” Cry it out” – the ongoing debate around baby sleep

To cry or not to cry…

Cry baby
Cry it out approaches to baby sleep training


 “It’s OK to let your baby cry himself to sleep, study finds”

“Cry it out: The method that kills baby brain cells”

As a new parent, how on earth do you navigate this particular dichotomy?

On the one hand, baby ‘experts’ saying “let ‘em cry, they have to learn that you won’t come to them every time they cry” and on the other, scientists pointing to evidence that babies brains can be adversely affected by high cortisol (stress hormone) levels.


As a new mum or dad, who is completely zombified by their baby’s inability to sleep when the parent needs to sleep, seeing the first headline might make you weep with relief.

But wait, it’s really not that simple, is it?

Any parent who has tried a cry it out approach will likely admit that actually following the technique in practice is much harder than you might think. We are biologically programmed to respond to our offspring’s cries. To ignore those cries can be physically painful for the parent and pretty distressing for the baby.

We are at a stage in our parenting development and understanding where we have science to help us challenge traditional ways of bringing up children and we are surely now past the “children should be seen and not heard” approach of the past.

Cry it out? Really?

But sometimes I wonder, if we have really moved on at all, when I see paediatricians advocating leaving a baby to cry it out even to the point they are sick. And not to make eye contact when you change the sick covered sheets.

If your partner was going through a tough time emotionally and was upset and crying, would you leave them alone to “cry it out” or cry themselves to sleep?

Essentially so-called experts are suggesting we neglect our to our teeny babies. Because babies are not able to self-regulate their emotions. They need carers to help them calm down. So when you hold your baby close and their little body relaxes into yours, you can be assured that you are helping to reduce their cortisol levels. Leaving your baby alone to scream themselves to the point of exhaustion REALLY isn’t teaching them how to self soothe.

All they are learning is that there is no point in them communicating with you because their pleas are falling on deaf ears. Over time, this lack of response to their needs is going to result in an insecure baby who cannot rely on their caregiver to help them when they need comfort.

And when you think about it like that, there are few parents who really want this situation, surely?

So, how do you deal with a baby that won’t simply fall asleep on their own and stay asleep in its cot all night?

To some extent, it does depend on the age of your baby, but what’s also very important is your own expectations as to what is normal when it comes to baby sleep.

What’s normal?

Cry to sleep
Baby relaxed with caregiver

New parents need to know that newborns are wired to sleep in short bursts, spending most of their time in active (light) sleep. After all, small babies tummies are teeny. They need refilling frequently and lighter sleep is a protective factor against SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

Coping with sleep deprivation is possibly the hardest part of being a new parent. You can learn how to change a nappy in the 1st 24hrs. You can learn to interpret your baby’s cues in the 1st few weeks. What is harder to “learn”, is how to manage on significantly less sleep.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for making babies sleep longer. Time passing will remedy this, but it could take a lot longer than most new parents expect.

For instance, did you know that 50% of babies aged 1 are still waking at least once per night requiring help from their caregiver to fall back to sleep.

So, my top tips for understanding and coping with baby sleep:

  • Babies sleep in short blocks in the first few months. A sleep cycle: drowsy-active sleep-deep sleep-active sleep-waking takes about 45 minutes. The deep sleep period only lasts around 15-20 minutes.
  • Babies need lots of active (REM) sleep to help them process all their new learning.
  • It is safer for babies not to sleep too deeply as this reduces the risk of cot death.
  • Sleep cycles start to lengthen from around 4-6 months of age. Babies will begin to sleep in longer blocks from this age.
  • Babies need the comfort of their caregiver to help them regulate their feelings. Feeling lonely and insecure is not a good recipe for restful sleep. Therefore many babies do not want to be put down in a cot alone to sleep.
  • Making bed sharing as safe as possible can be the best way for all parties to get more sleep.
  • Sleeping in a bed which has been set up to be as risk free as possible is much much safer than accidentally falling asleep on the sofa with your baby on your chest or in a sling.
  • Avoid bed sharing if you are under the influence of alcohol, drugs or you smoke. These are significant risk factors for your baby.
  • There’s little point in both parents staying awake all night with the baby – take it in turns to sleep.
  • Babies don’t stay tiny for long. Soon you will be wishing you had a time machine so you could go back to the early days for one more baby snuggle.

Further resources

You might be interested in this blog article which delves deeper into the evidence.

For more information on baby sleep, visit www.basisonline.org.uk

For help in the early days of parenting, check out our postnatal doula service.