It’s Okay to Cry it Out (Except You Say it’s Not)

Dear Daughter,

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics says that it’s okay to let you cry it out. In fact, it says that you and I will benefit from this practice. I will be “at lower risk for depression” and you and I will “sleep better” and you “will not be harmed”.

I will not be letting you cry it out.

I wonder if the mothers who did not use “cry it out” had other tools in their toolbox or if they were simply struggling along and feeling as though they failed. There’s a sadness to be found in chaos and the feeling of failure.

I wonder if the mothers who did not use “cry it out” understood that infant sleep evolves and that the patterns change and become more structured as the child becomes older. I wonder if they understood the things that can wake an infant, how and when to transfer a sleeping child to a different sleeping surface, how to help the child contain their startle reflex.

I wonder if the mothers understood safe co-sleeping or if they stayed awake in a rocking chair in desperation rocking in the middle of the night, or resorting to half-sleeping on the couch with the baby perched dangerously on their chests. Knowing full well that what they were doing was not the “right” way, but not knowing anything safer.

I wonder if the mothers had support in their lives or if they were forced to Do It All By Themselves and Be Strong and Everyone Else Does It Why Can’t You Cope With Normal Life?

I wonder if mothers who avoid the Cry it Out method also have other things that impact their tendency toward depression or sadness. And if simply providing them with the reassurance that it is okay and it will pass.. May make a difference for them the way it did for me and the way it does for many others.

I don’t avoid having you “Cry It Out” simply because I fear that it will cause you harm.

I avoid it because it runs against my instincts and makes my heart sad.

I avoid it because it runs against your instincts and I worry that it would make your heart sad.

I avoid it because it is a tool that does not fit in my toolbox.

I avoid it because I believe that there is more health to be found in listening to our body’s instincts and natural patterns and understanding them rather than dismissing them as inconvenient.

I avoid it because I do not feel as some do that crying as an infant falls under the category of “positive stress”. To me, “positive stress” involves facing a conflict and overcoming it and not simply being forced into the pattern of surrender. Positive stress will come as you learn to crawl, as you learn to walk, as you learn to read, as you try and keep up with your big brothers. Positive stress comes from testing your own limits, running head first into them, and pushing yourself beyond what you were capable of. It comes from feeling as though you have autonomy and control of your circumstances.

I avoid it because as a toddler you will experience the other types of stress which relate to gracefully handling a disappointment. By then you will have words and the things that you ask for will be things that cannot be provided or that would be unhealthy to provide. Right now what you ask for is to be held and comforted. I do not want to teach you that those things are unattainable or reserved for certain times of the day.

I avoid it because I do not want to teach you that when life becomes stressful you can cry alone until you fall asleep. I want to teach you exactly what you know now. Persistence. Vocalization of your needs. I want to build the structure of calm now, so that you have calm laced throughout your memories and so that you have it as a base that you will always try and return to.

I avoid it because your infancy is brief and I can wait it out.

I avoid it because I refuse to follow studies that say it is “okay” to ignore your needs when there are other things that I can do without ever ignoring you.

I won’t let you “cry it out” because a study says it’s okay to ignore your needs. I want you to learn to listen to yourself. The study may say that it’s okay for you to cry it out, but you say that it is not. And you say it as loudly as you can.

I’ll listen to you.

<3 Mama

16 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Cry it Out (Except You Say it’s Not)

  1. Thank you for giving a voice to those of us who make these choices every night against so much pressure to do it differently. A loving grounded voice amid chaos …

  2. “I avoid it because it runs against my instincts and makes my heart sad.

    I avoid it because it runs against your instincts and I worry that it would make your heart sad.”

    This is exactly how I feel. If it breaks my heart, then it does not feel like the kind of parenting I want to do. I believe that my instincts serve me well, so I listen to them.

  3. Thank you!! This post describes where we are right now too. (I also have a 5 month old who is learning to sleep more independently). Thank you for the affirmation that others out there feel the same way that I do. I was curious about part of your post, where did you find The information about moving to a different sleeping surface and the startle reflex? If you could post/send a link I would be so grateful. I need to learn more so I can support my son in this transition. Thank you!!

    1. Alison, it’s more just things that I’ve discovered with my children. Like that my daughter will go back to sleep if her startle reflex is contained and won’t if it’s not. So when she is in the wrap and I grind coffee with her right there, she startles at the noise the first few times and goes right back to sleep because she startles against my chest. Then the next time she hears it in the wrap she doesn’t startle any more. But if she’s in the other room and startles at the sound she will wake up because there’s nothing containing her startle reflex and her entire body flails which she finds upsetting.

      Moving her to a different sleeping surface.. When I move her to her crib at night (We don’t always co-sleep as I do sleep more deeply if she’s willing to sleep elsewhere) I try to snuggle her into a deep sleep in the position that she will be in in the crib. (Nurse her, move her next to me, snuggle her, move myself away, let her go into a deep sleep, then move her to the same position in her crib) I also make sure that I contain her startle reflex either by swaddling her in the wrap that I carry her in during the day (inescapable and even if she gets her arms out she can’t pull it up over her face) or I have a woombie). If I move her without swaddling then I lean over and slowly lower her onto the new surface and place my hand over her arms for a moment or two in case she startles with the feeling of being put down. Then I gently ease her arms over to her sides above her head as this seems to be the position that she finds the most comfortable and startle-free when she is not swaddled. (IF her arms are on top of her body or by her sides the way they move when she is startled is much more of a movement than when they are above her head. So she’s more likely to startle awake.)

  4. I’m interested in this “new study” which found it okay, when studies at Yale, Harvard, and Baylor found that intense stress early in life can alter the brain’s neurotransmitter system and cause structural and functional changes. That infants who are routinely separated from parents in a stressful way have abnormally high levels of cortisol, ans well as lower levels of growth hormone. (From Dr. Sears Sleep book) How is this okay? Those facts alone would lead me to be depressed – knowing that something I am choosing to force on my infant is possible causing changes in his/her brain. How does picking up your baby when they cry make you depressed? Granted that it can get frustrating, no doubt about that, but in my opinion the CIO method just shifts the frustration from the mother to the child – that now its the baby’s problem to deal with. Why should a baby be burdened with that? After all, it wasn’t the baby’s idea to be born – it wasn’t the baby who asked to come into this world – it was the mothers (and fathers) wish. Yet now that the baby’s here…sorry, you’re bothering us? We cant be asked to constantly take care of you – that is just too much? That is a baby. BTW – love that pare about “making my heart and your heart sad”. Ok, let me come down from my soap box…and hand it back over to you!!!

    1. Yeah, I question the study myself. How can simple observations show “no harm”?

      To me it doesn’t matter if they are able to somehow show beyond all doubt that there is “no harm”. I cannot ignore my child’s tears without feeling that our relationship is harmed. Not necessarily their relationship with me, but my relationship with them. I don’t like the feeling of my responsiveness being scabbed over.

  5. Just to play devil’s advocate a little bit – I read the study and it actually said that cry it out was NOT healthy for either baby or mom. It caused too much stress like another commenter mentioned.

    It did talk about other sleep training techniques, controlled comforting/crying, camping out, etc, and those were the techniques it said had no long term negative effects.

    1. I’ve heard this in a few places now. Need to read the study, because all of the quotes that I’m reading are talking about CIO being fine, which was mind boggling to me as other studies show CIO to be harmful.

  6. Thanks so much for this blog. I was so angry when I read the article suggesting that women were “failing” to take up this practice because they feared it would cause harm. Um no…I’m deliberately and successfully choosing not to take up this practice because I think it’s neglectful and completely unnecessary. And after seven healthy happy well rested children, I’m fairly sure I’m on the right track with comforting and settling without having to take up this practice.

  7. I needed to see this! I can’t read the actual study because the whole issue of CIO strikes such a nerve in me. It hurts my heart to know that this is a common practice. I see it as a violation of human rights. You’ve mentioned, Sarah, that we adults have the resources to deal with our own lack of sleep, but babies don’t have the same resources to go it alone at nighttime. All they can do it cry, and when their one tool for seeking help is ignored, they shut down. I think it is criminal that so many parents disenfranchise the most helpless, vulnerable members of our society in exchange for a little extra sleep, to which they feel completely entitled. Where does this entitlement come from? Parenthood is not a 9 to 5 job.

  8. Hi Sarah
    I also wanted to encourage you to read the original study, because having read it myself, I know that it specifically states that ‘cry-it-out’ was NOT used in the study because it is too stressful for both mums and babies. I have some doubts about the study in other aspects, eg the measures of ‘harm’ used, but my biggest worry about it is that it will be misquoted (as it seems that it has been) and thus legitimize harsher methods. As an aside, I have struggled with my daughter’s sleep for the last 6 months (she is now almost 1) and when my body and mind couldn’t take any more sleep deprivation, we finally resorted to what seems like what they describe as the ‘camping out’ method – my husband took over bedtime and most of the night until 4 a.m. She cried in his arms on and off for about 20 mins the first night, and briefly during her other usual wake times, but quickly learned to seek comfort from him, instead of nursing. Since that night she has slept soundly from 8 until 4 a.m. when I bring her into bed for nursing. At no time did I feel she was abandonned or denied comfort. I love your website and read it all the time, and also subscribe to a gentle parenting philosophy. I just wanted to point out the facts so that this debate is not falsely polarized.

  9. I love your blog! It filled me back with hope that the hard stage will pass and that by “doing nothing” ( no routines, no schemes, just following my baby needs) I am actually doing the right thing.

    Thank you !

    1. I settle into routines when my little ones are a bit older than infancy. But schedules tend to mix poorly with babies that are under a year. I find that babies start off with randomness that organizes itself into patterns that organizes itself into routines that can be organized into schedules with an older child. :)

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