Is Cry It Out Safe?

Photo: Tim Bish/Unsplash

Before my first child was born, I had heard horror stories on both sides of the fence about crying it out. “Parents who let their babies cry it out are monsters who are neglecting the basic needs of their children,” to “The first few nights of hearing your baby howl for you are absolute agony, and you’ll feel like the worst human being in the world…but then it gets so much better!” As it turns out, crying it out is something that pretty much everyone has an opinion on—and a loud, dramatic, obstinate one at that.

Luckily, my firstborn didn’t force me to make the agonizing decision. He decided, at 2-months-old, that he was totally done with night feedings and slept through the night from then on out. But for those wrestling with whether to let their babies cry it out or not, it can be one of the hardest parenting decisions you’ll ever make, not to mention the fact that you’re probably contemplating it on little to no sleep. Here’s what you need to know about letting your baby cry it out — and most importantly, if it’s safe to do so.

We spoke to many experts—psychologists, mental health consultants, and sleep experts alike—and not one could make an argument for letting your baby cry it out. “There is no research that favorably supports a child ‘crying it out,’” says Dr. Michele Paiva, a licensed psychotherapist. “Arguments are that it helps them learn to self-soothe, or helps them not be ‘spoiled’; however those parents or professionals, can’t actually state if those opinions are true.”

The goal behind letting your child cry it out is that they will ultimately learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. The problem becomes bigger than just hearing your baby howling in the hopes that you’ll both eventually sleep better at nighttime. “A child who stops crying goes to sleep and learns to not trust a parent or caregiver will help them, may just be losing hope and trust in others,” says Dr. Paiva. “This can turn into a mental conditions or at best, distrust of those who say that they love you.”

A baby crying comes out a basic need, for food, shelter, or comfort. “Evolutionary psychology has taught us that we have primitive needs and those needs if not addressed, cause hiccups in our development, and thus, life success and happiness. We lose functionality and start navigating in dysfunction as a new norm,” says Dr. Paiva. Ultimately, though, “tending to a crying child helps the child learn trust and love, suggests Dr. Paiva. “The oxytocin from the touch of a caregiver or parent, helps the child build brain development, emotional resilience and overall, a sense of well-being.”

But if you thought that allowing your baby to cry it out might only be emotionally draining for you both, think again. “Unfortunately, from a biological perspective, the ‘cry it out’ technique is harmful,” says Dr. Anil Rama, a psychiatrist who specializes in psychiatry and sleep medicine. “Some children may have to cry each night or cry longer than others or not fall asleep regardless of crying it out.” Dr. Rama points out that the problem is the physiology of the crying itself. “Crying causing the tears in your eyes to drain and mix with the mucous in your nose causing nasal congestion and a runny nose,” he says. “This in turn makes it more likely to mouth breathe, which at a very young age, is dangerous as it changes the development of the face which in turns disturbs sleep and health for a lifetime.”

Says Dr. Rama: “The ‘cry it out’ technique benefits the parents at the expense of the child.”

That said, there might be times when crying it out might be helpful—and it largely comes down to the age of the child. “The decision of whether or not to let a baby cry it out should depend on the age of the baby,” says Adina Mahalli (MSW), a certified mental health consultant at Maple Holistics. ”An infant is typically crying because of a physical concern such as hunger, tiredness, or filth, and these needs should be attended to quickly.”

“Yet an older baby might benefit from crying it out a bit at bedtime, when they wake up in the middle of the night, or during the day when they’re getting cranky,” continues Mahalli. “Yet, no matter what, a baby should not be left to cry it out indefinitely. Parents should keep track of how long has passed and intervene after a specific amount of time.”

“It really depends on the context,” Dr. Shuli Sandler, a licensed psychologist, agrees. “If your child has a minor disappointment and has a hard time recovering from it, then letting your child cry it out can be extremely helpful, even adaptive, because it teaches him/her the life skill of self soothing which is a tremendously valuable tool to have across one’s entire life.” However, if your child is really upset over a bigger deal, then the strategy of crying it out will not work, and can be even harmful to their self-esteem, suggests Dr. Sandler.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine whether cry it out will work for you and your child. “A child being soothed and comforted by a parent is important to a child feeling supported and loved by a parent, which will also teach them the life skill of being able to feel supported and loved in relationships,” says Dr. Sandler. Which, as a parent, is what we all want for our children, anyway.

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