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Cry it out vs. comfort to sleep

When it comes to babies and sleep, parents can become exhausted just thinking about it! How many moms talk about sleep as though it’s a distant, but very fond, memory? How you put your older infant to sleep depends on your parenting principles. Some parents believe in “sleep training,” some favor rocking, holding or feeding until baby is sleeping and others believe that babies reach a certain point at which they have to cry themselves to sleep, or cry-it-out. Keep reading for perspectives and advice.

Sleeping baby

Most new parents know a thing or two about sleep deprivation. It doesn’t take long with a new baby who isn’t the best sleeper to begin dreaming — while awake, of course — about sleeping! How do you help your baby learn to sleep?

The newborn stage

Allowing a very young newborn to cry himself to sleep probably isn’t a great idea, no matter where you stand on the subject. Joshua Sparrow, M.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of Touchpoints, explains, “Newborns aren’t going to learn to sleep by crying…it’s a lot of stress for their bodies to take.”

Basically, a new baby’s brain isn’t developed enough to allow him to comfort himself to sleep. No matter what you do with your older infant, most experts will agree that a baby under four months of age needs comfort when crying, even if all of his basic physical needs, such as feeding and changing, have been met.

“Sleep training”

For parents of older infants, the buzz words “sleep training” are tossed around frequently. What is sleep training, anyway? Dr. Sparrow says that he doesn’t prefer the term, as it implies a technical process that requires research and guidance. In fact, what many parents are attempting to accomplish is helping their babies learn to fall asleep without the usual crutches, such as nursing or bottle feeding.

“Rather than meeting all of their baby’s needs, such as holding or nursing until they fall asleep…parents can stop, lay him down, sing softly, rub his back, etc.” You gradually decrease the support you’re offering so baby is learning to comfort himself more. You’re not laying your crying baby down and leaving the room, but rather sharing the comforting process with him so that he can begin to relax himself. “That is where the learning is,” notes Dr. Sparrow.

“Crying it out”

“I’m not aware that there’s good evidence that says it’s detrimental to allow older babies to cry until they sleep,” says Dr. Sparrow. “However, the theory behind the concern might be that early experiences give humans a sense that the world is a safe and reliable place where the people who take care of you are supposed to be trusted. It can be confusing if our different interactions with them send different messages.” If you’re present all day, comforting and helping your child, and then you’re suddenly not when your child is having trouble sleeping, it can send mixed messages.

Dr. Sparrow suggests a more consistent method is to remain present in the room, giving your baby the secure feeling that “you are there, helping him, even if you’re not taking over and doing all of the comforting for him.”

Whatever baby wants, baby gets!

However, many parents want to offer their babies full comfort, arguing that an infant’s feelings of security results from having all of his needs — and wants — met. This might include nursing or bottle feeding until he is asleep, no matter his age.

Dr. Sparrow says that he doesn’t see any problem with this, other than the fact that it could take a long time for a child to learn to fall asleep on his own if there is no effort made to help him learn as a baby. However, if you’re comfortable with the time commitment — and you don’t need more sleep yourself! — you are mom and you know what they say: mom knows best!


What works for you and your baby? Share your getting-baby-to-sleep advice and perspective in the comments section below.

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