It’s OK to let your baby cry himself to sleep, study finds

(CNN)Many new parents long for a full night of glorious, uninterrupted sleep yet shudder at the thought of letting their baby “cry it out,” the sleep training method in which parents allow babies to cry themselves to sleep. But a new study adds support to the idea that the method is effective and does not cause stress or lasting emotional problems for babies.

Researchers in Australia worked with 43 sets of parents who had babies between 6 and 16 months of age and who had a common complaint: Their child was having problems sleeping. The researchers taught about a third of the parents about graduated extinction, a technical term for crying it out. Parents were asked to leave the room within a minute of putting their child to bed and, if their children cried, to wait longer and longer periods of time before going back to comfort them.
    Another third of the parents were asked to try a newer type of sleep training called bedtime fading. In this approach, parents put their infant to bed closer to the time he or she usually fell asleep and could stay in the room until the child dozed off.
    As for which method to choose, the two methods in the study appear to help in different ways, which could help guide parents.
    “If you have an infant that only has nighttime awakenings, it appears from this study that bedtime fading is not as effective,” whereas both methods could help if your problem is getting your child to fall asleep in the first place, said Daniel Lewin, a pediatric psychologist and sleep specialist at Children’s National Health System in Washington.
    “In the real world, you could do a combination” of the two, Lewin said. Parents could put their child to bed later and delay visiting the child if he starts crying, for example.
    However, this type of training is not for everyone. Not all parents report that their children have sleep problems, and it is this subset of parents for whom the current findings would most relevant, Lewin said.
    For those parents who do think their babies have trouble sleeping, the study brings even more good news: It did not take parents the full three months of the sleep training trial to see effects. Babies in both intervention groups were falling asleep faster one week after their parents started the training, and they continued to improve over the three-month period.
    “The thing I often tell parents is that it only takes three days, and [sleep training] is effective,” Weinraub said.
    Even babies who sleep well can get thrown off when they have a cold or an earache, she said. But if they have a good sleep schedule, it is easy for them to get back on track in just a few days, she added.

    Don’t feel bad, Mom and Dad

    Parents can feel a lot of guilt about not comforting their babies while they are crying. “[But] by setting a clear and loving limit for your child, children can function better,” Lewin said.

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    In his practice, Lewin talks with parents and reassures them that they are not deserting or punishing their child by letting him soothe himself to sleep.
    The cry-it-out method can also be difficult for busy parents. Parents may think, “I want to see my infant; I haven’t seen them much today,” Lewin said. It is OK for parents to feel conflict about this, he said, but it is important for them give children the space to fall asleep on their own.

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