The Truth About The ‘Cry It Out’ Method
As parents, we are given so much information about what our baby should be doing and when. I remember when I had my daughter she woke every three hours (and didn’t sleep through the night until she was about 2.5). I remember hearing stories from mother’s group friends who had babies that slept 6-7 hours at a time!
Why me!? Should my baby be sleeping through the night? Am I doing something wrong?
We are given so much advice about how to get that elusive night-long sleep. Including the ‘cry-it-out’ method. The cry-it-out (CIO) method is pretty self-explanatory. It involves letting the baby cry and cry, to the point of psychological distress, until eventually the behavior becomes extinct.
In 2014, ‘Parent’s’ magazine released an article to its 2 million followers claiming that not only has this method been proven safe, but that it’s proper child rearing. The article ends on the misconception that “[Your baby] needs to learn the important lifelong skills of self-soothing and falling asleep on his own”.
This couldn’t be further from the truth!
The study cited in the article did not use the CIO method. Instead, the researchers used ‘controlled-crying’ and ‘fading’. Unfortunately, this is not the only misinformed mainstream parenting article that makes false claims about the safety of the CIO method.
What does the research actually say about the CIO method?
The research on the effects of the CIO method are clear; it is psychologically harmful and contrary to popular belief, it leads to more stressed, anxious and dependent adults.
Letting a baby cry it out can hinder brain development
Research has shown us that high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), released during periods of psychological distress, prevent new connections from being formed in the brain. Particularly in the Hippocampus, which is associated with emotions and emotional regulation. Infants are undergoing huge periods of brain growth and development. If they are regularly exposed to high levels of stress induced cortisol production, their development can be significantly hindered.
Letting a baby cry it out can undermine their ability to self-regulate
Contrary to popular belief, letting a baby cry it out does not teach them to self-soothe. In fact, it does the opposite. Infants don’t learn to self-soothe in isolation, they need their caregivers to show them how. Responding to an infant’s needs before they get to the point of distress teaches them to be calm, and builds an expectation for soothing. This gets integrated into their ability to self-comfort.
Research has shown that infants who are exposed to extreme stress are taught to respond to such events with the ‘fight or flight’ response. Because their needs were not met during periods of psychological distress as an infant, they learnt to shut down and become anxious and withdrawn as adults.
Caregiver sensitivity may be harmed
A parent or caregiver who actively ignores their baby’s cries of distress will likely learn to ignore the more subtle cues of their infant’s needs. As parents, we intuitively want to respond to our baby’s cries of distress. By actively ignoring our instincts, we are training ourselves to be insensitive to our baby’s subtle cues.
Caregiver responsiveness and sensitivity is related to almost all positive outcomes
It is common knowledge among Psychologists that parental responsiveness and sensitivity is related to almost all positive outcomes for children. It is a protective factor for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, it boots moral, improves cognitive functioning and social competence. You can read more about the research behind parental sensitivity here.
Actively ignoring an infant’s needs for extended periods of time by letting them cry it out does not demonstrate parental sensitivity or responsiveness.