Why I Will Never Again Use The “Cry-It-Out” Method

I can remember when Lily (my oldest) was a newborn. The day after I gave birth to that precious being. I remember my nurses bringing her to me, swaddled so tightly that she looked like a little doll within a sea of blankets with little teal and pink stripes on them. It felt very odd to be holding my new babe and to not feel her skin. Only cotton. They then placed her in her bassinet.

This will help her sleep better. She has to learn her nights from her days!” The nurses reminded me.

And even as a tender, first-time mother who was trying to absorb all of the advice I could possibly get, I knew that was wrong. Every fiber of my being knew that was wrong.

Once they left, I picked her up, and began to unwrap that little, dreaming body until she was just in a  diaper. I held her to my bare chest, and all felt right. That she was supposed to lay between my breasts in that warmth. So close to the womb she just left, and near her food source. I felt incredibly connected. With my new earthling, and the world that surrounded us. It was bliss. We both slept soundly.

But upon being discharged from the hospital a couple of days later, I was once again reminded by my lactation consultant (who I now realize should not have been a lactation consultant in the first place) that when she woke to nurse throughout the night, to immediately place her back in her own crib directly after. Even if she cried. “It will help her learn!” they told me. Being a frightened, new mother, I took her advice out of fear of accidentally falling asleep with her, or increasing the risk of SIDS. I was completely paranoid from the way the hospital staff had gone over all of it with me. They made her seem so fragile.

When we got home from the hospital, our lives had officially started. But it wasn’t the newborn bliss that I was expecting. Days were exhausting, but nights were the worst. I would feed my baby, zip her up in a sleep sack, and place her back into her crib, but the crying never stopped. “They said she should calm back down!” I thought. I would leave the room in tears because I couldn’t possibly take the crying any longer. It continued for hours. I was quite literally not getting any sleep. I was a mess. An absolute mess. I wanted to hold my sweet babe and rock her back to sleep. To bring her into bed with me, and let her nurse while I got a nap. Anything. But I was too afraid.

On day three, I took her to her pediatrician for a weight check, since she was born large. I explained the situation to the doctor, and how she never stopped crying when placed back into her crib. I expressed how I didn’t feel it was right, and that there had to be something I can do to make the transition easier. But unfortunately, her doctor told me to continue what I was doing, and he explained to me that it was called the “Cry-It-Out” method. The best way of sleep training. He talked about it as if my baby were a puppy. I left the office incredibly angry.


That night I decided to follow the instincts that the universe had provided me. When the sun began to set, and my sweet girl had droopy eyes, I held her against my skin while she fell asleep. Once asleep, I placed her in a little bouncing seat for newborns on the side of my bed instead of her crib that felt too far away, since I wasn’t exactly sure how to co-sleep safely yet. Throughout the night when she would wake hungry, I would pick her up a few inches from me, let her nurse in my arms, in my bed, against my skin. Once asleep, I would gently move her back, and stroke her angelic face until I felt content. She was near me. And she knew it. I could smell her sweet fragrance and her quiet breathing. It was comforting to both of us.

The next morning I was shocked. We had both slept! I felt very proud of myself. Very accomplished. Because I had followed my instincts instead of a cold doctor’s advice. I had taken my first, what I would say, “challenge” as a mother head-on, and I came out on top! I learned so much about her. I knew every cue of hers before she would cry. We were so in-sync that I would wake just before she would throughout the night. Knowing every little bit about her from not practicing the CIO method, and beginning to co-sleep deepened our bond, and provided us with so much more sleep than other mothers still practicing CIO. (Not using the CIO method also carried over into nap time during the day as well.)

Lily and I continued with this routine until she was a bit older, and I was more confident in my co-sleeping abilities. She would sleep with me in my bed (safely!) until around 3am, and at that point when I could feel my body drifting into a deeper sleep, I would place her in her bassinet. It worked so well for us.

From that third night home, I never just left her to cry alone.

I look back on those times, two additional children later, and I cannot believe that I followed that advice. After years of researching the very topic, I realize exactly how wrong and abusive it is to practice the CIO method, a method that has been around since the 1880’s.

In the 20th century, behaviorist John Watson (1928), interested in making psychology a hard science, took up the crusade against affection as president of the American Psychological Association. He applied the mechanistic paradigm of behaviorism to child rearing, warning about the dangers of too much mother love. The 20th century was the time when “men of science” were assumed to know better than mothers, grandmothers and families about how to raise a child. Too much kindness to a baby would result in a whiney, dependent, failed human being. Funny how “the experts” got away with this with no evidence to back it up! Instead there is evidence all around (then and now) showing the opposite to be true!

When you leave an infant to cry-it-out, you are teaching them that their most basic instinct and main way of communication is not heard, or worth hearing. You are teaching them to think that when they are crying out for you, you will not be there. It brings down the natural bond, and creates a lack of trust.

When an infant stops crying after being left, it is not because they have forgotten, or that they are just “dealing with it.” They have gone into a mode of survival. Where they know that no one is coming to save them, so instinctually, they are saving their energy to fight for their lives.

What so many parents and caregivers do not realize is that babies need to be treated as if they are living in an “external womb” for up to a year post-birth. 

It is not a positive method of sleep training. Or way to teach your child that you are the boss.

It is abuse.

This brilliant article from Psychology Today lists just some of the many dangers to practicing the Cry-It-Out method:

Neuronal interconnections are damaged. When the baby is greatly distressed, it creates conditions for damage to synapses, the network construction which is ongoing in the infant brain. The hormone cortisol is released. In excess, it’s a neuron killer but its consequences many not be apparent immediately (Thomas et al. 2007). A full-term baby (40-42 weeks), with only 25% of its brain developed, is undergoing rapid brain growth. The brain grows on average three times as large by the end of the first year (and head size growth in the first year is a sign of intelligence, e.g., Gale et al., 2006). Who knows what neurons are not being connected or being wiped out during times of extreme stress? What deficits might show up years later from such regular distressful experiences?

Disordered stress reactivity can be established as a pattern for life not only in the brain with the stress response system (Bremmer et al, 1998), but also in the body through the vagus nerve, a nerve that affects functioning in multiple systems (e.g., digestion). For example, prolonged distress in early life, lack of responsive parenting, can result in a poorly functioning vagus nerve, which is related to various disorders as irritable bowel syndrome (Stam et al, 1997). See more about how early stress is toxic for lifelong healthfrom the recent Harvard report, The Foundations of Lifelong Health are Built in Early Childhood(link is external)).

Self-regulation is undermined. The baby is absolutely dependent on caregivers for learning how to self-regulate. Responsive care—meeting the baby’s needs before he gets distressed—tunes the body and brain up for calmness. When a baby gets scared and a parent holds and comforts him, the baby builds expectations for soothing, which get integrated into the ability to self comfort. Babies don’t self-comfort in isolation. If they are left to cry alone, they learn to shut down in face of extensive distress–stop growing, stop feeling, stop trusting (Henry & Wang, 1998).

Trust is undermined. As Erik Erikson(link is external) pointed out, the first year of life is a sensitive period for establishing a sense of trust in the world, the world of caregiver and the world of self.  When a baby’s needs are met without distress, the child learns that the world is a trustworthy place, that relationships are supportive, and that the self is a positive entity that can get its needs met. When a baby’s needs are dismissed or ignored, the child develops a sense of mistrust of relationships and the world. And self-confidence is undermined. The child may spend a lifetime trying to fill the resulting inner emptiness.

Caregiver sensitivity may be harmed. A caregiver who learns to ignore baby crying, will likely learn to ignore the more subtle signaling of the child’s needs. Second-guessing intuitions that guide one to want to stop child distress, the adult who learns to ignores baby needs practices and increasingly learns to “harden the heart.” The reciprocity between caregiver and baby is broken by the adult, but cannot be repaired by the young child. The baby is helpless.

Caregiver responsiveness(link is external) to the needs of the baby is related to most if not all positive child outcomes. In our work caregiver responsiveness is related to intelligence, empathy, lack of aggression or depression, self-regulation, social competence.  Because responsiveness is so powerful, we have to control for it in our studies of other parenting practices and child outcomes. The importance of caregiver responsiveness is common knowledge in developmental psychology.  Lack of responsiveness, which “crying it out” represents can result in the opposite of the aforementioned positive outcomes.

There are many more negative effects of neglecting your child’s cries and cues.

It makes sense, does it not?

To create loving, secure children and adults, we must provide them with love and security.

If you, or someone you know is curious about learning more about the dangers of the CIO method, please refer to the list of helpful articles below:

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I am an overly-passionate, Earth-obsessed woman who spends her time raising three beautiful flowers, and growing with the other half of my soul.

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