Cry-It-Out: “Toxic” For Babies’ Brains

by Cate Nelson
April 23, 2010

A new book puts more pressure on parents to pick up that crying baby, calling the cry-it-out method (CIO) “toxic” and “very bad for brain development,” the BBC reports.

Many of you consider yourself natural or attachment parents, so chances are, you would never consider “Ferberizing” your baby. That’s where you lay baby down awake and occasionally soothe the child, but do not pick her up, even if she cries. This sleep training was popular in our moms’ and grandmothers’ times so as not to “spoil” the child.

But in a new book Dr. Penelope Leach (The Essential First Year – What Babies Need Parents to Know) claims that there is no scientific evidence that cry-it-out works, and is in fact detrimental to babies.

Still, we hear it a lot today: variations of excuses for employing the CIO method to get your baby to sleep. If parents sleep better, we’ll be better parents during the day. Or comments like this, from a Babycenter discussion:

Crying it out will make everyone happier!


I’m a first time parent that has begun the worrisome task of sleep training my 5 month old. I’m letting him “CIO” with minimal intervention and no it’s not easy. I would love to rock, feed, and hold him forever, but I must look at the long term health benefits of my son being able to self sooth and fall asleep without my involvement, which is more disruptive then [sic] productive.

Or this skeptical response on an IVillage board:

Define brain damage and to what extent CIO causes it. What KIND of brain damage? I dont think this article answered any of that. I am a big proponent of CIO but only when used correctly.

Ohh. I see. “Proper” daily dosage of crying for a baby. Huh. My sons’ pediatrician never mentioned that necessity.

If you’ve tried CIO and it’s made you uncomfortable, that’s because it’s supposed to. Instinctively, as a parent, you are supposed to respond to a baby’s cries. That’s why babies cry. That’s why my breasts swell when I hear an infant cry, even months after my toddler and I finished breastfeeding.

Dr. Leach said that letting a baby cry for over a half hour is very harmful,

We are talking about the release of stress chemicals. The best known of them is cortisol, which is produced under extreme stress…

The reason that a baby gives up after half an hour, three-quarters of an hour or an hour is that it has given up and that its expectations have been altered.

I’ve heard it said that babies stop crying because they have learned that mummy wants them to go back to sleep. Babies are not capable of that sort of learning.

So really, parents, what you’re witnessing is not “self-soothing,” you’re witnessing emotional defeat. Doesn’t that break your heart?

I speak as a single mom who did not let her babies cry-it-out. I for sure know it’s hard. And I know that people are quite passionate about needing their sleep. So babywear until bedtime. Cosleep. Breastfeed until your gurgler is nodding off. I found that putting an infant Baby E on a blanket under a tree, so he could watch the branches move, soothed him just before bed.

Find your trick. But don’t trick or exhaust your infant into sleeping when it’s convenient for you. Because let’s face it: As parents, not much is going to convenient to you.

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Replies to This Discussion

I HOPE it doesn't do too much damage because I did try everything else. My baby and I were miserable. I expect her to sleep and eat on demand but she would not, could not do that. I was pulling out my hair. I tried wrapping her, wearing her, co-sleeping, the dryer, the car, nature, the swing, everything.

I felt like I was dying because she never slept. Until we tried CIO. For my oldest child the Feber method was the only thing that worked. She slept with it. She was a happier baby because of it. Still today, she prefers to be left alone when upset.

Now my youngest, CIO, didn't work. All that worked was touching me. So he co-slept. Different kids, required different means.
I made (make) so many mistakes as a parent. When he was younger (he's only 3 now so it wasn't so long ago) my ex and I would, sometimes, let our son CIO. It would depend on so many factors and we were new parents. I do think that if you have tried cuddling, feeding, changing, rides in the car, bathing and on down the line, that if you are getting frustrated and they are frustrated, it can be the best course of action. I doubt that you have done irreparable damage to your child. Just my thoughts, and secret hope that I also haven't ruined my child. :)
Just saw this. Thanks Keith. My kids are now 19 and 17. Strangely they seem to think I was one hellva and continue to be a great parent. Woot!

I'm therefore fairly sure you haven't ruined your child either!

I'd say I would have to disagree with this for the most part. I used the cry-it-out method and my daughter's development is anything but 'detrimented'. She's exceptionally intelligent and gained all of her motor skills very early (she's 15 months right now and knows how to use the garbage can to throw things away when she doesn't want them and when she doesn't finish her food).

I did a lot of unconventional parenting things, though. I co-slept her entire infanthood and still co-sleep with her. But she can just as easily fall asleep alone away from me. She'll frequently hop up onto the couch, snuggle a book, and drift off to sleep with her blanket, so that's never created any dependency issues. I never really sat and fed my daughter after she could pick food up with her fingers. She never really ate traditional 'baby food' either. I just picked soft regular foods like cooked peas, no mashing or pureeing at all. She preferred it that way (when the babysitter tried to give her baby food, she made a disgusted face at every jar and screamed). After she could feed herself, that's what she did. I'd put food down so long as it could be picked up with her fingers and let her have at it. I still do that. She eats her own sandwiches and everything, and when she's done she waddles to the cabinet, opens it, tosses it in the garbage, and closes the little door again.

I never used the 'cry it out' method for sleep. She has always slept well after the first few days of her being home. By month two she was sleeping eight hours a day, a month later it knocked up to ten, and for about seven months straight she was sleeping from 10-12 hours a night almost straight, with perhaps one wakeup for a diaper or a drink, but she'd pass right out again after a second. Now she's up to about eight to ten total.

I used the 'cry it out' method in specific ways and only during specific times, and didn't begin using it until her fits started. My daughter seems to have frequent fits that I'm reluctantly beginning to wonder about, hopefully not related to my Asperger's Syndrome, wherein she bangs her head repeatedly off of the floor very hard (she's done this since she became mobile). She would do this regardless of being held, changed, fed, gas-relieved, temperature-checked and given medicine if needed, fingers checked for hairs, body checked for stings or splinters or anything uncomfortable, clothes checked for tags--- didn't matter. Sometimes she would just throw a bloody fit. Being, right now, a stay at home mother, it was difficult for me to handle cleaning an entire four bedroom house and catering to such fits on a daily basis and each time to no avail. So I began checking the basics (diaper, food, drink, etc) and then would simply have to ignore the behavior if it continued. It means she could cry for over fifteen minutes.

But each time she would grow very sleepy, calm down, and shuffle toward me and want to go to sleep. I've hypothesized her fits could be remnants of my Asperger's in the genetic line, if she doesn't flat out have it herself, and that she may be easily overwhelmed by lights and people and sounds. But she equally hates darkness and silence and being alone. She's always hated being swaddled or held tightly. So for her, the best option is to let her tucker herself out sometimes and then nap away the feeling.

Again, the method didn't begin until *after* the fits had begun, so that is not the cause of them. I don't think it works on every child, either, but if you're in a situation where you've tried everything and holding her isn't calming her down, or like mine she even pushed and scratched and hit you until you let her go, then sometimes CIO is the best method in small doses.
My pediatrician always told me you can't spoil the child for about up to four months. So I picked him up whenever he cried which was quite a lot since he was collicky for his first five months. So sometimes I had to leave the room for a few minutes to get my sanity back, or I just cried while I held him thinking what a horrible mother I was. Sometimes he gets really worked up and no amount of holding or cajoling will lessen the I just let him cry for a few minutes and then go in and get him and he's done. It's not ever going to be a one-size fits all to parenting. We each have our different personalities and same with our partners and our little ones.

I also could never co-sleep with my child...I don't sleep very well anyway and this was one way that wasn't going to work for me or my child or my husband. He does fine in his own bed and sleeps great.
Sleep-training at 5 months is insane!

I sleep-trained my son when he was 15 months old. To no avail. Less than half a year later he was climbing in bed with mommy again, and still does. I was contemplated CIO sleep-training him again in the near future, but having read this I am thinking twice. I think I may just use bribery instead.

I never could let my kids cry it out.  I would let them cry while I caught my breath after holding screaming colicky baby for an hour but not for more than 10-20 minutes.  It was my instinctual  and emotional response, I simply cannot handle listening to a baby cry.  My daughters also nursed and shared the bed with me and my husband for the first two years.  They are both happy well adjusted children, and despite what my mother-in-law warned us about they both EASILY transitioned to a toddler bed.  This worked for me and helped me through the hard times, but I know others who let their babies cry and they were fine as well.


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