Should they cry it out?

I would love to write the authoritative post on children and sleep,  but there are a few problems. First, I don’t think there is any one answer on getting children and babies to sleep. Second, no two authorities seem to agree anyway! And third, well, if anyone’s going to write that post, I doubt it’s going to be me, since my daughter mostly sleeps by herself (but not always), while my son thinks he’s a small mammal that sleeps draped over a branch at night…except the branch is my arm.

However, I would like to ponder the question I was asked by friend o’ the blog Beth (::waves::), who wanted to know about this blog post, which claims that letting babies “cry it out” causes brain damage. (I saw this post mentioned a few places, so I suspect it’s been making the rounds of the blogosphere.)

Well, after doing some research, I still don’t know if crying it out is damaging to babies, but this blog post certainly didn’t do anything to convince me. I searched PubMed (which catalogs the contents of medical journals and includes the journal Biological Psychiatry) and as far as I can tell, the DeBellis article doesn’t exist. If anyone can track down an abstract for it, I’d appreciate it, because I sure couldn’t find it.

And the second article? Concerns children who suffered abuse or neglect. Y’know, the kind of thing that gets parents arrested? I’m not the biggest fan of cry it out in the universe (see: boy still sleeping on my arm at almost 2 years of age) but I wouldn’t call it abuse or neglect on the level of, say, sexual abuse. It’s an interesting fact to know that neglected children had a 15-18% smaller corpus callosum, but I suspect Dr. Teicher would hesitate before extending that result to children like my bright and talented daughter, who did, in fact, cry it out at 6 months and learn to sleep by herself.

As I read my way around the Internet (Beth, I’ll be sending you the bill for my somewhat expensive time :D), I found a lot of opinion and not a lot of data, even when I looked at sites like the American Academy of Pediatrics.

If anyone has one of these books that claims to be backed up by research into baby’s brains, could you please copy out some of the references for me so I can look them up? ‘Cause I got nothin’.

I found studies that found more disturbed sleep for babies in bed-sharing, a description of the physiology of sleep in infants, lots of articles talking about how putting babies on their back cuts the risk of SIDS and how to educate parents about it, how maternal separation anxiety can contribute to babies waking, and so on and so forth, but nothing that seemed to address the question at hand. I admit it, I’m out of my depth!

But when has that ever stopped me from giving my opinion? ::glares at everyone who knows me:: Don’t answer that. In any case, I figure if everyone else and their mother can give their opinion without backing it up with data, so can I 😀

I strongly suspect that in this, as in everything, there is a middle ground where the truth lies. I think that some kids and parents can do cry it out with no harm done and for some kids and parents it’s bad all around. And a lot of points in between. I mean, kids are different. Some are clingy from the moment they’re born (looks at son) and some act like they’re ready to drive themselves to the mall at age 1 (looks at daughter). Some kids think that time alone in a crib with some toys is the greatest gift you could give them and some kids take one look at the crib and cry like you’re throwing them to the wolves.

So it seems to me to be clear that some kids are going to quickly learn that going to sleep by themselves is nice and relaxing and only call for mommy when there’s a problem and some kids are going to think they’ve been abandoned. And some mommies will be perfectly happy to suffer for a few days along with their kids and some simply can’t do it.

And d’you know what? I’m willing to bet that all of these kids will turn out just fine, as long as parents listen to their instincts and watch their kids’ reactions. Don’t force co-sleeping or sleeping alone if it seems to be really harming your kid or you. And don’t let your doctor, your sister, or your friend make you feel guilty for your choice. So there.


About mamamara

I'm a 40-something, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
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8 Responses to Should they cry it out?

  1. Well stated, Mara! Gross generalizations do not apply to individuals.
    – Sharona

    • mamamara says:

      ::nods:: I get very tired of “this is the right way to” potty train or sleep train or teach reading or…

      Does anybody actually believe that every single child in the country, let alone the world, will learn whatever it is exactly the same way?

  2. Beth C. says:

    I feel special. But that doesn’t mean I’m paying you! hahahaha! Thanks for writing this! 🙂 If you ever run short of topics, I’m your gal.

  3. debc says:

    When my daughter was born, we did the ‘cry it out’ with her, but only after exhausting the reasons a baby should be crying and only if it was late at night because Steve had to be to work by 5 am and can ignore anything. That means, before she ‘cried it out’ I attempted feeding her (she breast fed), changing her, and rocking/comforting her. She was a generally happy child, though, did not use pacifers (she did suck her thumb from about 3 months to 1 year and then stopped on her own accord) and loved to be cuddled in the rocking chair or swinging in her swing.

    Our son, born some six and a half years later, was night to her day. He was a bit of a night owl, hated the swing, hated to be rocked, couldn’t locate his thumb if his life depended on it and wanted/needed constant stimulation when he was awake. Night times were the worst because he assumed that if he was awake, someone else needed to be as well. Since Steve works, again, it was I who sat up with him night after endless night. We attempted, as we had with Brenna, to let him ‘cry it out’ after the laundry list of ‘reasons babies cry’ was exhausted, but in the end, the only we exhausted was ourselves. He wasn’t collicky… just awake, bored, and wanting someone to pay attention to him. He was over two years old, closer to three, before I could safely say “why yes, my son sleeps through the night.” And even now, he doesn’t like to go to bed.

    As you said, what works with one child doesn’t work on another. Crying it out worked with our daughter. She found a way to pacify herself (her thumb) and was fine with that. We never let her suffer if something was truly wrong we could actually help with. Our son is just simple put… a high maintenance pain in the butt and crying it out was as much a waste of time as actually catering to his self-perceived needs. But he’s cute and I love him. *g*

    Do I think either of them are brain damaged for us having let them ‘cry it out’? Well, my daughter is always on the honor roll at school, has had two art projects on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art, and likes to write short stories. Nope… no brain damage there.

    • mamamara says:

      ::nods:: I get so tired of one-size-fits-all parenting “rules.” Like yours, my kids are night and day on sleep. Not to mention the things that have changed for me in that time. It’s a whole different ball game, so the same rules just can’t apply!

  4. Jenne says:

    Biological Psychiatry is a Science Direct journal; you should be able to see the abstracts if not the articles. Try this link for De Bellis’s publications:

    There is one in 2004 but it’s about pituitary volume. He appears to study PTSD, primarily.
    The seven other authors one is probably this one:
    Developmental Traumatology II: Brain Development

    Again, the study is of kids who have been sexually abused, physically abused, and/or witnesses to domestic violence!

    Why is it when ‘medical tv personalities’ start reading Biological Psychiatry their brains go all gooey? I think I may have posted about the article in the same journal that postulates that (self-reported) bullying causes both abnormalities of the corpus callosum and psychiatric difficulties as found in their sample. *rolls eyes*

    • mamamara says:

      Somehow I’m not shocked that it’s about physical or sexual abuse. ::shakes head:: Thanks so much for these links, that’s very helpful! I’m really not seeing anything that relates to cry it out here. ::eyerolls with you::

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