A new study published in Pediatrics suggests that allowing infants to cry it out didn't cause more stress or long-term emotional harm to the babies than a "gentler" method—say, involving a later bedtime, so the child would fall asleep faster.
The cry-it-out method, also known as graduated extinction, has long brewed controversy among parents. Opponents claim that it emotionally damages the child. The idea behind the method is that the child will eventually learn to self-soothe so, when they periodically come out of their sleep cycle , they'll be able to fall back asleep on their own.
As part of the study, 43 sets of infants and parents were divided into three groups: cry-it-out, "bedtime fading" and a final control group where the parents just received information about babies and sleep, and were left to figure it out on their own. Researchers attached ankle monitors to the babies to keep track of their sleep and also measure the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva each morning.
They discovered that while the stress hormone levels remained the same for the babies, regardless of the sleep method employed, the infants in the cry-it-out group slept longer (by an average of 20 minutes) and more soundly. The babies in the control group took the longest to fall asleep and slept the least. They also followed up a year later and saw no signs of parental attachment or behavioral issues in the CIO infants.
According to the study's lead author Michael Gradisar, "Both treatments helped the babies fall asleep quicker. However graduated extinction was better in reducing the number of times the infants woke during the night, as well as the amount of time they spent awake during the night."
Gradisar notes that the problem with the gentler methods is that both parents and Baby fall into a "coercive behavior trap." In other words, when parents respond to Baby's every sound, the baby is "rewarded" each time and it soon becomes a habit that's difficult to break.
"This is especially true if the parent responds quickly after the child cried," he says. "The result being, the child is more likely to cry more often, thus disrupting the sleep of both themselves and their parents."
But clearly this method isn't for everyone. And at the end of the day, all parents do what works for them and hope good sleep comes along in the process. And if it doesn't, well, that's what coffee is for.