When I had my first baby, I remember so many people asking me: ‘How is the baby sleeping?’, ‘Is she a ‘good’ sleeper?’ or ‘Does your baby sleep through the night yet?’
In the early months with a new baby, this type of questioning leaves many first time parents wondering: Am I doing something wrong? When will my baby sleep through the night?
Some parents might wonder whether they should use a ‘cry it out’ method, breastfeeding to a timed schedule, or whether they should sleep train their babies.
Society has big expectations for little babies.
Babies, just like toddlers, children and adults, are human beings. All human beings wake throughout the night. This is biologically normal.
For newborn babies, night waking is not only essential for a successful breastfeeding relationship, but also vital for your baby’s survival.
What happens if you ignore a baby cry?
When babies cry, it’s their way of communicating with you.
Babies are not manipulative. When they have a need, they cry. As your baby’s primary caregiver, it is your job to attend to that need.
All babies’ needs are valid needs.
Whether it’s hunger, discomfort, overstimulation or the need for comfort, regularly and deliberately ignoring babies’ cries for attention can be harmful to their development.
In the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Position Statement on Controlled Crying, it states:
‘There are no long term health or developmental problems from babies waking at night. Responding to an infant’s needs/crying will not cause a lasting ‘habit’ but will contribute to the infant’s sense of security’.
It goes on to say:
‘Any methods used to assist parents to get a good night’s sleep should not compromise the infant’s developmental and emotional needs. Controlled crying is not appropriate for use in infancy’.
Sleep training methods
You might have heard other parents talking about how they sleep trained their baby and how it solved all of their child’s sleep problems in a few nights.
One popular sleep training method is ‘controlled crying’. This is where you let your baby cry, for a short amount of time at first, then at increasingly longer intervals before offering the baby any comfort.
The idea behind the method is that by increasing the amount of time it takes to respond to babies’ cries, they learn their own self soothing techniques.
You can read more about this in BellyBelly’s article Controlled Crying – What Parents Need To Know.
Another method is to let your baby ‘cry it out’.
Put simply, this means completely ignoring your baby’s cries until the crying stops – either because the baby has quite literally given up on getting the attention of the primary caregiver, or has fallen asleep from exhaustion.
You can read more about this in BellyBelly’s article Cry It Out Method | 6 Baby Experts Who Advise Against It.
Sleep training and ‘cry it out’ – what the research says
Researchers found that sleep training young babies (under 6 months of age) resulted in increased crying, early cessation of breastfeeding and increased maternal anxiety.
In a longer term study on babies who were sleep trained at 8 months of age, it was reported that some mothers found the strategies helped in the short term. It was reported that 2 months after the intervention, when the babies were 10 months old, more than half of the babies still had what their parents described as sleep problems.
The study found that by 2 years of age, improvements that were originally reported from the sleep training interventions had disappeared.
In a five year follow up from the original study, researchers found no difference in the sleeping patterns of the babies whose parents practised sleep training methods and those in the control group.
Does the cry it out method have long term effects?
Although you might come across research that suggests there are no long term effects of letting your baby cry, it’s worthwhile looking at the methods of research and the reliability of the results. Some studies have used cortisol level in babies to draw conclusions; other researchers have claimed this method is not reliable.
This is outlined in a commentary from a 2020 study that claimed that leaving an infant to ‘cry it out’, rather than responding to the child’s cries, had no adverse effects on mother–infant attachment at 18 months.
This finding opposes evidence across a wide range of scientific fields.
Pinky McKay, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and author of Sleeping Like A Baby and Parenting By Heart, describes the unintended effects of using the cry it out method:
‘The saddest risk is that as the baby tries to communicate in the only way available to him, he will learn a much crueller lesson – that he cannot make a difference, so what is the point of reaching out. This is learned helplessness’.
Cry it out – long term effects
Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Medicine, and author of The Whole Brain Child, explains that birth to 12 months is a crucial period for emotional regulation.
‘Co-regulation’, which is the support given by a parent to a baby, is crucial to the developing brain throughout infancy and childhood.
It is much more likely that the stress caused from the cry it out method could be detrimental to attachment and development in infancy, as well as in later life.
How cry it out affects breastfeeding
Letting your baby cry rather than responding to the baby’s needs can also be detrimental to your breast milk supply.
Feeding your baby to a timed schedule or trying to get your baby to sleep through the night before she is developmentally ready can affect the hormones that are necessary for milk production.
At night, your body’s level of prolactin (the milk-making hormone) is naturally higher. Breastfeeding when your baby wakes at night helps to boost and maintain your milk supply.
Going a long stretch without feeding a very young baby (for example, overnight) can result in blocked ducts, mastitis and low milk supply.
What can I use instead of the cry it out method?
Sleep training your baby is not the only option for you to get more sleep at night.
Most parents find that gentle methods result in less stress – for themselves and for their babies.
Some parents find that holding their baby until she’s in a very deep sleep helps her stay asleep after being put down in the bassinet or cot.
Other parents chose to share a sleep surface with their babies. Co sleeping is a safe and effective way for many parents get more sleep with their babies.
You can read more about how to bed share safely with your baby in the resource: Tips For Safer Co-sleeping.
Can I let my baby fall asleep on the breast?
Yes! You can let your baby fall asleep this way. Breastfeeding to sleep is biologically normal.
There are no short or long term negative effects from allowing your baby to fall asleep while feeding.
Some mothers might think: ‘But my baby is using me as a human pacifier’. In fact, the opposite is true. A breast does not act as a pacifier in the absence of pacifier, a pacifier acts as a breast in the absence of a breast.
Remember, your baby’s sleep habits are not a reflection of your skills as a parent. If your baby likes to breastfeed to sleep or if breastfeeding helps your baby get back to sleep when she wakes in the middle of the night, think of it as a good thing rather than a bad thing.
A mother’s milk contains a magic potion that induces infant sleep. What could be more amazing that that?