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Crying It Out: What Feels Wrong, IS Wrong

Sleep training, controlled crying, and crying it out: is it ok, or isn’t it? New research has just been published in the American Journal of Pediatrics suggesting that:

“Behavioral sleep techniques did not cause long-lasting harms or benefits to child, child-parent, or maternal outcomes. Parents and health professionals can feel comfortable about using these techniques to reduce the population burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression.”

The research is already being hailed as a victory by those who claim that sleep training is an essential parenting rite of passage and completely harmless to the child involved. The Daily Telegraph headlined: ‘Leave your baby to cry, scientists say’, whilst the good old Daily Mail claimed, ‘Letting babies cry rather than rushing to comfort them is secret to longer sleep (for infants AND parents)’.

This is not a new debate. The fight over whether or not sleep training is harmful rages constantly amidst parents, facebook groups and experts, and there have been many and various studies and scholarly articles claiming that it is damaging, and that it isn’t, before this latest one. So how do we, as parents, decide what to believe, and who is right?

The whole thing rather reminds me of a very different debate: Is smoking bad for you? It might surprise you, but if you google this question, you will find a whole raft of people who are looking for evidence that cigarettes cause harm, and doubting the evidence that exists. There are even articles that claim that cigarettes do not cause any damage, and that there is research to show that there is no link between smoking and lung cancer.

To all of these folk who are swimming along in a big fat Egyptian river known as Denial, I’ve just got one thing to say: do you remember your first ever puff on a cigarette? I do, let me tell you what happened. I lit it up, I inhaled, for a brief moment I looked and felt pretty cool, and then…I coughed like a dog, the room spun, and I felt flippin awful. Don’t worry, I persevered, and went on to be a committed smoker for a decade - nobody likes a quitter. But do you know what, from that very first moment, I knew that smoking was bad for me, really bad for me, and that it could probably kill me. And I didn’t need an expert to tell me that.

If it feels wrong, it's probably wrong. All mothers know in their heart of hearts that they should never ignore the cries of their own flesh and blood, and yet, in our culture, it’s considered pretty normal to do so. Perhaps, then, the question that should be being explored is not, ‘Should they do it?’, but ‘Why do they do it?’. Because they’re tired! I hear you cry, but is it really that simple?

‘Tiredness’ as a new mother is very real – and I’m writing as someone who hasn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep for four and a half years, so trust me, I’ve got the T-shirt (and, my partner would probably add, the personalized bullet belt). But – and if you haven’t slept in a while, please don’t shoot me – I think the tiredness can also be a metaphor for a whole host of other feelings that are much more difficult to pin down or name. As a new mother, you often have no idea what you are doing or what you are supposed to be doing; your old body, career and life have disappeared pretty much over night, and you can be isolated too.

It can feel overwhelming, like chaos unleashed. Amidst it all, you struggle to find words to describe your feelings. ‘How are you?’, they ask, ‘Oh – tired’, you reply. And suddenly, not getting enough sleep becomes like a bucket you can fill with a whole multitude of other things; all the chaotic, overwhelming, crazy struggle with your endlessly heavy responsibility, your loss of identity, your sudden and stark awareness of mortality, your fears and all the lonely darkness of this massive life changing event. You long to take back the control you have lost, and you start to believe, if only I wasn’t so tired, if only my baby would sleep through the night, then everything would go back to normal again, I would get my life back, my old life in which I was never this tired.

You feel tired, but actually this is just a metaphor for lost / lonely / overwhelmed / adrift / struggling. You say you want a good night's sleep, but what you really mean is you want to get a grip on things, you want the chaos to subside, you want normality, order, predictability, control. Sleep training, then, might seem tempting, offering the promise of the restoration of the status quo at seemingly very little cost. But as new mothers, there are some simple truths that we need to face:

  • Life is never going to be the same again, even if we get more sleep.
  • If we feel in our absolute hearts and our deepest instincts that leaving our babies to cry alone is wrong, then it is wrong, no matter what the experts say. 

Oh, and one more - smoking really is bad for you!

What feels harmful and damaging, is harmful and damaging. What feels wrong, is wrong. You know.


  1. That's such an interesting idea, tiredness as metaphor. I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I'm reading a parenting book which smacked me in the face with a line advising parents not to trust their instincts. Say what? How is that even normal? Everyone knows stuff on a deeper level. What's the point in ignoring it?

    1. I agree. Sometimes following your intuition can get confusing as we can be so out of touch with it. But when it comes to CIO - surely it's simple - we are utterly hard wired to feel deeply uncomfortable when we are not comforting a crying baby! x

  2. I just spent an hour and a half nursing and trying to gently get my 2 and a half year old to sleep. I've spent an hour and a half every night for the better part of the last year doing the same. It's /really/ starting to wear me out.

    Yet I know in my heart that CIO is not healthy and not safe. Which is the only thing keeping me from turning to it now.

    But how mentally frayed I am at this exhaustive and defeating bed time routine also isn't safe and isn't healthy. Besides deal with it, I just don't know what to do. And dealing with it is getting more and more challenging.

    1. Karen, I am in the same boat. Same aged child, same length of time.
      I think it is the fact that they are transitioning to not needing a day time sleep. With my daughter, if she skips the sleep, she falls asleep with the first few mins of boob. If she has a nap, she bounces around for ages. Very frustrating.
      But I do tell myself, what would you be doing instead? Sure, I could be 'getting on with other stuff', and sometimes I dearly wish I was, but really there is no better use of my time right now than to be there and be consistently and lovingly responsive to her.
      And as I have an older daughter who was a total nightmare, I can tell you for sure that it does pass, as she now happily trots off to bed, turns off her own light and sleeps all the way through, at 4.
      You might like this post:
      Good luck with it! I will be thinking of you while I am trying to get her to give up and lie down! x

  3. Morning! Do you know what, I did the whole controlled crying thing and it didn't feel wrong to me. I would never advise it with a small baby who obviously needs very regular feeds but my daughter was 8 months and had already slept through a number of times on her own. It was about teaching her to try and soothe herself instead of calling for me the moment she stirred. It worked perfectly with very minimal angst and now she and I regularly get 8 hours sleep, we both wake up refreshed and recharged and ready for a day full of cuddles and kisses. THAT feels right to me and our 'sleep training' never felt wrong so I refuse to feel guilty..!

    1. Well if it genuinely didn't feel wrong to you, even at the time when she was actually crying, then perhaps it wasn't MVF. x

    2. Evening! Thought I should just clarify that I always have (and still do) feed her before bed and then, when she stirred in the night we tried controlled crying, which meant going straight in to her as soon as she whimpered, soothing her and then leaving the room, going back every 5 mins until she went back to sleep, she rarely cried for more than 15 mins and it was a tired cry, not a full-force annoyed cry and I was perfectly used to hearing that during the day if she needed a nap. It was tricky to overcome my self-induced habit of feeding her to sleep but I realised I needed to and she did get rather angry about that but literally, after only one night, she understood that she needed to go to sleep without suckling (otherwise how would Daddy ever put her to bed?) and now once I've fed her and we've read a story, one of us will tuck her in, she'll cuddle her teddy, wave and blow us kisses and then go right off to sleep, it's wonderful. She's been great since about 8 months and she's 16 months now, I'm convinced we're doing it right and, if others have any sympathies with my method I urge you to try it, it can be perfectly caring, kind and gentle, my baby was not left alone to cry in the dark, she always knew I was right there and still does but we all deserve good quality rest and there's no shame in striving for it.
      (should also apologise to Mole Valley Farmers, I need to be on a pc to get my profile name updated, oops!)

  4. Controlled crying NEVER sat well with me, so I DID NOT do it, despite my mum saying "I was creating a rod for my own back" and other phrases that could be interpreted as spare the rod spoil the child etc....

    I then stumbled across a book that explained the damage crying it out can do to their motor neurons (or something like that) and I felt vindicated that I had not listened to my Mum.

    I know which I'd opt for EVERY time no matter what the research says.

    Liska x

    1. I agree Liska. Research is complicated, and can prove and disprove all kinds of things. We need to listen to our hearts. x

  5. This made a bit emotional I have to say just because I think you nailed it in one! It's so much more than being tired (but for me CIO is never an option).
    Thank you for this, it lifts me when we can help each other as parents understand things instead of blaming and pointing fingers...


    1. That's nice Noor. Yes we do need to have solidarity on the sleep deprivation one. It's not fun, but you can survive it, and it does end! Good luck x

  6. My first spent 18 months waking hourly before she just slept through one night, my 2nd ... well, he's only 3 months old so I assume we have a way to go before I get more than a few hours at night again.

    I don't need a study to tell me that CIO is or isn't right for my family though. It's about respect: I would not like to be left to cry in a room on my own for predefined time slots so will not do that to my children. Simple!

    1. I agree Jem. I once saw a really good blog post comparing it to soldiers who never leave a man down. They always go back. It's part of the deal of being a soldier. And part of the deal of being a mum is we always respond! Simple, as you say x

  7. There are a lot of articles recently on controlled crying being bad and I do agree, however, there is not one article to suggest how to do otherwise and how to deal with a crying baby. Please don't be so self righteous unless you can give alternative advice.

    1. Ok, Anon, I will try and write an article with helpful suggestions. Sadly I don't think there is a miracle cure or magic wand, though. Sorry if you read me as self righteous. Not how I intended to be, at all x

    2. Here is a list of alternatives and ideas for parents that choose not to do CIO.

  8. I would like to say I agree with you. It's hard for people who have done it though. I considered it with my twins. In the end we went for what we considered at the time (although we know better now) to be the more dangerous (in terms of SIDS) and radical choice of cosleeping. We both couldn't bear the thought of the babies crying alone! we have never looked back and they are nearly two. I am very glad in retrospect that we didn't tread that path especially knowing what we know now! I would imagine for those who have done it to avoid what many people consider a much worse crime of sleeping in bed with their children to hear that CIO is wrong engenders a strong emotional response.

    In my opinion we need to tackle the public and also medical professionals commonly held view that sleeping in bed with your baby is irresponsible if we are to convince people that CIO is old fashioned and unnecessary. People feel they have no other option to cure that tired/lonely/scared/bewildered feeling. Others who fear cosleeping fall asleep on sofas or in chairs with their babies which is far more dangerous than cosleeping with a breastfed baby with the other safety precautions taken. (for those interested Google UNICEF safe cosleeping)

    Love Marixxx

    1. I agree that this is a very loaded debate. I think it will only get worse for parents who have done CIO - by the time we are all grandparents who knows what the evidence from neuroscience, epigenetics etc will say, but I'm pretty sure it won't favour the unnatural practice of CIO.
      I totally agree about co-sleeping. Will try and blog about this.
      Best wishes x

  9. I tend to agree with the 'if it feels wrong..' approach, but for slightly different reasons. And that is with all the conflicting evidence and research it's impossible to make a balanced and 'evidence based' choice - the reality is that you end up being influenced by what you like and disregarding what you don't.

    You started this post for example by saying 'New Research...' - and whether you meant it or not, our senses tend to interpret 'new' as being better and more accurate than the 'old' research. The truth is, very few of us can accurately say whether it was 'good' research, properly conducted and interpreted There's actually a term for this type of reasoning that philosophers use - emotivism.

    And in a way it's not 'wrong' or 'illogical' - when we have no hard evidence either way it is quite rational to follow our instincts. Very often they are right and at the very least we feel more comfortable with ourselves which has other benefits too.

    1. Agreed.
      And yes, many people - but not me of course - are seeing this 'new' research as the 'latest' and therefore 'best'.
      I just hope this post encourages people to listen to their motherly / fatherly intuition, rather than research, which as you point out, is rarely infallible anyway. x

  10. Brilliant. Just what I needed to read right now. Thank you.


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