Letting Your Baby Cry Himself To Sleep Is Safe, Study Finds

infant crying
Pregnancy/Being a Mom

You just put your baby in his crib for the night, and he’s wailing up a storm. You just want to watch a little Netflix before getting some sleep, but you’re wracked with guilt. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Not by a long-shot. But a recent study finds that letting your baby cry himself to sleep won’t harm him, so grab the remote control.

Researchers in Australia worked with 43 sets of parents who had babies between 6 and 16 months of age, all of whom had the same problem: their little ones had trouble sleeping. The researchers taught about 1/3 of the parents about graduated extinction, or simply “crying it out.” Parents were asked to leave the room within 1 minute of putting their baby back to bed and, if their baby cried, to wait increasingly longer periods of time before going back into the room and comforting them.

Another third of the parents were asked to try an approach called bedtime fading, in which parents put their baby to bed closer to the time he or she usually fell asleep and were allowed to stay in the room until their child dozed off.

The rest of the parents, the control group, did not attempt any sleep training and instead received information about infant sleep.

Three months after the experiments began, the babies in the cry-it-out group were falling asleep 15 minutes faster than babies in the control group. The babies in the bedtime fading group fell asleep about 12 minutes faster compared with the control group.

Michael Gradisar, associate professor of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, said:

“What our data probably does not capture is the peace of mind surrounding bedtime that we see when we work with families.”

Additionally, the graduated extinction group bested the fading group in other measures, including the number of times the babies awoke during the night and their total sleep time. [1]

One of the concerns that parents and medical professionals share is that letting a baby cry itself to sleep could cause the child stress, which could lead to bigger problems. The study measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the infants’ saliva both in the morning and in the afternoon, looking for elevated levels that could indicate long-term stress.

The study did not find elevated levels of cortisol in the infants in the graduated extinction group, and no significant differences were observed in parental attachment or behavioral problems in those infants 12 months later.

Gradisar said of the findings:

“It looks like you’ve got two effective treatments that don’t necessarily lead to negative outcomes.”

He acknowledged, however, that listening to your child cry himself to sleep could make you want to rip your hair out. He said:

“It is a stressful thing for parents to go through.”

A 2012 study of 326 children with sleep problems at age 7 months had similar results. There was no evidence that letting babies cry themselves to sleep had any long-term negative impact on their sleep or behavior 5 years later. [2]

Letting your baby cry it out might be tough to handle, but it might be worth it for those extra 15 minutes of “grown-up time.”

The new study is published in the journal Pediatrics.


[1] CNN

[2] CBC News