It's one of the most hotly contested parenting decisions any new parent will ever have to make: whether or not to let a new baby cry at night or comfort her at every whimper. On one side of the fence, you have the parents who say that allowing a baby to cry it out is akin to torture and teaches children that their parents will not be there for them when they need them. On the other side, you have parents who insist that the only way children will ever learn to sleep on their own is to be taught from day one to do so.
Now, a new study published in the journal Pediatrics lends credence to the theory that it is OK to let babies cry while trying to fall asleep. For the study, Australian researchers evaluated 225 babies between the ages of 7 months and 6 years old. They divided the participants into two groups, parents who were trained in what they called "sleep intervention techniques" and parents who were not.
These sleep intervention techniques included methods such as "controlled crying" whereby parents responded to their infant's cry at increasing time intervals. For instance, parents might let children cry for 30 seconds the first night before responding to their cries, then one minute, the second night, and so on and so on. Another technique is called "camping out," or "adult fading," where parents sat with their baby until the little one fell asleep, removing themselves earlier and earlier each night over a three-week period.
Parents in the control group were not taught the sleep training techniques and instead used their own methods for helping their children sleep through the night.
Over the course of the study, the researchers found that both the children and the mothers in the sleep training group slept better, and the mothers were less likely to experience depression and other emotional problems. I'm not sure why only the mothers were evaluated, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one that it was easiest to simply evaluate one parent per kid.
The researchers also looked at various mental and behavioral health factors to determine whether harm was done to children in the sleep training group. They evaluated children for sleep quality, stress and relationship with their parents and found no differences between children in the two groups, leading researchers to conclude that these sleep training techniques are safe to use.
Will this study settle one of the longest running debates in the history of parenting? Probably not. In the end, parents that are more comfortable responding to their babies cries will continue to do so. But maybe it will ease any guilt felt by desperate parents who need a good night's sleep and see sleep intervention techniques as their best chance for success.