New study says that it’s okay to let babies cry at night

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Follow me at @drClaire

When my eldest was a baby, I remember feeling so torn when she cried during the night. Our pediatrician and my mother both said that it was okay to let her cry for a while and let her learn to go back to sleep. But as I listened to her cry, I wondered: Will this make her too stressed? Will it damage her emotionally? Will it ruin our relationship?

The answer to all of those questions, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, is no. Not only that, if I’d done it (I didn’t, I was too worried), my daughter and I might have gotten a bunch more sleep.

Researchers from Australia worked with families who said that their babies (ages 6-16 months) had a sleep problem. They divided the families into three groups. One was told to do “graduated extinction,” during which they let the baby cry first just for a minute before going in and interacting with them, and then gradually increased the amount of time they let them cry. Another group did something called “bedtime fading,” where they told the parents to delay bedtime so that the babies were more tired. The last group was the “control” group and got education on babies and sleep, but nothing else.

To measure the effects on the babies, the researchers did something interesting: they measured the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the babies’ saliva. They also asked the mothers about their levels of stress. Twelve months later, they looked for any emotional or behavioral problems in the babies, and they also did testing to see how attached the babies were to their mothers.

Here’s what they found. The babies in the graduated extinction group and the bedtime fading group both fell asleep faster and had less stress than the control group — and not only that, their mothers were less stressed than the control group mothers. Of the three groups, the extinction group babies were less likely to wake up again during the night. And when it came to emotional or behavioral problems, or attachment, all three groups were the same.

This means that it’s okay to let your baby cry a little. It’s not only okay, it may lead to more sleep all around. Which makes everyone happier.

In another study published about four years ago, researchers looked even further out than a year. They compared families who did sleep training and families who didn’t and followed them for six years. There was no difference between the two groups. Whether parents let babies cry or got up all night to hold them, the kids turned out the same.

We can get sleep and still have well-adjusted kids who love us. How great is that?

Just to be clear, “graduated extinction” doesn’t mean letting your kid cry all night. It just means that you slowly but surely help your baby learn to soothe himself when he wakes up at night, instead of always relying on you to do it. (Dr. Richard Ferber has a great book called Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems that explains all of this and is very helpful.)

It’s a natural instinct to want to stop your baby from crying. But sometimes, milestones in life involve some crying — whether it’s learning to fall back to sleep, learning to walk (there’s always a tumble), starting daycare or school (leaving parents is hard), making friends (kids can be mean), playing sports (you don’t always win), or learning to drive (oh, wait, it’s the parents who cry with that one). Never letting our children cry doesn’t help them; in fact, it can end up hurting them.

And let’s face it: getting sleep helps us be better parents.

If your baby is waking up crying at night, talk to your doctor. There are lots of reasons babies cry at night. But if your doctor tells you that everything is okay, don’t feel that you have to respond to every single cry.

Your baby will be fine.

Comments:

  1. Alexandru Stanciu

    I was so saddened by this post but then I’ve read the comments here.

    Your baby will probably be fine, Claire McCarthy MD, but the babies of the moms and dads commenting here are going to be much better.

  2. Nichola

    There is a reason that intuitively mothers (perhaps less-so fathers) are pulled by the cries of their young. They are responding to a call. They can’t use words. This is their only form of communication. As someone who has experienced the ‘isolation’ of social rejection as an adult in mid-life, during my darkest hours of depression and anxiety, when all I needed was reassurance that the significant people in my life were there for me, it wasn’t forthcoming, and I spiralled downwards, relying instead of personal inner resources (poetry) to make sense of the alienation and turmoil and social connection, with others who cared and were willing to be there for me. Attachment is not an issue just for babies…The fallout from feeling emotionally insecure, may not surface until much later in life, teens and beyond. I felt the article, while trying to reassure harried and sleep-deprived parents that they can let go of some guilt associated with letting their baby cry, I also felt uncomfortable with the grand statement that ‘there’s nothing to worry about’…Actually, any communication from another human being that is not responded to is part of the crisis of loneliness that is the epidemic of our times…and it starts at birth…

  3. Lorraine Cannuli

    Using ‘attachment’ to the parent as a criterion for supporting this study is ridiculous. The more you reject a baby (or anyone who us dependent on you), the more they will cling to you. It is certainly no indication of mental health. The relationship you sow with your newborn and baby, the way you let them know you care if they cry, comes to fruition much later, especially in the teen years. This study proves nothing and will cause great harm.

  4. Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D.

    As a child psychotherapist and parenting author (Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating, and Enjoying Your Child) I am appalled by the damage this study will do. There is no scientific long term study that can show that letting babies cry themselves to sleep is not harmful. In fact, child development research would indicate the exact opposite. Imitation is the most powerful engine of learning for infants and young children. When babies are left to cry they give up and go to sleep because they feel hopeless that their cries will be responded to. This is a cruel and harmful lesson. Babies learn that no matter how unhappy they are, their beloved parents will not come to their aid. Babies will imitate this lack of response and learn to turn a deaf ear to their own suffering and that of others. Infants who are responded to and soothed become very good at soothing themselves and putting themselves back to sleep. Plus they learn compassion and caring.

    • Claire McCarthy MD

      There is an important difference between graduated extinction and letting babies cry it out. In the study, they did not let babies cry it out–and while you are absolutely right that there are no long term studies, 12 months in the life of a baby is reasonably long and the babies–and their attachment to their parents–were fine. As a pediatrician, I don’t tell families that their babies need to sleep through the night; I help them find their own, safe way. Yet I meet many families who are so worn by sleep deprivation that it is impacting not just their ability to function but their parenting–and yet they feel so guilty letting their child cry that they don’t even want to try graduated extinction. For those families, this study is very useful.

    • Tanuja

      Beautiful reply Mam. loving and soothing a child has never harmed him. My mom told me that babies get scared at night, they might have trouble breathing U never know. It develops trust. So go and hug your baby. Before my mom’s visit after childbirth, I had read some stupid article like the above and had let my baby cry easily for 1 hour. My mom asked me – how would you feel if you screamed and no one looked at you. Please came in your room and passed by? Imagine if you were to cry for 30 mins – what will happen to your lungs?
      then I lifted my baby and patted her. She burped and was Okay. I realized my mistake. Please don’t go by these articles. Do what is natural . Even animals take care of their babies- so should you

  5. AlmaRobert

    Thanks for sharing this informative post.. This is very useful..