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It is harmless to let babies cry themselves to sleep, study shows

Posted May 30

A new study shows allowing your children to cry themselves to sleep poses no long-term stress or emotional effects for them. Doing so can also be beneficial to establish a consistent sleep schedule for babies. (Deseret Photo)

Allowing your babies to cry themselves to sleep poses no long term stress or lasting emotional effects for them, according to a study from Australian researchers from Flinders University.

CNN reported the study involved 43 sets of parents who had young children from the ages of 6 to 16 months, and those children were having difficulty sleeping.

The researchers asked one third of the parents to employ the graduated extinction method, in which they leave the room as soon as the child was put to bed and wait extensive periods of time to return to comfort their child.

Another third of the parents were taught about a more recent method called bedtime fading, where parents would put their child to bed at close to the same time every night. They were allowed to stay in the room until their child fell asleep.

The last third of the parents did not participate in any specific sleep training, designating them as the control group.

After three months, the researchers found the babies in the cry-it-out group were falling asleep 15 minutes quicker than the babies in the control group. Also, the babies in the bedtime fading group were falling asleep 12 minutes faster than those in the control group, according to CNN.

"It looks like you've got two effective treatments that don't necessarily lead to negative outcomes," an associate professor at Flinders University in Australia told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Fox News noted the researchers measured the babies stress levels by the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their saliva. If the baby had high levels of cortisol, it could mean they suffer from long term stress.

"Parents have been told by some experts that children's stress levels will increase over time with these techniques and they will have behavioral problems, and this study shows very clearly, which I think is the first to do so, that there are no (poor) effects on children's stress levels," Marsha Weinraub, a professor of psychology at Temple University, told CNN.

According to USA Today, the babies who were affected by the graduated extinction method were no more stressed than the bedtime fading babies.

Carlos Lerner, an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA, told USA Today that with graduate extinction, a child will learn how to calm down and fall back asleep when she or he wakes up in the middle of the night.

"Many times when they wake up they seek out parents, who console them, which is disruptive to parents," Lerner said. "The idea is that if children have the skill to get back down to sleep they can sleep throughout the night without parents intervention."

Bedtime fading may be a plausible alternative. "A recent survey suggests that children who start bedtime routines before 12 months tend to have better sleep outcomes as preschoolers: They fall asleep more quickly, and get more sleep overall," Gwen Dewar wrote for Parenting Science.

A similar study was conducted in 2012, when researchers found similar results, according to Fox News.

"The Child and Adolescent Sleep Clinic at Flinders University advises parents start with bedtime fading first," Fox reported. "If parents try graduated extinction, they recommended setting aside a few days when they don’t have plans the next day and bringing in extra support."

Megan McNulty is an intern for the Deseret News National Edition. Contact her at mmcnulty@deseretnews.com

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