The Cry It Out Method for Sleep Training: A Parent's Guide

Some parents swear by the cry it out method—also known as extinction sleep training— while others think it's downright harmful. Here’s what you need to know about the controversial technique.

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The cry-it-out method is a type of sleep training that involves letting a baby cry for a period of time before they go to sleep. There are numerous variations on the cry-it-out method (also called extinction sleep training)—and they often spark heated debate among parents, pediatricians, and psychologists. Keep reading to learn more about the cry-it-out method, how it works, and whether it's safe for your little one.

How Does the Cry It Out Method Work?

Sleep training your baby teaches self-soothing mechanisms and promotes independent slumber. There are many different sleep training methods, and some of them fall under the "cry it out" category—including total extinction and the Ferber method.

Total Extinction: At the more rigid end of the spectrum is total extinction—letting your baby cry alone until he falls asleep, however long it takes. Parents resist their baby's cries throughout the night, and they don't soothe fussiness.

Ferber Method: A gentler version is the Ferber method, often referred to as graduated extinction. It involves checking on and briefly comforting your baby at predetermined intervals. The time between these intervals gradually increases, and you keep it up until Baby falls asleep on his own.

Many parents have chosen cry-it-out methods of sleep training, finding that a bit of crying in the short term was well worth the long-term benefits of a good night's sleep for all. But some experts and parents think that the cry-it-out method is cruel and that it causes psychological damage in infants.

The Controversy Behind Cry It Out

Why is the cry-it-out method so controversial? Some parents and experts believe that allowing a baby to cry, especially for an extended length of time, is harmful. "They argue that it's psychologically damaging for the infant—it disrupts secure attachment, for example," says Douglas Teti, Ph.D., a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. What's more, critics claim that allowing babies to get distressed can lead to digestive issues or even damaged synapses in the brain.

But Dr. Teti says that, if done correctly, the child shouldn't be harmed by this method. "My perspective is that parental responding to an infant at night has to satisfy two goals: one is to respond to the infant to promote in the infant, over time, that the parent is there for them when needed," says Dr. Teti. "The other is to promote infant self-regulation, and in particular, self-regulated sleep. Responding to the infant is important across the board, but the nature of the response, and at what development period it occurs, need to be considered."

For example, he says that shouldn't try the cry-it-out method for infants less than 3 months old—a view that most pediatricians share. That's because newborns might still need nighttime feeding, and a parent's comfort during this period "seems to be helpful in establishing physiological and sleep regulation, which may have consequences beyond this early period," says Dr. Teti.

And what about the claims that crying it out leads to digestive issues or damaged synapses in the brain? "I think that's ludicrous," says Craig Canapari, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics and the director of the sleep medicine program at the Yale School of Medicine. "Honestly, it really wouldn't make much sense if kids got brain damage every time they cry. They cry all the time."

Dr. Canapari says some have used research conducted on neglect in orphanages—in which crying babies were rarely picked up—to make their arguments against these methods. "[Extinction sleep training] is a very set sort of circumstance in which you're ignoring your child's distress for a set period of time and in a very well-defined arena," says Dr. Canapari. "I think it's perfectly fine."

Is the Cry It Out Method Safe?

Not all parents are thrilled with the concept of letting their baby cry it out—and some are downright opposed to it. "For us, the cry it out method was a huge mistake," says Heather Creekmore, a mother of four who lives just outside of Dallas. She had picked up a book that recommended some crying it out. "It was our first baby, so going in, I was excited to get a book that told me how to get the baby to sleep," says Creekmore. "Because, [with the] the first baby, you're kind of desperate to have anything that will take you back to normal."

What she didn't know was that her oldest was suffering from acid reflux, which caused discomfort in the middle of the night. "Now, four kids later, I see clearly that I was trying to sleep train a baby who was miserable and uncomfortable," she says. "That's one of my biggest parenting regrets: Not having the resources or the experience to recognize that he was crying not to be fussy or because he didn't want to go to sleep but because he hurt. That I feel is the danger of the cry it out method, especially for first-time moms."

Sujay Kansagra, M.D., the director of the pediatric neurology sleep medicine program at Duke University Medical Center, says that while rigorous studies have shown evidence of short-term benefits to both mother and child using extinction sleep training—and no evidence of long-term risk to a child's health—he advises that they be used in healthy children. "For children with any health conditions," says Kansagra, "it is always best to speak with your pediatrician prior to sleep training."

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