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.

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