The battle over "cry it out" sleep training

Common-sense parenting or child abuse? The dilemma that plagued our family -- and many others

Published March 17, 2010 1:01PM (EDT)

I turned up the volume on the TCM movie to drown out the sound of my baby crying in the next room. My husband and I had reached a familiar point for new parents: no sleep. On the advice of our pediatrician, parents and best friends, we were trying "cry-it-out" sleep training, whereby you let your child cry until he gives up waiting for you to come put him to sleep and learns to self-soothe, a learned and valuable skill.

It sucked.

In sympathy and frustration, I cried myself, and finally I said, screw this. I started to charge into my son's room when my husband grabbed my arm and gently suggested we continue to give this a try. I glared at him and contemplated divorce.

It was ridiculous, this sleep training, horrible. "Remember, when he cries during this process he’s not unhappy, he's angry at you," a fellow mom had told me by way of encouragement. This did not help.

The crying went on for what felt like hours. And then ... it stopped.

"Was he dead?" I wondered. "Can half an hour of crying kill a child?" But the reality was something different: For the first time in seven months, he fell asleep without being nursed.

The next night, same drill -- anxiety, tears, frustration -- but he cried for a shorter time and then fell asleep. The night after that, he went down without a peep. And thus began a bedtime pattern that still holds to this day, that brought happiness and much-needed rest to our little family. 

And yet, in certain circles, what we did is considered child abuse. Attachment parenting advocates like, most famously, Dr. Sears say letting babies cry is bad for family relationships and may actually damage infants' psyches. Go to his Web site and you can read a handout titled "Science Says: Excessive Crying Could Be Harmful to Babies." Steel yourself, ye sleep trainers, for talk of "harmful neurologic effects that may have permanent implications on the development of sections of their brain."

Luckily, there are other sleep experts (besides the famous Dr. Richard Ferber, who gave us the sleep-training euphemism "Ferberizing") ready to defend the practice. Dr. Marc Weissbluth, author of "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child," and one of the most popular modern advocates for cry-it-out sleep training, argues in his books and on his blog that not teaching your kid to self-soothe is way more harmful. "Crying is hard," he often says, but "sleeplessness is harder."

Is it any wonder that there is such a glut of products catering to new-parent sleep anxiety? For your crib, perhaps you need a white noise machine, a giant hand-shaped positioning pillow, a vibrating mattress, a mobile that plays soothing rain-forest noises? Or perhaps you need to hire a "sleep training consultant" or "baby sleep coach"?

Yes, those are real jobs; Google it. The first one I found charges $500 for a consultation with written sleep plan, plus 14 days of phone support, which I imagine goes something like this:

Parent (child crying in background): "This suuuuucks!"

Soothing voice of sleep coach: "Just keep at it."

And who needs to pay for an expert when there are so many people online eager to give you advice?

An article on the attachment-parenting site claims: "Babies who are left to cry it out alone may fail to develop a basic sense of trust or an understanding of themselves as a causal agent, possibly leading to feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, and chronic anxiety later in life."

Oh, is that all?

"Some people like to neglect their kids at bedtime," writes one similarly minded poster on a Babycenter thread about sleep training. "I'll parent mine."


On the other end of the spectrum you have "baby management" proponents, like the controversial advocate of Bible-based parenting, Gary Ezzo, author of the Babywise series, about which Salon ran an influential piece in 1998. Ezzo advocates for a parenting and sleep plan that is directed by the parents, not the child, which means firm scheduling and an acknowledgment that tears are part of being a baby.

So who's right? The stakes are high. "Babies who can't self-soothe quickly grow into preschoolers who won't sleep unless there's a cuddly parent in their bed," writes Melissa Rayworth in a Babble article called "The Sleepless Generation." "That leaves parents and kids exhausted, and marriages strained as couples either sleep separately or share their bed with one or more elbowing, teeth-grinding, frequently awakened offspring."

The ironic thing, of course, is that most of us, myself included, gravitate toward books and blogs that confirm our own parenting style, when in fact we could all stand to take a lesson from the other camps. My friend who never cleans her house, who is totally overwhelmed and exhausted, I encourage to plan out her days more rigorously, to go to a Container Store already. My friend who is super meticulous and almost Stepford Wife-ish I tell to loosen up on the gourmet meals already and let the house go to hell.

When it comes to parenting, the hippies could stand to set some boundaries. The schedulers could stand to relax a little. But neither is apt to indulge in any books that don't reinforce their own worldviews, especially when it comes to something as emotionally fraught as crying and sleep.

When my husband and I first started talking about sleep training, I was against the idea. I couldn't bear the thought of listening to my son cry without picking him up, even if it would be beneficial in the long-term.

So when I went to the bookstore after getting almost no sleep the night before, I wasn't ready to pick up a book by Weissbluth or Ferber. I grabbed Elizabeth Pantley's "No Cry Sleep Solution." "No crying" sounded great to me, as did "solution." The word "gentle" was in the subtitle, too. Wuss that I am, I thought I'd hit the jackpot.

But Pantley just reinforced my feet-dragging. I came to resent her and her self-assured softness, exemplified by one of her more beatific promo pictures, in which she sits on a bed with her husband and their four children, all of them wearing matching blue and white cloud pajamas. For real: Check it out.

And the book just patted me soothingly and told me I was right -- that I should just journal the problem and make charts about my baby's sleep patterns.

When I tried to convince my husband we should go this route, he just stared at me. "Do you actually think that's going to work?"

What I needed was some hardcore advice to balance out my natural sappiness. You don't need books that fit in with your "philosophy." You need books that balance out your instincts, show you the other side. It's like religion, or politics: Everyone needs a devil's advocate so they don't get wedded to an extreme position.

My best friend, a mother of three, was there with some tough love: "Dump him in his crib," she said. I protested that I couldn't handle listening to him cry, that I worried he would be emotionally damaged and hate us forever, that he would somehow explode from the stress.

Her response? "Dump. Him."

I thought about her children, how they've always seemed well adjusted and happy and -- in all the 18 years I've known them -- well rested. Our pediatrician and my parents told us the same thing, if in slightly less graphic language.

So I did what they said and it worked out better than I could have imagined.

These days, I look at the vehement "anti-CIO" message board posts with a little more perspective. I remember how scared I was of just one or two nights of tears and I remember how upset I got reading the accusations of neglect and child abuse that followed anyone's request for advice on how to sleep train.

Now with some authority I can cry BS on at least one of the many horrible things the anti- camp says will happen: that by sleep training you will become "desensitized" to your child's cries.

First of all: You don't.

Second of all: Wouldn't that be a shame?! It seems healthy to get to the point where you don't completely freak out when your kid cries. I wish I didn't have that crazy, primal, the-sabertooths-are-coming alarm go off whenever I hear a wail.

And now that my son is 3 1/2, it's amazing to me that I was so scared of letting him cry those couple of nights. There have been so many tears since then: over the TV being turned off, ice cream falling off the cone, playground fights. What's another hour, especially one that serves an actual purpose? Those two nights of agony nearly three years ago were almost insignificant -- except insofar as they saved our life.

Ada Calhoun is a writer in New York City. You can buy her new book, "Instinctive Parenting,"  on Amazon. 

By Ada Calhoun

Ada Calhoun is the author of "Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids" and co-author of "Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work," which recently spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

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