long term stress and short term stress; and they have diametrically opposite effects on the brain.

The usual argument “crying produces stress, stress = cortisol and cortisol will damage your baby’s brain development, therefore cry-it-out is bad for your baby” is based on misinterpretation of research done on the effects of long term stress on the brain.

The research is sound, and shows that with long term exposure to the stress, the brain starts to function poorly. Memory is adversely affected, learning is slower, cognitive function decreases, and the immune system is weakened.

The error is in calling the cry-it-out method of sleep training long term exposure to stress.

Sleep training is a short-term process. Yes, your baby may experience stress, but short term stress, and within a safe, supportive and loving environment.

The difference the effect short term stress has on the brain is astoundingly different.

Short term stress exposes the brain to cortisol the way that it was designed to. It improves memory, helps us to learn faster, enhances cognitive function, and boosts the immune system. In short, it’s designed to give the brain everything it needs to cope should it ever encounter that stressor again, a developmental phenomenon researchers call stress inoculation.

The bottom line is this

The evidence to suggest that cry it out, or indeed any sleep training method, is in anyway psychologically harmful simply doesn’t exist in any reliable or accurate study.

This method is not for everyone, but if you have chosen or are thinking of choosing to use the Cry-It-Out method or a variation of it to sleep train your baby, please be reassured that you are NOT hurting your baby, or causing long term psychological damage. If anything, you are providing an opportunity for your baby to learn how to cope with stress.