Cry it out method used to teach baby’s self settling works and is safe, study finds

Researchers say the controversial “cry it out” method and other behavioral sleep interventions used to teach babies self-settling are safe and effective, after a study of more than 2000 families.

Researchers followed 2090 families in the United States for 12 months last year and found more than 64 per cent of them used at least one of three behavioral sleep interventions to teach their babies how to self regulate.

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The interventions included:

  • the parental presence method – where a parent is physically present in the room where the baby sleeps and will tend to the child at scheduled intervals to help them settle;
  • the controlled crying method – where a parent allows the baby to cry for some time before coming into the room at scheduled intervals to help them settle, and;
  • the cry it out method – where a baby is left to cry before falling asleep without parent intervention.

International infant sleep expert and senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University Dr Michal Kahn said the research found parents who used the controlled crying and cry it out method had longer periods of sleep.

“We found that infants whose parents had used controlled crying, for example, slept 18 mins more per night on average compared to infants whose parents hadn’t used behavioral sleep interventions,” Kahn said.

“That adds up to over two hours more night time sleep per week, which is a very meaningful difference.”

The study monitored the babies movement in their cribs using computer vision technology called auto-videosomnography and then translated it into data of sleep-wake cycles.

Kahn said the babies in the study, who were on average five months old, that were allowed to control cry or cry it out improved self regulation a lot faster, compared to those families who used the parental presence method or no intervention at all.

She said while leaving a baby to cry was often considered controversial, the study found it was safe and there were no short-term or long-term consequences as a result.

“Parents who had and had not used them did not differ in measures of parent-infant bonding, parent depression, or parent sleep,” she said.

A US study found that sleep training methods like leaving babies to cry helped increase their sleep periods. Credit: Rayes/Getty Images

Importantly, Kahn said there was no history of research that had proven using the cry it out method was linked to anxiety in children.

“Many have tried collecting data about cortisol levels to determine infant and mother stress levels, infant separation anxiety, attachment, and other emotional and behavioral outcomes,” she said.

“None have found evidence for harm thus far.”

Kahn was a researcher at Flinders University during the the study and presented the findings at the 2022 World Sleep Congress.

She said the results would help families feel more comfortable about their parenting choices.

“I think parents should trust their instincts as much as they can, and educate themselves about the available research evidence,” Kahn said.

“Parenting an infant can be extremely difficult, and parents sometimes look for absolute truths or dos and don’ts to make sense of this confusing and demanding job”

“From these dos and don’t judgment can arise….I think that reducing that judgmental stance is important, remembering there is no one right way to raise your baby.”

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