To let them cry or not to let them cry? That is the question.


Babies and sleep are two great things that often just don't go together. Many a parent has had to figure out a method for sneaking in shut-eye in the months (or even years) after their baby's birth. I can tell you from experience, two times around, that there is no one quick and easy solution to getting babies to sleep through the night.  


Some parents co-sleep, allowing baby to share their beds and thus minimize cries throughout the night. Others place baby in a crib, but rise to address needs whenever the baby cries. And some folks opt for the "cry it out" method which supposedly teaches babies to "self-soothe" by allowing their cries to go unanswered.


It is the latter method that is currently under scrutiny after a new study published this week in Psychology Today states that letting children cry it out can be dangerous, leading to a lifetime of irreversible harm.


A bit dramatic don't you think?  


While I don't completely disagree with the premise that letting babies cry it out is stressful for babies, I have to question the authors' theories when they pepper their report with tidbits like this one:


"A crying baby in our ancestral environment would have signaled predators to tasty morsels," writes Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of Psychology and director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education at the University of Notre Dame. "So our evolved parenting practices alleviated baby distress and precluded crying except in emergencies." 

So babies only cry when there is an emergency? HA! Tell that to the millions of parents rocking colicky babies that just cry — all day long — for no discernable medical, environmental or emotional reason. I'm not saying that colicky babies aren't distressed, but is their crying really an emergency?  


According to the study, a stressed baby releases a hormone called cortisol, which can damage or even destroy neurons in their still-developing brains. And according to the researchers, this damage can later lead to a higher incidence of ADHD, poor academic performance and anti-social tendencies. 


I can see how flooding the brain with cortisol could lead to developmental damage, but it's not clear to me that the researchers are distinguishing between "neglect" or never answering you baby's cries, and "crying it out," whereby babies are allowed to cry one or two times throughout the night.


The study states:


"In studies of rats with high or low nurturing mothers, there is a critical period for turning on genes that control anxiety for the rest of life.  If in the first 10 days of life you have low nurturing rat mother (the equivalent of the first 6 months of life in a human), the gene never gets turned on and the rat is anxious towards new situations for the rest of its life, unless drugs are administered to alleviate the anxiety." 

So parents who opt to let babies cry it out are automatically considered low-nurturing? Seems a bit harsh for the millions of parents who breastfeed, cuddle, and hold their baby all day long and maybe even a few times at night, letting them cry a few times at night in between feedings and diaper changes.  


Narvaez writes that crying it out sets kids up for stress-related problems, trust issues, anxiety disorders, reduced brain function, and a lack of independence. And since the problems are on a genetic level, they can't necessarily be fixed later in life.  


And when Narvaez suggests that parents turn to the cry-it-out method because it is "easier" and fits their needs instead of their babies, I have to wonder if she has ever even been in the presence of a real baby at nighttime. When a baby has difficulty sleeping, there is NO EASY METHOD for parents who are trying to sleep. A crying baby is an awful thing to listen to, and it certainly doesn't make it easier for parents to get their shut-eye. I did not do it with either of my girls primarily because it would have stressed me out as much as if not even more than it did them. But I think every parent needs to figure out what will work best for their family, with their children, their sleeping styles, and their family's needs.


The study seems to suggest that too much stress can lead to developmental disorders for a baby, but I think it's a giant leap to suggest that parents who let their babies cry it out at night should ultimately be categorized as low-nurturing or even neglectful.


What do you think? Did you let your baby cry it out at night?