The cry-it-out method: Child abuse or parenting choice?

Posted May 24

Nighttime can be a nightmare for parents of babies who didn’t get the memo about sleeping. All parents want is quiet and maybe some shut-eye, but that little one won’t. Stop. Crying.

So parents have essentially two choices in this moment: Let the baby cry it out until they eventually cry themselves to sleep, or go to the baby and soothe him to sleep if possible.

Sounds like a pretty simple choice, right?

Not so fast. This one little choice has raised quite a bit of contention online and in parenting discussions over the years. The fans of the cry-it-out method say the babies will never learn to self-soothe if mom or dad always rescue them in the night. The opposing camp says babies need to be nurtured — day or night — and ignoring their cries could do long-term emotional and neurological damage.

So to all you exhausted mothers at 2 a.m. trying to decide who to believe, good luck.

The debate has risen to the surface again recently after a prominent pediatric group in New York and Los Angeles recommended that babies as young as 2 months old should be allowed to cry it out using the extinction method where adults do not soothe or intervene after a child has been put in his or her crib. These younger babies are easier to train, they say, because they haven’t yet learned the habit of expecting a parent to soothe them.

Some of the comments in response to the article equate crying it out to child abuse, calling it cruel and inhumane.

Like all things in parenthood, there is probably no one right answer and no parent who is actually doing everything “right.”

For our first daughter, we were all swept up in the amazement of parenting and created a string of bad sleep habits for her. We let her sleep with us. We kept her up late at night to play with us. We ran in to check on her when she was crying to make sure she was OK and when she wasn’t crying to make sure she was still alive.

The result? We created a monster.

By the time she was a year old, we were sleep-deprived and going out of our minds with our daughter who could not go to sleep without one of us rocking her. Even then, she thought it was playtime.

So, we turned to a book called “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” and embarked on a modified sleep-training routine where we would let her cry for short periods that gradually got longer. We would check on her often, patting her and soothing her briefly.

The first few nights were rough, but we stuck to the plan. And we all survived.

Let me be clear here: We never let our daughter scream for hours. We did not feel like the “extinction” method of letting a baby cry until they fall asleep alone was right for us. We did not neglect her, but we did let her cry.

And when our second daughter was born, we didn’t make the same sleep mistakes. We did sleep training while she was young with consistent bedtimes and routines. Lo and behold, we never had to let her cry it out.

I’m sure some people will disagree that we let our first daughter cry or self-soothe at all. I’m fine to agree to disagree.

But what irks me is when people get on their soap boxes to tell other moms they are doing motherhood wrong. To accuse someone of child abuse for trying to help their child sleep is outrageous, and to use scare tactics to prevent a sleep-deprived mother from doing what she needs to do to keep her sanity is just plain wrong. I'm all for more information about various sleep methods, but the judgment has to stop.

Those nights when I let my first daughter cry it out were some of the hardest of my young mothering life. I was not neglecting her. I was not taking the easy way out. I was doing what I thought was best for my baby because she was exhausted, I was exhausted and the cycle had to end.

If you are a perfect mother, way to go. Shoot me an email with some tips. Otherwise, let’s all agree that we’re doing our best and doing what we think is best for our children. Even if we disagree on everything else, can we at least agree to that?

What sleep-training plan worked best in your babies? Did you ever try a version of the cry-it-out method?

Erin Stewart is a regular blogger for Deseret News. From stretch marks to the latest news for moms, she discusses it all while her 9-year-old and 5-year-old daughters dive-bomb off the couch behind her.

1 Comment

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  • Amanda Townsend May 24, 12:38 p.m.
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    We never tried cry it out with either of our kids. We just weren't comfortable with it. I am of the mindset that if they are crying, they have a need to be met.
    I eventually got to the point where I would put them in bed, then sit on the floor until they fell alseep, and move further and further away from the bed each night, until I was outside the door. It was the least traumatic method for us. Of course, I also worked outside the home, nursed until they were over 1, and did all sorts of things that were 'controversial'. I have always been of the mindset that mother tear each other down, instead of supporting one another.