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Child & Teen Health
New study says that it’s okay to let babies cry at night
- By Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
ARCHIVED CONTENT: As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date each article was posted or last reviewed. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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.
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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