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Is it Safe to Allow Babies to Cry Themselves to Sleep?

Many babies go to bed crying, and some parents, relying on the “cry it out” plan, let it happen. Some even consider it a method of sleep training. It's not necessarily harmful, but it's not the best course of action for all babies according to Alanna McGinn, an Ontario, Canada-based certified sleep consultant.

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The Age Matters

McGinn, also the founder of the Good Night Sleep Site, warns that the practice may not be safe if your child is 4 months or younger. “Self-soothing skills don’t typically develop until 12 weeks of age,” she says. “During the fourth trimester, infants may still need feedings throughout the night and help getting back to sleep.” Once your child is at least 4 to 6 months old, and his weight is thriving, McGinn recommends weaning out multiple feedings throughout the night and eliminating actions the baby identifies with sleep, such as feeding or rocking.

Nurturing Through Sleep

Allowing your child to cry it out for a few nights even after she reaches 4 to 6 months is not toxic stress, says McGinn. “Toxic stress can be categorized as children being emotionally or physically abused 24/7 --- meeting your child’s need for sleep by letting him cry for a bit is not abuse.” The real issue is to make sure the crying doesn't keep the child from getting enough sleep. Adequate sleep time is part of loving and nurturing a child to better cognitive and mental health. It also leads to a stronger immune system, sharper hand-eye coordination and better moods and temperament, McGinn says.

Crying is Inevitable

Regardless of the sleep method you choose for your child, crying is inevitable with any change in routine, says McGinn. Allowing your child to cry for a limited time teaches him how to self-soothe and does not translate to psychological damage, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Pediatrics. If a child continues to cry, though, using sleep strategies such as camping out by his crib without picking him up may help him gradually transition to sleep on his own without prolonged crying.

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Cry it Out Controversy

Psychologist Jodi Mindell wrote in 2004 that babies who cry themselves to sleep learn self-soothing techniques. The sleep training method does not cause any type of long-term trauma, asserts Mindell in the American Psychological Association's journal. However, she understands not all parents are on board with listening to their little one cry it out. Parents can practice alternative methods, such as rocking a child to sleep, and controlled comforting where parents gradually reduce the time they spend consoling a child to sleep.

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