Study Shows Parents Can Let Babies Cry It Out At Bedtime Without Risk Of Harm

By admin
September 27, 2012

Sleep-training a crying baby isn't easy, and few parenting decisions are as difficult and controversial as the choice parents make about how to get their babies to fall--and stay--asleep.

However, a new study suggesting there are no long-term emotional or psychological conseqences linked to two popular sleep training methods may have parents resting a bit easier.

"Parents can feel confident using, and health professionals can feel confident offering, behavior techniques, such as 'controlled comforting' and 'camping out' for managing infant sleep," according to the authors of the study, published online in the journal Pediatrics.

The study, which tracked 225 children from 7 months through age 6, examined two popular sleep-training methods known as controlled comforting and camping out, both of which let babies cry it out for short amounts of time.

While controlled comforting (aka "graduated extinction") requires the parent to respond to their child's cries at increasingly longer intervals in order to encourage self-soothing, camping out requires parents to sit or lay in their babies' room, allowing them to pat or stroke their child, but not feed or cuddle them while they are in their crib. Over time, parents move farther away from the crib, and eventually out of the room,  as the child learns to fall asleep alone.

"The key to both of these methods is that you put the child down when he or she is drowsy, but awake," said Dr. Kyle Johnson, a pediatric sleep specialist at Oregon Health & Science University. "You have them fall asleep on their own at bedtime. It's a learned behavior."

While neither strategy is as extreme or controversial as letting babies cry all night by themselves, both methods have been criticized over concerns that they may cause long-term emotional or psychological harm in babies, impede their ability to manage stress, or harm their relationship with their parents.

However, researchers found that by age 6, the children in the study who received some form of sleep training as infants were no worse off than those who had not, based upon such factors as emotional behavior, social functioning, sleep quality, stress levels, and how close the children were to their parents.

While the study showed that children who underwent sleep training did not experience any lasting benefits, aside from improved sleep through age 2, reasearchers did find that the mothers were less likely to experience depression and other emotional problems which can negatively affect the baby.

The findings of the study confirmed previous research showing that sleep-training is often successful, and can help babies learn to go to sleep easier at bedtime and stay asleep longer at night.

Based on their data, the authors determined that sleep-training is a safe and effective method that, together with increased parental education and training for health specialists, can go a long way in helping children develop healthy, natural sleep patterns.

"While stressful for the infant, it almost certainly falls under the 'positive stress' heading," said Rahil D. Briggs, director of the Healthy Steps program in New York. "Positive stress creates growth in the child, in the form of coping skills and frustration tolerance that serve to be critically important throughout the life span."

And for anxious parents, the message may be just as important.

"This study empowers parents to be active in shaping their infant's behavior to be consistent with appropriate developmental milestones," said Dr. John Walkup, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at NY-Presbyterian.

Remember that every child's needs are different, and just because one study found there are no long-term harms from two popular sleep-training methods does not mean they are appropriate for everyone.

Be sure to talk to your Women's HealthFirst doctor to discuss which sleep-training method is best for you and your child, and help make that seemingly-elusive peaceful night's sleep a reality once again.

[image via Getty]

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