“Crying it out” or not?

When your baby wakes for the fifth time and sleep seems an unreachable ask, you may find yourself wondering if you should just shut the door and ignore your little one in an attempt to extinguish his cries and let him ‘learn’ to fall asleep independently.

The debate on whether ‘crying it out’ and other similar methods should be used with babies, and whether these techniques are in anyway damaging emotionally for babies, rages on.

As with almost every other contentious parenting issue, you will readily find an equal amount of research showing that ‘controlled crying’ does no harm as you will find research showing long term emotional damage.

So when your baby is crying and won’t settle to sleep or cries repeatedly at night, how quickly should you respond? Is there a principle that can be applied to allow your baby to learn the skill of self-soothing at night? Donald Winnicott, who examined the question of attachment (a foundation for emotional development), has answered this question brilliantly.

In the first few months it is essential a mother responds as quickly as possible to her baby’s cries as this teaches the little one that his ‘voice’ is important and that he is recognized and important in his mother’s world. At this time the baby sees himself as an extension of mum and needs to be soothed by her or helped significantly to settle. If your little baby cries at night, respond with love, cuddles and a feed if appropriate. In these early days, the night feeds and night wakings can feel interminable but they do come to an end. If your baby is waking and crying more than three hourly at night, try to find out the root cause for the wakings as this is unusual.

After five months of age, babies need to develop the skill of self-soothing. This does not happen overnight and takes time and love and energy from you as a mum. Winnocott proposed that the skill of self soothing develops in the context of graduated failures, in other words – you begin to ‘fail’ your baby in tiny increments by not getting to him as quickly as when he was a newborn. In fact, you do this unconsciously and in tiny gradual steps. In this way your baby learns he is separate from you and how to sooth himself when you take a second or two longer than he expected. This is not ‘controlled crying’ it is simply an unconscious process whereby you and your baby begin natural, healthy separation.

The principle should be – respond quickly and consistently to your young baby when he cries. Allow your five-month or older baby short periods in which he can learn to self sooth to sleep. But overall, go with your gut. If it feels wrong – it is.

By Meg Faure