If a grownup, such as myself, disclosed to you that she cried herself to sleep every night, what would your reaction be? Maybe, like this doge over here, you’d utter some things in an awkward attempt to console while clearly looking uncomfortable with the situation. Maybe you’re a bit more compassionate and you would reach out in a more empathetic and articulate manner. Most people would probably have some sort of reaction that echoes their gut feeling of this not being a good thing.
But babies? Eh. It’s good for them! Just ask websites like Parents:
Steel yourself: Tonight you start putting your child down in his crib while he’s still awake. “It’s the single most important thing you can do,” says Dr. Schaefer … A little — or a lot of — crying may ensue. But rest assured, it will be tougher on you than on your baby. Parents naturally find crying agonizing to listen to, but just keep reminding yourself that the end result — sleep! — will be good for the whole family. “Get over the worry that ignoring your baby while he cries will do psychological harm,” emphasizes Dr. Schaefer. If you’ve been meeting his every need in other ways, this situation certainly won’t lessen his sense of security.
Nor should you worry about letting a very young baby cry. In fact, the younger the infant, the easier the process will be.
Technically, studies show that sleep training works. That is—using controlled crying or cry-it-out methods, where babies are left to cry on their own—produces the outcome of babies falling asleep on their own, staying asleep longer, waking less, etc. However, whether results happen does not measure whether the results are good. As ISIS (Infant Sleep Information Source, a project of some very respected institutions and organizations in the UK) points out:
Almost no research has looked at the processes occurring in babies’ brains and bodies during sleep training; we therefore have no way of knowing if a baby or child that is not crying is in fact asleep, or is in what is known as a ‘dissociative’ state (meaning that the baby has ‘withdrawn’ in response to the stress caused by being left alone, with cries not being responded to, and has shut off their normal responses to being alone i.e. crying). If the baby who has settled following sleep training is indeed asleep, is their sleep ‘normal’ or is it different to that of babies who have not undergone the process?
Babies who are left to cry alone have higher levels of stress hormones, whether or not they continue to cry. ISIS summarizes a recent study:
A recent study demonstrated that mothers and babies undergoing a controlled-crying intervention started out with matching, synchronous, hormonal stress responses (babies cried at bed-time, their stress hormone levels increased, and their mothers’ stress hormone levels also increased). After three days, babies had ceased to cry at night, and mothers’ stress hormone levels dropped, however babies levels – despite the fact they were no longer crying – remained high. This suggests that the babies behaviour had adapted to being alone for sleep, but that their physiology had not. The response of the babies in this study lends support to the theory that babies who undergo sleep training via extinction may be learning to ‘give up’ rather than to ‘settle’ — outwardly the two behaviours appear the same, but inwardly the babies physiology is very different.
Some parents choose to sleep train because it’s what they’ve heard from doctors, family, or friends that it’s the right, and even necessary, thing to do. Others choose to do it after they’ve reached their breaking point. I am a big believer of stepping back when you’re frustrated, even if it means you’re leaving your baby to scream in the safety of her crib while you get yourself together. This is the lesser of two evils: A baby who has an angry parent who is growing increasingly frustrated and potentially out of control is probably better off in a safe place but alone for a short amount of time. It is still not necessarily a good thing, but it is definitely a different thing than deliberately and regularly leaving a baby to cry herself to sleep at night.
Are you a bad parent if you let your baby cry it out? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. I do think, though, that if most parents realized that they are allowed to make decisions based on their guts and their instincts (many parents seem to find listening to their babies cry it out to be torturous), rather than what popular news sources are touting as the next new thing in getting your baby to sleep, fewer parents would decide to allow their babies to cry themselves to sleep.
It is undeniably difficult to deal with the sleep deprivation that comes during the childbearing years. And, believe me, I understand what it is to hate bedtime; it is my least favorite parenting task of them all. But this time is just a season of our lives. We will be able to make up for lost sleep, eventually, but we get one chance to gently parent our children into and through the night. “Parents naturally find crying agonizing to listen to,” but you do have the option of not listening to it, and snuggling that sweet—if maddening—baby of yours. Or, if you just can’t snuggle another minute, find someone else to do the snuggling instead. Even if your baby cries because she misses you, crying alone is so very different from crying in the arms of someone who cares for you.
For the record, I don’t cry myself to sleep at night, but I used to. And it was miserable.