The idea of letting a baby “cry it out” is an age-old debate that many parents — new and experienced — find themselves curious about. While some parents believe that the method can be beneficial to help young children learn to soothe themselves to sleep, other parents are against it.
The debate over whether parents should leave a wailing baby to “cry it out” or rush to their aid has been reignited by research that suggests allowing them to bawl does no harm.
Attachment theory suggests parents should dash to calm their infants, and proponents say leaving infants to cry could have knock-on effects, including damaging the bond between parent and child and raising the infant’s stress levels.
Others, however, argue that picking a baby up reinforces crying and that parents should leave the child.
Now researchers say they have found that leaving infants to cry has no impact on their behavioural development or their attachment to their mother, but may help them develop self-control.
There is no right or wrong answer.
One of the main issues with the “cry-it-out” method is that parents are always seeking a cut and dry answer. She pointed out that the issue isn’t quite so black and white. The age of the infant is an important factor when deciding whether or not to let the baby cry for a certain period of time.
During those first three months, babies need parents to help soothe them and calm them down. Ideally, we help them learn to go to sleep not by putting them into a deep sleep, but rather lay them down at that point where they are dozing off, swaddled, and on their way to sleep.
After the newborn period, the effectiveness of the “cry-it-out” method varies by child and parent.
What I always tell parents is that it doesn’t hurt babies to cry. It’s their way of communicating with us. But, you have to know your infant. The goal is to help the infant get to that place where they are calm and sort of drowsy and then put them in the crib. They may fuss for a few minutes and some fuss for longer, but then they finally put themselves to sleep. And they are going to be fine.
It all boils down the parent-child relationship.
You have to know your child, but you also have to know yourself. Some parents can’t handle the crying. If you can’t, then you are never going to let your baby cry at all. Does a baby need to scream for hours on end? No. But they do need somebody to say to them, It’s OK, I love you,’ so that they can cry and learn that, ‘Hey, I’m OK crying and I can go to back to sleep on my own.’
Decoding the tears
A crying baby is trying to tell you something. Your job is to figure out why and what — if anything — you can do about it.
Over time you might be able to identify your baby’s needs by the way he or she is crying. For example, a hungry cry might be short and low-pitched, while a cry of pain might be a sudden, long, high-pitched shriek. Picking up on any patterns can help you better respond to your baby’s cries.
Consider what your crying baby could be thinking:
- I’m hungry. Most newborns eat every few hours round-the-clock. Crying is a late sign of hunger. Look for early signs of hunger, such as hand to mouth movements and lip-smacking.
- I want to suck on something. For many babies, sucking is a comforting activity. If your baby isn’t hungry, offer a pacifier or help your baby find a finger or thumb.
- I’m lonely. Calmly hold your baby to your chest. Gentle pats on the back might soothe a crying baby, too.
- I’m tired. Tired babies are often fussy — and your baby might need more sleep than you think. Newborns often sleep up to 16 hours a day or sometimes more.
- I’m wet. A wet or soiled diaper can trigger tears. Check your baby’s diaper often to make sure it’s clean and dry.
- I want to move to. Sometimes a rocking session or walk can soothe a crying baby. Or try placing your baby in an infant swing or going for a car ride.
- I’d rather be bundled. Some babies feel most secure when swaddled.
- I’m hot or cold. Add or remove a layer of clothing as needed.
Too much noise, movement or visual stimulation also might drive your baby to cry. Move to a calmer environment or place your baby in the crib. White noise — such as a recording of ocean waves or the monotonous sound of an electric fan — might help your crying baby relax.
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Some crying is not harmful to a young baby.
Klein, who is the author of How Toddlers Thrive, points out that a little crying is fine for young infants in the three to six month age range. Although there are certain times when a parent needs to step in.
If you have a baby who just moves into hysterics and can’t get off of that, then you do need to go in and calm them and soothe them. We suggest rubbing the infant’s back or another gentle gesture to help calm the child down. The whole purpose of helping a baby learn to go to sleep is helping them learn to calm themselves enough to fall back to sleep. They go up and get upset, but can they come back down. As much as the world would like to make it about ‘do you let them cry or don’t you,’ it’s kind of a between answer.
There is no evidence that the cry-it-out method is harmful to infants, but reminds caretakers that a baby’s cries should always be viewed in the context of the parent-infant relationship.
Crying is a baby’s way of telling us that they need something like they are hungry, sick, need a diaper change, but it’s also a way one of the few ways they have to regulate themselves. As long as there is a loving and nurturing relationship happening with the baby during the day, then they won’t feel abandoned, and probably they aren’t going to have lifelong problems because they learned to cry-it-out at night. A nice bedtime routine that nurtures them into bed is helpful, too.
A baby who is getting enough sleep is more capable of coping with their emotions during the day. The truth is infants are very dependent on parents to help them settle down. You don’t have to go running to your baby every time there is a whimper, but you get that feeling of ‘Do they need me to comfort them?’ It’s all of that nurturing by day that helps a baby calm at night.
Inconsolable crying or colic
Some babies cry a lot over a long period of time. Nothing seems to comfort them. This is often called colic.
Colic might just be natural behaviour for some babies, especially at the end of a long day and after too much stimulation. Crying might help newborn take control of her environment. It’s as if your baby is saying, ‘Enough! I’m just going to cry to shut out the world’.
If your baby cries like this, it can be very hard for you to cope with. These ideas might help you and your baby:
- Reduce the stimulation around your baby – for example, try sitting with a baby in a quiet, dimmed room.
- Lay your baby on his side in his cot and rhythmically pat his back. Gently turn him onto his back if he falls asleep.
- Try putting in some imaginary earplugs. Let the sound of the crying pass through you, and remind yourself that everything is OK. You’re doing all you can to help your baby.
- Take baby for a walk in the pram or a sling. Movement can sometimes be soothing.
- Try playing ‘white noise’ like a fan or the radio tuned to the static between stations. This can help to settle the baby.
Crying is a baby’s way of communicating with parents and caretakers.
“For babies who are 6 to 12-months-old, as long as are fed or unless they are going through a growth spurt, there are these moments when babies need a little more at some point. But they aren’t sick, that’s their normal cry, a parent can really leave them until the parent feels like they just need to go in, put a hand on them, and let them know they’re OK.
Some children are capable of doing this on their own. Klein, who has three children, struggled with letting her firstborn cry-it-out at night. But, with the help of her husband, her son learned to soothe himself back to bed.
Using her own experiences — both professional and personal — Klein has one basic message for parents who are mulling over the “cry-it-out” method.
“It doesn’t hurt a baby to cry as long as they aren’t sick or there isn’t something seriously wrong,” she said. “Crying is a baby’s method of actually learning to regulate themselves at night.”
To those who argue that crying is bad for a child, Klein had this to say.
“People use these words like trauma. Well, trauma is hurting a child. Crying to go back to sleep, particularly as it gets better each night, isn’t trauma,” she said. “Over time, that baby really is learning to put himself back to sleep. The best gift you can give a child is to get good, precious sleep.”
Understanding and responding to your newborn baby’s behaviour
Your newborn baby is working out what the world is like. The way you respond to her behaviour, especially her crying, tells her a lot about her world.
For example, your baby might find out that when he cries, someone comes to give him what he needs. This might be a nappy change, a feed or a cuddle. If that happens, he’ll learn that the world is a pretty OK place.
When you respond quickly to comfort your crying newborn, your baby will cry less often overall. It’s absolutely fine to pick up your baby when she cries. It tells her that she’s safe because you’re a caring, responsive parent who loves her.
Crying it out
If your baby doesn’t appear sick, you’ve tried everything, and he or she is still upset, it’s OK to let your baby cry. If you need to distract yourself for a few minutes, place your baby safely in the crib and make a cup of tea or call a friend.
Is it just fussiness, or is it colic?
Some babies have frustrating periods of frequent, prolonged and intense crying known as colic — typically starting a few weeks after birth and improving by age three months.
Colic is often defined as crying for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week, for three or more weeks in an otherwise healthy infant. The crying might seem like an expression of pain and begin for no apparent reason. The timing might be predictable, with episodes often happening at night.
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Newborn crying: what to expect?
Crying is a newborn’s main way of communicating, of telling you what she needs. It’s a sound that can spur you into action, even when you’re asleep. If you’re a breastfeeding mother, it can trigger your let-down reflex.
Crying peaks at about six weeks. This period of intense newborn crying will pass.
Babies cry and fuss on average for almost three hours a day. Some cry for a lot longer than this. Most of this crying and fussing seems to happen in the late afternoon and evening, although every day will probably be a bit different.
As your baby gets older, it’ll be easier for you to understand what he’s trying to tell you through crying. His crying is also more likely to be spread throughout the day.
Remaining relaxed will make it easier to console your baby. Take a break and rest when you can. Ask friends and loved ones for help. Remember that this is temporary. Crying spells often peak at about six to eight weeks and then gradually decrease.
If your baby’s crying is causing you to lose control, put the baby in the crib and go to another room to collect yourself. If necessary, contact a family member or friend, your health care provider, a local crisis intervention service, or a mental health helpline for support.