The Quest for Rest: Should Babies Co-Sleep or Cry It Out?

You feed them, bathe them, read them books and sing them lullabies. But for so many parents, this tender bedtime ritual is only the preamble to a nightly psychodrama.

There will be tears. And screams. Coercion and attrition, bribing and begging, self-doubt and exhaustion.

At the Byrne household in Hoboken, N.J., 5-month-old Brady Byrne puts his parents through a sleep-deprivation test that would be considered cruel and unusual by most governments.

"We need a good system, but we're so tired, and he gets so upset," says mom Elizabeth Byrne. The Byrnes also have a 2½-year-old son, Reilly.

And in Chicago, Rachel Gross tries to wear out her three boys, 7-year-old Gabriel, 4½-year-old Jonah, and 28-month-old Josh, with a late game of basketball when her husband, Devon, is away on business.

"You can never get used to hearing your kids cry," Gross says. "It's never easy. [Jonah] has more stamina, and cries longer -- it's force of will."

Ever since society finally admitted that most babies don't drift off to dreamland without a whimper, the "bedtime industrial complex" has steadily expanded to include swaddling blankets, white noise machines, sleep labs and shelves of books with titles like "The Happiest Baby on the Block," "The Baby Whisperer" and "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems."

The Ferber Method

It's that last one that started it all, written in the mid-80s with Dr. Richard Ferber. His method was known as "ferberizing" and became synonymous with tough love: letting babies "cry it out" and self-soothe.


Over the years, many conflicted parents, like the Byrnes and Grosses, have paced outside the nursery, watching the second hand while their little one "cried it out" alone for set time intervals.

Ferber says that "ferberizing" is actually "a great misunderstanding of what we try to do."

"I don't think I've ever recommended a 'cry it out' method," he says. "Crying is not a very happy thing. We don't want to see children crying, we don't want to see babies crying."

Ferber says his crying time chart was meant to be a last-ditch method to break specific and severe bad sleep habits. An updated edition of his book shortens the intervals of crying from five minutes to three.

"For a night or two there may be a little extra crying and then that settles, but then the crying that was present every night is gone," Ferber says. "It's a good idea for your child to fall asleep under the same circumstances that will be there when they have a normal waking in the middle of the night."

But even with his clarifications, Ferber is still demonized by those who believe strongly in so-called "attachment parenting," which includes breast-feeding on demand, co-sleeping and attentive soothing at the first whimper of distress.

The Family Bed

Harvard researchers Michael Commons and Patrice Miller say that when children are left to cry for long intervals, their little brains are flooded with a harmful hormone called cortisol.

"There's nothing wrong with having them cry it out if you want to risk brain damage," Collins says.

They say that over time, cortisol increases the risk of severe attachment disorders … and worse.

"Hitler was a borderline personality. And so was Saddam Hussein," says Collins. "It didn't take a whole lot of Saddam Husseins and Hitlers to make our lives miserable."

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