If there was every a poster child for controversial parenting strategies, the Weissbluth method for sleep training is it. Otherwise known as "graduated extinction" or crying it out, this method has been leaving parents and researchers a like with lots of unanswered questions about the benefits and risks of the Weissbluth method. And like most aspects of parenting, things are rarely black and white — sleep training included.
According to Parenting Science, the purpose of the the cry it out method isn't to teach your child to sleep. It's also isn't meant to be a solution to common sleep problems like separation anxiety, nightmares, fear, snoring, sleep-terrors, or other common problems children have at night. The article stated that the method is designed for "one narrow purpose: to get kids to fall asleep without parental soothing."
However controversial the method may be, it's aimed at helping your child sleep, and the goals certainly aren't to harm your child. But according to the limited research (or lack there of) on the topic, there are definitely a few concerning consequences that are worth taking into consideration before you try out a full-on cry it out method like the Weissbluth.
Trying a more gentle sleep training approach first may do the trick with out resorting to this more drastic method right away.
1. It May Make Babies More Dependent Later In Life
According to Psychology Today, babies who are exposed to an extinction method of cry it out sleep training (meaning they're left to cry without any parental intervention at all,) learn to shut down in the face of distress. Their natural need to be comforted can make them even more clingy or dependent on their parents out of fear of being left alone.
2. Prolonged Crying Has Been Shown To Lower IQ
Among other cognitive distubances caused by excessive crying, Dr. Sears noted that the extinction method, especially in infants who are 3 month old or younger (much too young for the cry it out method), have been shown to have an IQ that's 9 points lower at age five than children who weren't exposed to the same.
3. It Doesn't Actually Calm Babies Even After They're Asleep
One study by researchers at the University of North Texas implemented the extinction method in 25 infants over a five day period and while by the end of the study, they were falling asleep more quickly and with less crying, the levels of cortisol in their saliva remained as high as if they were still crying, indicating high levels of stress, even though they had physically settled down.
Similarly, one piece from The Stir quoted an expert on responsive parenting from the University of Notre Dame saying, "extensive distress in babyhood kills synapses," meaning that a key set of connections from the baby's brain systems don't get established properly. Although the length of time isn't specified, it's reasonable to assume that the extinction method leaves a child alone long enough for this to happen.
4. It Negatively Impacts Children Physiologically
According to Dr. Sears, long standing research shows that babies sleep best close to their parents, or in a space where they feel their parent will respond when they cry. Extinction sleep training may cause unstable temperature, heart arythmias, decreased REM sleep, and increased blood pressure.
5. The Benefits Aren't Well Established
You may be hard pressed to find research noting any actual benefits of the Weissbluth extinction method, other than increased sleep. Most articles noting the benefits are referring to modified cry it out methods that allow for timed check-ins and comforting.