If you have been a parent for any length of time, you likely have heard about the cry it out method of sleep training. Specifically, you have wondered about the answer to the questions “Is the cry it out method harmful?” and “is cry it out safe?”.
In the sleep world, it feels like there are two main camps: parents who sleep train (i.e. parent-led parenting) and parents who practice attachment parenting (i.e. baby-led parenting). How do you know which is right for your family? What if you make the wrong choice? You may even be reading this because you have wanted to try CIO but have wondered “what if CIO really is harmful”
Is the Cry It Out Method Harmful?
When it comes to children and sleep, it can feel like you have two options. Option One: shut your child in their room all night from the day you bring them home. Option Two: bed-share and nurse to sleep well into the toddler or preschool years. This is a scary place to be as a new parent. How do you know which parenting style is right? Are you accidentally harming your child now? Setting them up for guaranteed therapy as an adult?
If you do an internet search for “is the cry it out method harmful”, you’ll find a plethora of articles answer with a resounding “NO”. You’ll find an equal number of articles answering a resounding “YES”.
What is the truth? How do we know?
Myth or truth? CIO Is Shutting The Door and Leaving Your Baby All Night
Big fat myth! The first mention of CIO in sleep literature is a FAQ written by a pediatrician named Dr. Luther Holt back in 1894. On page 164 in his book titled The Care and Feeding of Children, Dr. Holt writes:
“How is an infant to be managed that cries from temper, habit, or to be indulged?
It should simply be allowed to “cry it out.” This often requires an hour, and in extreme cases, two or three hours. A second struggle will seldom last more than ten or fifteen minutes, and a third will rarely be necessary. Such discipline is not to be carried out unless one is sure as to the cause of the habitual crying”
Right there, two things contradict the popular myth that says CIO is shutting a child in his room all night no matter how long he cries. Dr. Holt clearly states that CIO should not be used in response to all crying. He also seems to believe it should rarely take over an hour. This is a far cry from putting a child in his room and letting him cry potentially all night in order to learn how to fall asleep on his own!
*Should you read the full work, you will notice that Dr. Holt does recommend sleep training starting as a new born. While this is not what is recommended presently (most say that actual sleep training should not take place until at least 4-6 months of age), it was in line with the common thought of his day*
CIO In The Modern Era
In our modern era, two pediatricians have come to be associated with CIO: Dr. Marc Weissbluth and Dr. Richard Ferber. They have each authored a book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and How to Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, respectively. The school of parenting thought that embraces sleep training loves these two books. The side that eschews sleep training has an equally strong dislike.
Dr. Weissbluth is an incredibly smart man. I have had the privilege of sitting in on group sleep phone calls with him. Dr. Ferber is equally smart. Both have dedicated a large portion of their pediatric careers to sleep. They truly desire to help children get the sleep their growing brains and bodies need.
Dr. Weissbluth does say that cry it out (also known as extinction) is his preferred method of sleep training. But, he does so with several caveats that are often glossed over in the debate regarding “is cry it out harmful”:
- Weissbluth is adamant that CIO should be a good fit for the child if parents are going to use it; he acknowledges that sleep training is not one size fits all.
- Weissbluth is a big proponent of 1-2 night time feedings continuing to be normal even to 9 months of age. He is not at all saying you should shut the door and leave your child to cry all night long. Weissbluth clearly states you should respond if your child is hungry, scared, or ill.
- Weissbluth believes a sleep-friendly schedule to be of the utmost importance and that without this foundation it will be hard for a child to sleep no matter what you do
Even though he is often associated with the CIO method, Dr. Ferber actually is not a proponent of it in its pure form (extinction). Rather, he is associated with it because of a single chart that is found in his book titled “Number Of Minutes To Wait Before Going In To Your Child Briefly – If Your Child Is Still Crying”. This chart forms the basis of the sleep training method known as graduated extinction, intervals, timed checks, or Ferberizing.
The 2006 edition of his book states:
“Simply leaving a child in a crib to cry for long periods alone until he falls sleep, no matter how long it takes, is not an approach I approve of. On the contrary, many of the approaches I recommend are designed specifically to avoid unnecessary crying”
Ferber acknowledges that some crying is unavoidable when changing sleep associations. His famous chart is part of a discussion advising parents on how to deal with changing these associations. Like Dr. Weissbluth, Dr. Ferber is a big proponent of a sleep-friendly schedule and using an appropriate calming sleep routine.
While acknowledging that sometimes sleep training is needed, both pediatricians believe there are other things parents can and should do first to set their child up for sleep success and minimize the crying involved.
Myth or Truth: The Cry It Out Method Is Harmful
Again, big fat myth! There have been multiple studies done that debunk this popular myth and that show cry it out is safe. See the first post in our sleep training series for more information.
I feel I must say that there are also studies done that appear to conclude that CIO is emotionally damaging or harmful to parent-child attachment. But, every study of this nature that I have ever read is woefully lacking in some capacity. One commonly cited study showed extended periods of crying resulted in increased levels of stress hormones in babies. However, the infants in this study were not being sleep trained; rather, they underwent something more akin to true neglect. I think it is impossible to equate the biological results of neglect with the results of loving sleep training. We have already seen that proper CIO is not shut the door and don’t come back.
Does CIO Work For All Babies?
In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about how to properly use the CIO method should that be your choice. However, do know that it CIO is not the right fit for all babies.
When choosing a sleep training method, you want to pick one that is do-able for you and that you will be able to stick with (consistency is important!) . You also want to choose one that is a good fit for your child’s personality.
For some babies, CIO is not the best fit. But, for other babies, it works very well! CIO can work very well for babies who are easy going and adaptable. These babies adjust quickly to change and often, particularly when their schedule, routine, and environment have been made very sleep-friendly (which should absolutely be done before any sleep training), there is not much crying involved and they adjust within 3-4 nights.
CIO can also work well for children who are very strong-willed or very independent. These children can be easily frustrated by methods using more parental involvement. Often, they prefer to be given the space to work things out on their own. For these children, they will sometimes actually cry more and harder with the so-called gentler methods than they will with CIO or a variant. If you have a child who fights sleep when you try to rock, nurse, or lay with them, consider giving them a chance to spread their wings. Look for posts on each of these in the near future!
Quick personal story: when my oldest child was about 4-5 months old, she was becoming increasingly difficult to rock to sleep for her naps. She was having a hard time falling asleep despite having a great routine, schedule, and room. One day, I put her in her crib while I went to get a quick sip of water. Do you know what? She whined for maybe 2 minutes and then fell asleep. I had been rocking for at least 20 minutes with her being frustrated the entire time!
So, while CIO and its variants are definitely not the answer for all babies (particularly very sensitive or clingy babies), it may just be the answer for your child.
Myth or Truth: The Cry It Out Method is Harmful and Will Change My Baby’s Personality
Many parents are worried that the cry it out method is harmful and will change their child’s personality. I can definitely understand this concern! No parent wants to do something that is potentially harmful.
Will the CIO method change your child’s personality? I can’t promise that it will or it won’t. As with all things sleep training, it all depends on your child, their personality, and their current situation.
Let’s Look At Some Examples
Example One: a baby with an easy going personality who is chronically overtired and fussy as a result. Remember, babies who have a large sleep debt and are living in the Land of Overtired can be generally fussy. For this easy going baby, CIO will likely be a fairly easy process. Crying will likely be under an hour (really – some babies will fall asleep within 10-15 minutes on the first night!). This baby’s personality likely will change – for the better! As the sleep debt goes away, baby will most likely become happier and even more easy going.
Example Two: a baby with an easy going personality who has a large sleep debt but has tolerated it fairly well. This baby is generally happy rather than displaying the classic signs of being overtired. This baby also falls asleep fairly quickly on the first night. His personality will likely not change as his sleep debt is eliminated. He was a happy baby before sleep training and remains a happy baby after sleep training.
Example Three: a baby who has a more independent, stubborn personality who also has a large sleep debt (as do most babies when starting sleep training) but is generally happy. This baby will likely cry longer on the first night; perhaps an hour or a bit more. His sleep debt may temporarily grow as he figures out this whole falling asleep thing. He may be a bit more fussy and clingy during the day than normal. As he figures it out and his sleep debt is eliminated, that extra fussiness will abate and he’ll go back to his baseline daytime behaviors. This same scenario can also be true of that easy going baby we looked at earlier.
I have never had a client use the CIO method or a variant who has been unhappy with the changes in their child. I have seen some children temporarily become more clingy than usual. But, when all is said and done the clinginess resolves. Every child has been happy and thriving once their sleep debt has been eliminated.
Final Thoughts on “Is the Cry It Out Method Harmful?”
Rather than asking yourself “is the cry it out method harmful?”, ask yourself “is the cry it out method the right fit for my child”.
Many parents are very opposed to the idea of letting their child cry, and I can certainly understand why! It pulls on a parent’s heart strings to hear your child cry! I often tell my clients that sleep training is harder on mom and dad than it is on their baby. But, instead of only considering how you feel about the CIO method, consider your child’s personality and situation.
CIO very well may not be the best fit for your child. But, it just may be the answer! I have worked with many children who were frustrated by their parents’ well-intentioned choice of a more gradual sleep training method. When given a bit more space to work things out on their own, these children thrived, showed off their sleep skills, and quickly became super sleepers!
If you need help choosing a sleep training method or want step-by-step encouragement during the process, I am always happy to help! There are numerous levels of support for you to chose from.
In the next post in this series on sleep training, we’ll look at how to implement the cry it out method.