The Cry It Out Debate Has Ended: Here’s Why

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This week I came across a debate on facebook about ‘cry it out’. Someone had posted this article,  in which one mum honestly describes her version of cry-it-out and why she did it. The mum also questions some of the research about cry-it-out, because they have an obviously anti-cry-it-out bias, and that articles presenting the science don’t talk about the studies’ limitations.

I’m not writing this post to assess the validity of the research. But I always feel a little sad and frustrated by the fact that we are still having a debate about whether cry-it-out is okay.

See, what the majority of parents don’t know is that the cry-it-out debate has ended. It actually ended over 30 years ago when psychologist Aletha Solter, and parent educator Patty Wipfler started sharing about the importance of listening to tears.

What they found, and what thousands of parents have since found is that babies cry for two reasons; one to get their needs met and also to release stress and upset. The stress hormone cortisol is released through tears. When a baby cries for a need we should of course meet that need as quickly as possible, but when they cry to heal and recover from stress and upset, we shouldn’t try to stop those tears. Dr. Deborah Macnamara says it best, ”crying is not the hurt, but the process of becoming unhurt.” If all our baby’s needs are met, and we are sure they are in good health, and not in pain, then we don’t need to do anything to ‘fix’ the crying, we can simply listen. When we go through this process of listening, holding our babies and staying close, then they  naturally sleep well.

This week a parent asked me if there was any science to show that babies who are listened to sleep better. There isn’t any direct science. And for good reason. Until recently the healing power of tears has been almost hidden in our society. When we were young there was almost no awareness of it at all. And so when we cried, our parents had no idea that there were times we simply needed to be listened to. We would have been rocked or ‘shhhed’ or bounced, or fed when we weren’t hungry, or pretty much anything our parents could think to do to stop the crying.

Our entire society is built upon not listening to feelings. The message to just stop the crying is deeply ingrained in every parent, and it takes a lot of self-awareness to begin to see it. That’s why scientists haven’t yet researched what happens when we listen to tears in babies. Until now the message has only been heard on the periphery of our society.

And this is why we are still stuck in a debate about cry-it-out. Society as a whole has been missing this vital piece of information that babies need to cry in the loving arms of a caregiver to sleep well. We have been trying to get our children to sleep by going against their nature to cry to heal. It’s no wonder that so many of us have struggled!

It’s testament to how distorted our society’s attitude to feelings is that leaving a baby alone to cry-it-out is considered a necessary option, because the idea of staying with a baby’s feelings, is not.

It was really hard for me to process this information when I first heard it. Was it really okay just to stay listen to my daughter cry without doing anything to stop the tears? It took me a long time to untangle my natural instinct to love and nurture my daughter from my ‘instinct’ to stop her from crying, when she didn’t have a need. Each step of the way I talked, and read and thought about what I was doing, so I was sure I was making the right choice.

The reason it’s hard to listen to tears is because it activates our own memories of hurt from our childhood. Memories, often unconscious of how our parents didn’t want to listen, they just wanted to stop us from expressing how we felt.

Through Hand in Hand Parenting, I’ve heard so many stories from parents who have helped their baby’s and children sleep better by listening to tears, play, connection, and giggles. Listening really does work.

We need to move on from the debate about ‘cry-it-out,’ and instead focus on listening. We need to tell our own childhood stories, and heal from them, so that we can then look honestly at our own reactions and impulses to stop tears. Not only will we as a society then have more sleep, we’ll be an emotionally healthier society too.

Further Resources

My story of how I helped my daughter sleep through the night

The Hand in Hand Parenting website has articles and anecdotes about helping with sleep.

Hand in Hand Parenting’s online self-study course, Helping Young Children Sleep.

My book Tears Heal How to listen to our children : has everything you need to know about listening to tears, and it includes a chapter on sleep.

Tears Heal2016

9 thoughts on “The Cry It Out Debate Has Ended: Here’s Why

  1. This is really interesting. When my little one was small there were days when I knew he would not go to sleep unless I almost ‘made’ him cry. The tears were needed before the sleep would come. Will stop feeling guilty about wanting him to cry so I knew he would sleep (does that make sense?!)

  2. I’m so glad this helps you see it differently Meandering Wild. So many parents are struggling without knowing this. There’s such a huge difference between crying it out alone, and being with our children to let them feel their feelings!

  3. I’m still unsure about this. For older toddlers and children I absolutely agree that listening to tears and allowing them to express all emotions with a loving person nearby is important and works.
    For babies I also agree it’s important not to “squash” their expression, and to try and empathise with their discontent if crying. But I think with babies it’s very difficult to determine that they aren’t crying to have a “need” met. Because their “need” may be to be comforted. So we rule out the obvious “needs”, pain/illness, hunger, nappy change, room temperature, comfy bedding, noise/light levels…and that could still leave loneliness, frustration, confusion, anger, fear and simple tiredness. I really feel that babies need careful attention and the right kind of comfort for them so that they are soothed and no longer need to cry. I’m concerned that “listening” could be interpreted as doing nothing to help soothe them, because you “should let them cry and just listen”.

    I feel this for a number of reasons, firstly to me tears containing cortisol is simply proof that the body is flooded with cortisol in a stressful situation. (I haven’t looked at the science but do other bodily excretions also contain cortisol only after a stressful situation? The body will get rid of it however it can surely, or reabsorb?). So whilst tears serve a helpful purpose, and for adults and older children shouldn’t be shushed up, for young babies I think we shouldn’t be distracted from trying to soothe the cause of the upset by simply thinking it’s good to have a good cry. We can certainly try and keep calm whilst cuddling or rocking or patting a crying baby (whatever their comfort needs are, some babies get more distressed if held) but I still feel our goal should be to help calm them, and therefore help them to stop crying because they no longer need to.
    The second reason I think this is because from an evolutionary perspective it seems to me that babies would only cry if they have a “need” that needs meeting, otherwise they are potentially alerting predators. And likewise as parents, perhaps we are actually hardwired to feel the need to stop the crying because of the risk of predators. That communication is perhaps meant to be a sign that we meet the need, rather than just stop the crying at all costs, but nonetheless the crying is a call to adults to take some action, to help pay attention.
    When it comes to sleep, I think babies sometimes cry because they want to sleep and can’t, so they need our help to be able to get calm enough to sleep. There’s many different ways that might help a baby become calm enough to sleep, so that’s a personal choice, but I truly believe we need to help babies, if they need help, to sleep. Some might need a short cry and they then settle down quickly, and if that’s what you’ve observed with your baby then great. But I’d be worried that it could be misinterpreted as letting baby cry for a long time so they “get it out of their system”….actually I think in that situation they are also learning that their emotions aren’t valid as they didn’t get the help they needed (just as trying to stop crying can teach to hide emotions).

    So I’m not against the gentle caring attention that I think is meant by “listening”, but I think it needs to be made much more explicit what that means with a baby. What a parent should actually be doing.
    What is “listening” to a baby?

    Is it actually cuddling them and making soft noises and maybe saying “I hear you. You’re safe” and trying to relax your body and breathing so that they can tune in to bodily relaxation as well? And then adjusting depending on how they respond?
    And sometimes is it taking them out of the room they are crying in because they are getting more and more hysterical, and letting them relax for a bit distracted by toys or just being in the light instead of the dark…because you heard they were protesting before? I’ve been in that situation and the fact my daughter instantly stopped crying and was smiling in the bright room, without us saying a word made me feel that that time she was simply angry at being in the dark room unable to sleep. If we’d have just persisted in there listening to her cry, she may have eventually gone to sleep exhausted, but I don’t think that is what she “needed” at that point, she needed a break. Whilst other nights she wakes crying then instantly is calm and asleep when she’s picked up, or with a cuddle in the dark room.

    Having a description of what listening could be like in different scenarios could be very helpful.

    And I also think saying that the cry it out debate is over is confusing, because cry it out means precisely not listening….so if someone were committed to trying to help healthy emotional development but they thought that “cry it out” was “listening”, then that would be a great shame.

    Otherwise I’m really enjoying all the articles but just felt I needed to respond to this. Thanks!

    1. Hi S, listening to a babies needs can be complicated, and I think it’s for good reason that we have a strong impulse to meet those needs, and to over meet those needs is definitely better than to under meet them. To listen to a baby needs a really good understanding of your baby and it’s needs, and of crying, and our own process of healing. I know for me there were times in the evening when my daughter cried pretty much like clock-work and she didn’t want to feed. She would keep coming off the breast and I would keep doing things to try and get her to stop, like bouncing, distraction etc. I read a book called The Aware Baby, that explains listening to babies crying, but after becoming a mum I seemed to forget it all and act on impulse to simply stop the crying. By 6 months my daughter was hardly crying at all, and I was relieved I had such a happy, contented baby. But something didn’t feel right. I remembered the information I’d read about the healing power of tears and questioned whether it was really healthy for a baby to not cry at all? To feed a baby every time they made a noise? Although she was pretty content, she often had these tense moments when she was feeding and I began to realise that the feeding wasn’t helping her relax. I had done a lot of yoga, meditation, and crying in my early twenties, and I remembered that feeling of moving through the emotion and of feeling much better when I got out the ‘other side.’ I reread the Aware Baby and took what felt like a leap, to listen to her rather than feed her when I was sure she wasn’t really hungry, as well as times when I would just hold her to fall asleep instead of put her in a sling or buggy. I could see the benefits in how relaxed, and content, she was, how she slept much deeper, (no longer waking at the slightest noise).

      R.E your question about cortisol – The people in the study by William Frey (who discovered the cortisol in tears) weren’t in a stressfull situation when they cried. So this is what led him to assume that the tears are healing rather than restressing the person. There hasn’t been research on babies though. But in my own experience of parenting, and that of other instructors and ‘Hand in Hand Parents’ we see the results of our more happy, contented and better sleeping babies. Here’s a simple example here. My daughter isn’t a young baby, but it shows how crying releases fears that can get in the way of being happy and content.

      The predator argument is interesting! My thinking on this is that babies look to cues from parents that it’s safe to cry. For instance when we sit still and hold a baby, and look into their eyes, they attune to our brain and sense our calm. if we’re feeling stressed or busy distracting them from their tears, then they are getting a clear message it’s not safe to cry. The fact that you could take the baby out of the room and ‘make it happy’ with toys shows that they sense it’s not a good time to cry anymore. And it could be that having had a good cry they are in a better mood. This is also human nature. We have this ability to bury our feelings to go off and keep busy and distract ourselves and be happy which is great. The only problem arises if this is done repeatedly the baby gets the message ingrained that it’s not safe to cry at all, and over their years the feelings will build up.

      R.e your point about babies needing our help to sleep, this is something I talk about in my book. I think actually the opposite is true. That babies fall asleep naturally, when we realise the moments when they need to cry and just hold them and listen instead. I think the idea that babies get upset because they can’t sleep is our own projection, and not accurate. It’s really us parents that create our babies sleep problems because we are going against their nature.

      And r.e the point about how you listen. If you go to my set of links at the bottom, you’ll see a post about how I helped my daughter sleep through through the night, which gives an example. There are lots more on the main Hand in Hand Parenting website.

      I think babies do need to be listened to, to have time where they aren’t bounced or overfed or distracted, when they are just held in our arms and get to soak up our loving care and attention without it being our aim to stop the tears. The emotional part of their brain is fully formed before birth so there’s nothing radically different to the way a baby processes their emotions, and the way a toddler does. The majority of babies still don’t experience this but if we start listening when they are toddlers then that helps too.

      Listening and allowing tears in babies does start off as being a foreign language to us all, for the reasons I mention in the post – because we weren’t listened to as children etc. And the first step might not be listening to your baby. The first step is probably as an adult, to do something to process your own emotions, and to really become aware of the way they flow and get released. Without the experience it’s hard to know when and how to listen to a baby. This is why we have something in Hand in Hand Parenting called listening partnerships, which gives us a chance to express our feelings. I think unless we’ve had a lot of experience being deeply in touch with our own emotions, the idea of listening to babies won’t come naturally, so it’s a growing process for all of us, and right that it should be done slowly and cautiously as we trust our instincts and incorporate some very new knowledge.

      Many people use this approach with babies, and have happy relaxed babies who sleep amazingly well, so I think it’s important for me to share the information so that parents that are struggling don’t end up leaving their babies alone to cry and know they can stay with them and listen. But in my experience it does take a few months, or even longer to really think through and make a judgement, about what we think about listening to babies, or toddlers and how it all works. Lots of parents don’t discover it till well beyond the baby stage, and later they often wish they had the tools earlier. So I share in the hope that this message will be valuable to at least a few people.

      Thanks for your response, as I’m sure it echoes a lot of what many people are thinking as they read. I’m so glad you are enjoying the articles! If you still have questions, feel free to ask them.

  4. “Is it actually cuddling them and making soft noises and maybe saying “I hear you. You’re safe” and trying to relax your body and breathing so that they can tune in to bodily relaxation as well? And then adjusting depending on how they respond?

    Hi S and Kate – I’ve really enjoyed reading the original article and your beautifully well thought out and expressed response to it S. As someone who has tried and benefited enormously from the Hand in Hand approach to listening to tears, I can only add that yes the description you give above is very much in alignment with how we listen. It is not a passive listening, but a fully engaged and validating and emotionally holding listening that is done as described above.

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