Critics of Cry-It-Out Fundamentally Misunderstand How Stress Affects the Brain
Because whether or not to sleep train can be such a fraught decision for new parents, I wanted to share my sleep training story, and to explain why, given everything we know about stress, the argument that sleep training causes long-term harm doesn’t hold water.
Sleep Training My Son
When my son was 4.5 months old, I decided to sleep train him. Even by baby standards, my son was not much of a sleeper. He’d snooze for at most 4 or 5 hours, and then wake up every hour like clockwork, wanting to nurse but not wanting milk, popping on and off my breast and screaming in frustration.
I had gone back to work a month earlier, so napping to catch up on sleep was out of the question. Worse, I was commuting an hour to the office each way.
By then, I had reached the end of my sleep deprivation rope. I was so tired I could barely string two thoughts together. I had to coach myself through even mundane tasks like checking out at the grocery store. Say hello to the cashier. Take out your credit card. Pick up the grocery bags. Leave.
I was terrified every time I got into my car to head to work that I would nod off at the wheel and kill someone, quite possibly myself. I joked with coworkers that driver’s licenses should be temporarily suspended for new parents, but the situation really wasn’t funny.
So there I was the first night of sleep training, dripping sweat as I listened to my son’s cries. Minutes ticked by, each seeming longer than the last. I pondered whether the Ferber method included soothing every five minutes just so that you would realize only five minutes had passed.
But I was determined to stick this out, to get it done. Doing it halfway was worse than not doing it at all, I reminded myself over and over. If I were to give in, I could teach my son that crying for 30 minutes was what it took to get mommy to pick him up.
That night, he woke two more times, but never again cried more than 15 minutes. The next night, he cried for 10 minutes at bedtime, conked out, and slept until morning. That morning we greeted each other with a smile, and for the first time since his birth, I really felt like smiling at his freshly woken little face.
Although by all appearances, sleep training went well for us, some critics of cry-it-out methods would contend that I was an inadequate parent who had permanently harmed my son by leaving him alone to cry.
The Cry-It-Out Controversy
“An emotionally available parent would probably not let their baby cry it out,” claims Dr. Teti, a researcher at Penn State.
Dr. Narvaez writes in Psychology Today:
“Letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons.”
When someone tells you that you have permanently damaged your child, it’s hard to shake off, no matter how much happier you and your baby seem once you start getting some solid rest.
Thankfully, as someone who has studied the effects of chronic stress in animals and in people, I knew that claims like Dr. Narvaez’s are not supported by data and instead rest on a fundamental misreading of stress research.
Studies on Cry-It-Out
Critics of cry-it-out methods argue that these studies are flawed–they don’t have the right measures of harm, they fail to determine whether the parents actually used cry-it-out methods to sleep train their babies, and they rely on parents’ reports instead of observation.
Admittedly, some of these criticisms of sleep training research are fair. Sleep training research is hard to do, especially since researchers can’t exactly force parents to sleep train little Johnny, or prevent parents from doing so.
That said, there’s no evidence in humans–none–to support the view that sleep training is harmful. If there were, we’d have heard about it.
So what the critics of cry-it-out argue, really, boils down to this: They know that sleep training is harmful, because they know stress is harmful to babies.
The problem with that argument? All stress is not created equal. We were designed to handle short-term stress. Where we humans, and other animals, run into trouble is when stress becomes chronic.
Short-Term Versus Chronic Stress
In terms of their effects, the difference between short-term and chronic stress is one not of degree, but of kind. Short-term stress enhances memory; chronic stress impairs it. Short-term stress boosts the immune system; chronic stress weakens it.
(Seeing short-term and chronic stress as fundamentally different is not just my own heterodox personal take. This is the view of people who study stress for a living, including the renowned stress neuroscientist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky, professor of Neurology at Stanford University, who writes extensively about this key distinction in his excellent book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes this distinction in its statement on early life stress. And the Harvard statement on child development, cited by Dr. Narvaez herself in her Psychology Today piece, makes a point of distinguishing between short-term and long-term stress.)
The Effects of Stress in Early Life
Short-term stress mobilizes us for action–the classic fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline and cortisol pump through our veins; our bodies brim with energy; and mentally we become hyper-focused.
But these short-term adaptations are harmful when switched on for too long, especially when we are young. Scores of animal and human studies show that early life stress, such as severe early social deprivation, leads to long-term changes in the brain, cognitive and social problems, and heightened susceptibility to anxiety, depression, and drug abuse in adulthood. Chronic stress is toxic.
But from this can we conclude that all early stress, even short-term stress, is harmful?
No. Absolutely not. In studies of short-term stress early in life, occurring within the larger context of a close caregiver-infant relationship, none of these ill effects are observed.
In fact, young monkeys exposed to early short bouts of stress, such as brief periods of separation from their mothers, become more resilient to future stresses. They are less anxious and have less extreme physiological reactions to stress later in life. This phenomenon is so consistent that researchers have labelled it stress inoculation.
So where does that leave us? A little stress, even in infancy, is fine, if not beneficial, but too much for too long is very, very bad.
Do we know exactly where sleep training fits in this spectrum? Just how much stress does a baby experience during cry-it-out?
The short answer is that we don’t know for certain. Everything we do know, however, suggests that this amount of stress, in the context of a warm, loving family, is just fine.
To see why, let’s return for a second to the American Academy of Pediatrics statement on early life stress, which provides examples of the types of stress children can withstand, provided they occur within a broader context of loving, supportive relationships. These include “the death of a family member, a serious illness or injury, a contentious divorce, a natural disaster, or an act of terrorism”. By comparison, sleep training seems pretty mild.
But I would go further. I believe that sleep training is not only not harmful, it is beneficial. Successful sleep training can decrease depression and chronic stress in the parents, and this benefits parents and their babies. Unlike sleep training, having a depressed mother during early childhood has been shown, repeatedly, to be linked with worse long-term outcomes for children.
Which brings me to what I find most troubling about the claims of sleep training opponents: Their zero-sum take on parenting. Worrying about your own sleep needs is selfish, they not so subtly imply. Any time you fail to put your baby’s needs before your own, you are potentially doing him harm.
What a narrow, cramped view of parenthood.
No one would ever dispute that parenthood entails enormous sacrifices, especially when your children are young and their need for you feels so endless and all-consuming.
But I think that because parenthood, and motherhood in particular, is so often judged in terms of self-sacrifice, we tend to forget that a primary job for parents is to be strategic.
As parents, we must weigh short-term costs against long-term harms, because our children cannot. We have to consider the risk of a few nights of stress and unmet needs against the risk of a car accident or job loss, and against the serious physical and emotional toll of chronic sleep deprivation on the entire family.
We can forget, too, that the parent-child relationship is one not only of sacrifice but also of profound mutual benefit. You being a whole, fulfilled individual with a solid relationship with your partner, meaningful social ties, and a sense of purpose enriches your world and your child’s world. You being a well-rested, healthy, and happy parent is good for you and good for your child.
Ashokan A, Sivasubramanian M, Mitra R. Seeding Stress Resilience through Inoculation. Neural Plasticity. 2016;2016:4928081. doi:10.1155/2016/4928081.
Center on the Developing Child (2010). The Foundations of Lifelong Health Are Built in Early Childhood. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Crofton EJ, Zhang Y, Green TA. Inoculation Stress Hypothesis of Environmental Enrichment. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews. 2015;0:19-31. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.11.017.
Darcia Narvaez. Dangers of “Cry-It-Out”: Damaging children and their relationships for the longterm. Psychology Today. 2011.
Gunnar M. Reactivity of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical System to Stressors in Normal Infants and Children. Pediatrics. September 2, 1992;90(3):491.
Hsiao YM, Tsai TC, Lin YT, Chen CC, Huang CC, Hsu KS. Early life stress dampens stress responsiveness in adolescence: Evaluation of neuroendocrine reactivity and coping behavior.Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016 May;67:86-99.
Lyons DM, Parker KJ, Schatzberg AF. Animal Models of Early Life Stress: Implications for Understanding Resilience. Developmental psychobiology. 2010;52(5):402-410. doi:10.1002/dev.20429.
Parker KJ, Buckmaster CL, Sundlass K, Schatzberg AF, Lyons DM. Maternal mediation, stress inoculation, and the development of neuroendocrine stress resistance in primates.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2006;103(8):3000-3005. doi:10.1073/pnas.0506571103.
Sánchez MM, Ladd CO, Plotsky PM. Early adverse experience as a developmental risk factor for later psychopathology: evidence from rodent and primate models. Dev Psychopathol. 2001 Summer;13(3):419-49.
Sanchez MM, McCormack KM, Howell BR. Social Buffering of Stress Responses in Nonhuman Primates: Maternal Regulation of the Development of Emotional Regulatory Brain Circuits. Social neuroscience. 2015;10(5):512-526. doi:10.1080/17470919.2015.1087426.