An Australian-based study published in the journal, Pediatrics, on Tuesday, supported a different method of sleep training in infants. The findings suggested that letting an infant cry out loud till he sleeps can help establish a sense of self-soothing in the baby and can lead to better sleep patterns at night. The ‘crying it out’ practice was found to have no negative effects on parent-child attachment or child emotions and behavior. However, psychologists do not endorse the study and direct towards certain long-term harmful effects from this kind of sleep training.
The study was conducted on a total of 43 infants, with 63% of them being baby girls ranging between 6-16 months of age. The infants were characterized into three groups to check the effect of different sleep training techniques. The first group was called the ‘graduated extinction’, the second one was called ‘bedtime fading’, while the third one was the ‘control group’.
Graduation extension a.k.a. ‘cry-it-out’ sleep technique is the method in which it is advised to not sooth the baby and let him cry to sleep for controlled intervals at night. Researchers believe that by doing so, the baby can learn to self-sooth himself, and would go to sleep without disturbing his parents.
It was also highlighted that if the babies are attended as soon as they start crying then they cry even more. Therefore, researchers checked the potential of the graduation extension method and sleep pattern, along with the emotional effects related to it.
The ’bedtime fading’ training method is considered a less cruel technique, in which you gradually delay the sleep time of the baby. For instance, if your baby wakes up at 7am in the morning and sleeps at 7 in the evening, then you should delay the sleep time by 15 minutes and make him sleep at 7:15 at night, and then at 7:30 the following night. Continuing this practice would eventually let your baby sleep more easily with time.
The third category was the control group, in which babies whose parents just had general information about sleep, took the longest to sleep and slept for the least amount of time through the night.
The sleep patterns of children were recorded by the parents and records were kept in diaries. The major outcome of the study was evaluated to be that, the infants placed in the ‘cry it out’ group slept around 20 minutes more during the night, as compared to the babies in the “bedtime fading” group.
The stress levels of the infants were measured in the morning and afternoon through a saliva sample that measured cortisol levels i.e. the hormone which identifies stress in the body. Mothers also reported their own mood and stress levels.
After 12 months of the intervention, parent-child attachment and any signs of emotional and behavioral problems were also evaluated. The researchers thus concluded that cortisol levels in the bodies of the infants were found to be normal in all groups and no disrupted behavior was reported.
Controversy regarding the ‘cry it out’ sleep training Method
Some psychologists believe that letting the child cry out can make him anxious and the child might lose trust in their parents, which later on in life, can lead to emotional and behavioral issues.
Psychology Today explains that taking infants for granted and letting them cry to sleep can bring about emotional distress in babies. The long-term damages associated with this sleep training method were also highlighted. It was pointed out that following this method is a great way to ensure a less intelligent, less healthy, more anxious, and more uncooperative and isolated individual. Another major reason to worry and stop adopting this sleep training technique is that these negative traits can even get transferred to future generations.
Another study based upon infant cortisol levels, published in the journal, Early Human Development (2012), examined that these behavioral techniques can be highly stressful for infants. It was found that even though the child might not be crying the whole time, the emotional distress would be at its peak under those circumstances.
To back up the findings of the original study published in Pediatrics, the first author of the study, Wendy Middlemiss, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of North Texas, said, “You have to be responsive. You can’t let them cry for long periods of time.”
A mother of an 18-month old child told The Today Show that she tried to practice the ‘cry it out’ method but found it very difficult. She said, “I tried it and I cried myself to sleep all night long. I couldn’t do it myself. I think that I get why people say at some point, you have to let them cry a little bit so they can learn to settle themselves. But for me, two months was too early.”
Another controversial aspect related to the ‘cry it out’ method is that children of such young ages are not able to sleep through the whole night. Moreover, children who are 2 and 3 months old need extra comfort and care during the night, and their fast metabolism needs them to be fed several times. Therefore, they should be monitored and pampered especially at night when no one else is around them other than the parents. Thus, this method should only be tried on infants of 6 months or older, after contemplating the harmful risks associated with it.