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.

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"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."

Miller wouldn't go quite that far. "Well, but I don't think that you want parents to believe that they're rearing little Adolf Hitlers," she says. "That's still a relatively rare event."

"But you're putting yourself at risk for that," Commons says.

Commons bases much of his theory on Romanian orphans and lab animals, creating much scientific controversy. But his suggested remedy has been used for thousands of years in most of the world: the family bed. In America, the practice was long seen as dangerous or indulgent, but renowned pediatrician T. Barry Brazelton says he is noticing a shift in mind-set.

"I started going to dinner parties and asking people, "Well, how many of you co-sleep?" And, nobody, of course, would answer," Brazelton says. "And I said, "Come on, how many of you are really co-sleeping?" Half their hands went up. You know, I think a lot of people are co-sleeping and just don't talk about it."

Brazelton doesn't think there's anything seriously wrong with co-sleeping.

"Most of the world does this," he says. "The thing that's wrong with it is that we don't have an end in sight."

'Look at the Child'

At the moment, co-sleeping is not an option in Chicago, where Rachel Gross tends to the older boys and Jonah cries it out, or in Hoboken, where Devon Byrne tries to talk Reilly to sleep.

Brazelton advocates a middle ground between the "cry it out" and "attachment parenting" extremes. He says talk to your children, but don't pick them up and as they get older, replace yourself with another form of comfort, such as a stuffed animal.

If there is one thing most of the books agree on, it's that every child has a different body clock. Some, like Reilly in Hoboken, are owls, and some, like Jonah in Chicago, are larks. The key is observing the clues in your own child and adjusting naps and bedtime accordingly.

"One big mistake is comparing children by bedtime," says Dr. Marc Weisbluth, the author of "Your Fussy Baby." "Well, it depends on how long they nap, and that's under genetic control. So you want to do what's best for your child and always look at your child's behavior at 4 or 5 p.m. to answer the question, 'Is my child getting enough sleep.' Don't worry about numbers, look at the child."

Weisbluth says that if your child is tired at 5:30 p.m., put him or her to bed at 5:30 p.m. And don't worry that your child will get up early, because good sleep begets sleep.

"You may spend less time at night playing with [your] child, but there's a real benefit for the family and the emphasis should be on the family," he says. "Not the child, not the parents, but the family."

Ferber agrees that parents too often force their children to conform to their adult schedules.

"People will say, 'You know, it's really strange. We get him all ready for bed and then he just gets new energy and starts to run around.' Well, it may be strange, but that's how our bodies work," Ferber explains. "And the reason that happens is our body clock is kicking in in the second half of the day to keep us awake."

Ferber recommends moving bedtime back a few hours and seeing how your children do. But in the end, whether you put them to bed earlier or later, whether you co-sleep in a family bed or let them "self-soothe" in a crib, take comfort that you're not alone in the quest for rest.

Oh, and remember whatever worked for the parents next door probably won't work for you.

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