The Science Behind Crying It Out

I firmly believe that most parenting decisions should be made with your intuition. Nobody knows how to do the parenting thing, every baby is different, and you know in your heart what feels like a good choice for your baby. But in some cases, it helps to hear the facts so you can feel even better about your decision, like the science behind crying it out.

If you haven't talked to anyone about crying it out, know this — the judgment is coming. It's one of those trigger buttons for parents all over the world. People claim it's abusive, that it doesn't work, and that you're selfish for even considering it. But what about science? Is there any scientific backing to crying it out or was it merely a choice made by a parent who was exhausted? How does it help?

It's pretty simple actually. Crying it out is all about teaching your baby to self-soothe. That's it. It's not about teaching them to fall asleep in three seconds or to never need you again. It's a method that aims to give your baby the tools they need to self-soothe.

In fact, the original crying it out method was never meant to be that. Created by Dr. Richard Ferber, his method was called "gradual extinction" and it involved simply taking longer to respond to your baby's cries than normal. Dr. Ferber told Parenting that this method, now considered "crying it out" by most of the world, was never meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, he aimed for it to help with night wakings. By teaching your child to self-soothe, you know that if your child wakes up in the night crying for you, there is something wrong that they can't fix.

Many people get the entire act of crying it out all wrong. You aren't leaving your baby to cry for hours unattended. You're just delaying your response time. What to Expect noted that by reassuring the baby you are there, but that you aren't going to rock them to sleep or pat their back until they pass out, you're giving them the security they need while still allowing them to self-soothe. The entire point is so that if your baby wakes up at 2 a.m. because they rolled over or because they heard a noise, they know how to put themselves back to sleep.

So what does science say? Science says it works. Psychology professor Marsha Weinraub conducted a study that found that self-soothing is critical for babies to sleep well at night. Her research also concluded that poor sleeping habits, like waking through the night, correlated with difficult temperaments and illnesses. But the attachment between an infant and mother? Not related to any sleep awakenings.

The research continues to back these claims with a recent study from Flinders University in Australia finding that not only were babies who followed the gradual extinction method no more stressed than babies who didn't, but that at their 12 month follow-ups, there were no significant differences in emotional and behavioral problems or infant and mother attachment.

Dr. Carlos Lerner told USA Today that because babies have sleep cycles like adults, it's normal for them to wake up several times through the night. But by learning to self-soothe, they can not only put themselves back to sleep more quickly, they can also sleep better and longer without needing your intervention.

Of course, like any parenting decision, you should follow your instincts. If you're not comfortable with crying it out, then don't do it. But if you want research to help you sway your decision, it's there. And so is sleep.