The Downside to "Cry It Out" Sleep Training

We all want our babies to sleep well, for their health and for our own sanity. Much has been written about the Ferber Method since pediatrician Richard Ferber published Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems in 1985. He's been credited for being a savior, accused of advocating child abuse, and scrutinized for about everything in between. For those unfamiliar with this method, here's the most simplified version: if you let your baby cry himself to sleep for a few nights, he will learn to self-soothe quickly, and he'll soon be putting himself down at night without your presence.

While there isn't much scientific evidence yet that will help you decide whether to sleep train via a CIO method, word from the parental front lines is that some babies take just fine to "Ferberizing" while others are very distressed by it.

Why I Didn't CIO With My Son

Perhaps the most ardent challenge to the cry-it-out (CIO) methods comes from moms like Sarah W., who points out that babies who are left to cry, even for a brief time, experience emotional upheaval, which can include an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and the production of stress hormones. While there is no proven link, there is a fear that these shifts can cause children to be more likely to vomit, putting them at risk for choking. Long-term consequences are not known, but many parents believe that memory and attention span can be compromised, and that an excess of cortisol (a stress hormone) can predispose a child to anxiety and depression later in life.

I didn't "sleep train" my son, and he's now a happy, independent nearly-3-year-old. He still needs help getting to sleep, but I cherish this time with him, and I've never regretted my decision. For me, it was a gut decision: CIO ran counter to everything in me.

CIO methods speed up a process that we all struggle with, and I've come to believe that there is no compelling evidence that this process should be rushed, at least not from the child's perspective.

Still, many parents swear by CIO, and their babies seem none the worse for it. But even if it works for some babies, does that mean it's right for every infant?

Is "Cry It Out" Right For You?

Sarah also points out that there are several potential negative consequences to CIO, such as becoming desensitized to your baby's crying and unconsciously disregarding possible medical problems that might cause crying, such as ear infections or stomach distress.

Many parents who need help but don't want to choose the extreme of the Ferber method try modified versions that involve being present to soothe your baby, but slowly removing yourself from the bedside and, eventually, the room. These methods usually involve less crying (because they entail less abrupt separation), and the versions that have popped up are too numerous to count, from "the sleep lady shuffle" to "Sleep Sense."

Danielle H. and several other moms point out that CIO methods and similar offshoots work well for some kids, and that you'll know right away. If your child doesn't get the hang of it and starts crying more in the first few days, it might not be wise to persist. Some kids with strong personalities are not suited for this sort of training, and it can make any underlying anxiety worse.

Ferber himself, in a 2006 NPR interview, has softened his position somewhat as well. Once adamantly opposed to cosleeping, Ferber now says that each family should do what works best for them, and this can include kids sleeping in bed with parents. It's the best advice of all: what works well for your family is what you should stick with, regardless of what "experts" or other parents might say. It's a simple rule of thumb that carries real clout.