The practice of letting a baby cry it out, or cry until the child drifts off to sleep, does not cause long-term emotional or behavior harm, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by researchers at Flinders University in Australia, tested the controversial sleep method of crying it out, and another commonly used sleep method on a group of 43 infants spanning from six months to 16 months.
Researchers discovered that infants whose parents used “graduated extinction,” or those who allowed their child to cry for increasingly long periods of time, were no more stressed than babies whose parents used bedtime fading, or the technique of moving bedtime later in hope that the child will fall asleep more quickly.
Researchers found that both sleep methods resulted in babies falling asleep more quickly than children whose parents were in the control group and told to continue with their nightly routine, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics.
"It looks like you've got two effective treatments that don't necessarily lead to negative outcomes," an associate professor at Flinders University in Australia told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Carlos Lerner, a pediatrician at UCLA Health, who is not affiliated with the study, says the idea behind graduated extinction is that a child will eventually learn to calm themselves and go back to bed. Like adults, babies have sleep cycles and often wake up every hour or two, he says.
"Many times when they wake up they seek out parents, who console them, which is disruptive to parents," he said in a phone interview. "The idea is that if children have the skill to get back down to sleep they can sleep throughout the night without parents intervention."
Gradisar told CBC that the group wanted to test whether previous research which suggested graduated extinction was stressful for babies was legitimate.
To test whether the infants allowed to cry it out were experiencing long-term stress, the researchers measured the stress hormone cortisol in the babies’ saliva in the afternoon and the morning during the treatment. They also used ankle monitors to track how often the babies in each group were waking throughout the night.
According to the study, the infants whose parents used graduated extinction, did not have higher levels of cortisol during the treatment, and a year later there were no significant signs of behavior or parental attachment issues.
While the two methods both appeared to help the babies fall asleep more quickly than parents who used neither technique, babies in the graduated extinction group, appeared to stay asleep longer and woke less during the night, according to Gradisar.
A similar 2012 study of 326 children, found that children whose parents allowed them to cry it out did not have have any long-term negative impacts five years later, CBC reported.
Lerner notes that parenting styles differ, and some parents may not feel emotionally able to let their child cry even for a short time.
"I think there is a lot of variability in what parents feel comfortable with and what stresses them out," he said. "For some parents having to be up at night repeatedly is particularly stressful and they are looking for any reasonable approach to help children sleep at night; other parents find it disturbing to let child cry for even a few minutes."
Conclusion: Do what works best for you and your child.
Follow @MaryBowerman on Twitter.