Crying it out-A dangerous parenting practise

Parenting is a 24/7 job, it doesn’t end when the sun goes down at night.   It’s a really sad fact that tonight thousands of babies will be left to cry it out by their parents, the same parents that love and respond with tenderness and speed to their babies needs during the day will neglect their babies by night.   Obviously people who resort to sleep training, via crying it out, do not intentionally cause harm to their baby, I would assume most would be horrified to think that their behaviour would be considered neglectful and I would imagine most of them don’t know the dangers of this practise

Humans are hard-wired to respond to the cries of babies, the natural instinct is to pick up a crying baby, to comfort, sooth and protect them, this is part of our genetic make up, part of our DNA. The survival of the human species depends on this protective mechanism.

Parents who turn to ‘crying it out’ often do so because friends, family, a health care professional or a book has told them that it is a good idea, that it will teach a baby to ‘self-soothe’. Research shows that this is far from the case. Babies do not learn to self sooth by crying it out…they fall asleep often out of pure exhaustion, realising that no matter how hard they cry their parents are not coming. These babies often cry so hard that their face swells, their eyes stings and they vomit before falling asleep due to exhaustion and for self-preservation.  If this occurred during the day in a crèche, or other care setting it would seen as negligent and neglectful so why, oh why is it accepted as a form of parenting at night?

In the first 3 years of life your baby’s brain is making approximately 1000 brain connections every minute of every day. Incredible changes are happening right now as you read these words.  Given the immense growth that’s happening we now understand more than ever that a newborn baby’s mental health can be developed or damaged by our actions as parents

Psychologist Sarah Ockwell-Smith, with a particular interest in child sleep has conducted several research studies in relation to ‘crying it out’.  She found when babies needs are not met at night, when they are left to cry, the baby is at risk of long term effects.  According to Ockwell-Smith these effects are

‘mostly concerned with the development of brain structures relating to emotional regulation and control’.  She adds ‘exposure to stress during infancy, due to a lack of parental response, can damage the baby’s developing HPA-axis’. The HPA-axis regulates an individual’s response to stress’.

Research shows that exposure to high levels of stress can leave a baby at risk of developing a hyper-reactive HPA-axis which may mean that they struggle with stress and emotional regulation for the rest of their life

Middlemiss etal (2012) refute the argument that sleep training is not stressful for babies.  Their research demonstrates that this practise is particularly stressful for a baby.  Cortisol samples were taken from babies and their mothers during the process of controlled crying.  Cortisol levels were high in both mothers and their babies during the first few day of sleep training. Even when the babies stopped crying their cortisol levels remained elevated, showing that babies were not calm, that ‘self-soothing’ had not taken place.  It’s really important to note that when babies are crying in a parents arms they do not display the same elevated of cortisol, their internal stress is not the same.  It is not the crying that is detrimental, crying is the expression of the need, it is the lack of parental response that cause the stress and rise in cortisol levels. Responding to your baby consistently provides a buffer against stress for your baby.

Speaking to several Irish parents on the topic of crying it out today this is what they said

‘Apart from it being cruel to leave them, I want my baby to know that if they need me I’ll be there and if they call out for me I’ll come. They’re very new to this world and there’s bound to be so many things that are so overwhelming for them and we are their safe place.  So when they feel like they need us no matter what time it is we should respond and offer comfort in whatever way will soothe them

(Lisa, mum of two)

‘If my partner, a friend or another family member was upset I wouldn’t hesitate about comforting them-why would I ignore my own child?

(Gillian, mum of two)

‘Why would I treat my child in a way that would be considered neglect if practised by a social worker or carer looking after that same child? Imagine if people still advocated treating people with intellectual disabilities or older people like that. Why is it ok to shut a child in a room in the dark by themselves with no access to food, water, comfort or reassurance for upwards of 12 hours?’

(Sinead, mum of two)

Crying it out ‘Goes against every instinct I have, my mind and body scream to me to go to my child when they cry. It’s massively stressful to listen to and it’s supposed to be’

(Melanie, mum of three)

Asking me why I comfort my babies at night is like asking me ‘why do you breathe?’ It makes me feel uncomfortable and panicked if I hesitate. The natural response is to run to them’

(Ashley, mum to two)

When my baby cries, it rips me up inside and causes me stress until I fix the problem.  Complete and utter instinct

(Aoife, mum of two)


After reading so many articles on crying it out and what I would consider to be ‘parent focused parenting’ it was refreshing to hear so many Irish mums tell me that their focus was their baby. These parents were all practising ‘baby led parenting’.  These parents understood that their babies were waking during the night was not the babies being ‘manipulative’, it was not a sign that they were ‘spoilt’ and that they hadn’t ‘ruined’ their baby. We are learning through science that a baby’s brain doesn’t have the capacity to manipulate.  They understood that night waking is biologically normal and that at some point their baby will naturally sleep during the night and that there may be times when their child does go through periods of waking again at night.  Adults don’t sleep alone, they sleep beside their partner, often adults do not sleep well if their partner is away, adults often wake during the night due to thirst, hunger, pain, stress, fear….why do we expect babies to be any different?


Ockwell-Smith, Sarah (2016). Why your baby’s sleep matters. London: Pinter & Martin

Middlemiss, W., Granger, D.A., Goldberg, W.A., Nathans, L., ‘Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep’, Early Human Development, Apr;88(4), (2012), pp 227-32.

Posted in Baby, Blog, Crying it out, Sleep training, Sleeping.