Parents Can Let Sleepless Babies Cry It Out: Study

VIDEO: New study may offer parents some comfort for sleepless infants.
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"I remember sitting there in the dark, arguing with myself," Katherine Stone said of the nights several years ago when her baby simply would not go to sleep.

A women's health advocate and Babble blogger living in Atlanta, Ga., Stone hadn't slept through the night in months, and she was at her wits' end.

"It's torture," she said. "It's like, 'When is this ever going to end?'"

Inevitably, she found herself uncertain about whether to let her baby cry.

"If I go in too soon, will she not learn to self-soothe?" Stone recalled herself thinking. "If I go in too late, have I taught my baby that I'm not reliable? It was a nightmare."

Stone's story is a familiar one among many new parents. Nearly half of mothers with babies over six months of age report problems with their baby's sleep. This common problem not only leads to sleepless nights for parents, but it also doubles the risk that moms will suffer from feelings of depression.

Now, a new study released today in the journal Pediatrics suggests it is OK to let babies cry while trying to fall asleep -- a finding that may help settle a long-running debate among both parents and experts over whether allowing a baby to cry itself to sleep harms the child in the long run.

Australian researchers looked at 225 babies from seven months to 6 years of age to compare the difference between parents who were trained in sleep intervention techniques and those who were not. Specifically, researchers allowed parents in the sleep intervention group to choose one of two sleep training techniques to use with their baby. Parents who chose "controlled crying" responded to their infant's cry at increasing time intervals. Parents who chose "camping out," also called "adult fading," sat with their infant until they fell asleep, removing themselves earlier each night over three weeks.

Parents in the control group were not taught the sleep training techniques and instead provided their own routine care.

What the researchers found was that children and mothers in the sleep training group had improved sleep, and the mothers were less likely to experience depression and other emotional problems. These benefits lasted up to the time the babies turned 2.

Moreover, the study looked at various factors to determine whether harm was done to children in the sleep training group, including mental and behavioral health, sleep quality, stress, and relationship with their parents. They found no differences between children in the two groups, leading researchers to conclude that these sleep training techniques are safe to use.

"[P]arents can feel confident using, and health professionals can feel confident offering, behavioral techniques such as controlled comforting and camping out for managing infant sleep," the researchers write in the study.

Experts not involved with the study said the findings make sense.

"It's kind of like having the ability to get a rental car at the airport, but why would you get one if a limo shows up?" said Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas-based pediatrician and author of "Baby 411." "The parent is the limo."

"While stressful for the infant, it almost certainly falls under the 'positive stress' heading," said Rahil D. Briggs, director of the Healthy Steps program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. "Positive stress creates growth in the child, in the form of coping skills and frustration tolerance that serve to be critically important throughout the life span."

But for parents, the message may be even more important.

"This study empowers parents to be active in shaping their infant's behavior to be consistent with appropriate developmental milestones," said Dr. John Walkup, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at NY-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

After 11 months of nightly crying, Stone's daughter finally started to sleep through the night. Stone says she was thankful -- but she said that support from an expert would have been a welcome reassurance.

"Having that voice of authority from a pediatrician about what the right practices are and knowing that they're backed by science, that can bring you back from the point of freaking out," she said.

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