Let crying babes lie: Study supports notion of leaving infants to cry themselves back to sleep

Credit: Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Today, mothers of newborns find themselves confronting a common dilemma: Should they let their babies "cry it out" when they wake up at night? Or should they rush to comfort their crying little one?

In fact, waking up in the middle of the night is the most common concern that parents of infants report to pediatricians. Now, a new study from Temple psychology professor Marsha Weinraub gives parents some scientific facts to help with that decision.

The study, published in , supports the idea that a majority of infants are best left to self-soothe and fall back to on their own.

"By six months of age, most babies sleep through the night, awakening their mothers only about once per week. However, not all children follow this pattern of development," said Weinraub, an expert on and parent-child relationships.

For the study, Weinraub and her colleagues measured patterns of nighttime sleep awakenings in infants ages six to 36 months. Her findings revealed two groups: and transitional sleepers.

"If you measure them while they are sleeping, all babies—like all —move through a sleep cycle every 1 1/2 to 2 hours where they wake up and then return to sleep," said Weinraub. "Some of them do cry and call out when they awaken, and that is called 'not sleeping through the night.'"

For the study, Weinraub's team asked parents of more than 1,200 infants to report on their child's awakenings at 6, 15, 24 and 36 months. They found that by six months of age, 66 percent of babies—the sleepers—did not awaken, or awoke just once per week, following a flat as they grew. But a full 33 percent woke up seven nights per week at six months, dropping to two nights by 15 months and to one night per week by 24 months.

Of the babies that awoke, the majority were boys. These transitional sleepers also tended to score higher on an assessment of difficult temperament which identified traits such as and distractibility. And, these babies were more likely to be breastfed. Mothers of these babies were more likely to be depressed and have greater maternal sensitivity.

The findings suggest a couple of things, said Weinraub. One is that genetic or constitutional factors such as those that might be reflected in difficult temperaments appear implicated in early sleep problems. "Families who are seeing sleep problems persist past 18 months should seek advice," Weinraub said.

Another takeaway is that it is important for babies to learn how to fall asleep on their own. "When mothers tune in to these night time awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breastfeeding, then he or she may not be learning to how to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep," she said.

According to Weinraub, the mechanism by which maternal depression is connected to infant awakenings is an area that would benefit from further research. On the one hand, Weinraub said, it's possible that mothers who are depressed at six and 36 months may have been depressed during pregnancy and that this prenatal depression could have affected neural development and sleep awakenings. At the same time, it's important to recognize that sleep deprivation can, of course, exacerbate maternal depression, she said.

"Because the mothers in our study described infants with many awakenings per week as creating problems for themselves and other family members, parents might be encouraged to establish more nuanced and carefully targeted routines to help with self-soothing and to seek occasional respite," said Weinraub.

"The best advice is to put infants to bed at a regular time every night, allow them to fall asleep on their own and resist the urge to respond right away to ."

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Caliban
5 / 5 (1) Jan 02, 2013
The oldest parenting dilemma.

And still only a provisional answer.

Every few years the pendulum of behavioral psychology opinion reverses itself: "let them cry themselves to sleep/comfort them, comfort them/let them cry themselves to sleep" --what kind of effect must this be having upon our children's development?

I would really be worried if I didn't already know that the dilemma is usually resolved by the eventual crash of even the most well-meaning of parental units after a more-or-less extended period of sleep deprivation.

Ultimately, it is more a test of the endurance(fitness?) of the parentals than a question of childrearing.

theskepticalpsychic
1 / 5 (5) Jan 02, 2013
Or you can do what one Fundamentalist father I knew did, which was to beat his infant with a little stick when it cried in the crib.
LarryD
1 / 5 (2) Jan 02, 2013
As a parent in England I did my own 'survey' with my three children.
My eldest daughter was perhaps closer to a 'norm' waking every couple of hours or so but didn't require much comforting to return to sleep. Sleeping most of the night after just a few months.
Next, my son, who practically brought himself into the world by dropping into my arms in the kitchen while we were waiting for an ambulance, would sleep so soundly that we were worried about 'cot death'. As far as I know now in his 40's he is still sleeps 'like a log'.
My youngest daught was the exact opposite and would cry much of the day and most of the night. We had visits from social services because neighbours were afraid of ill treatment, several medical examinations prove negative so she was healthy. Finally, screaming 'red in the face', we rushed her to our (female) MD who thought it may be meningitis. However, during the examination the Doctor cradled my daughter and walked into the 'children's' room(cont.)
cdt
3 / 5 (2) Jan 02, 2013
Is it only me or is the conclusion completely disconnected from the study undertaken?
LarryD
1 / 5 (1) Jan 02, 2013
(cont.)(3rd para should read 'My youngest daughter)
...into the 'children's' room with us following behind...the crying stopped. My daughter seemed interested in certain items so before going home we went to local toy shop and bought acouple of similar items. That was it! No more (abnormal) crying from then on.
Years later it was shown that my daught was 'mentally sensitive' to her surroundings. In fact it turned out to be more detailed but this is not the place to discuss that; suffice to say that my daughter is now a happy mother with a family of her own so all turned out well in the end.
LarryD
not rated yet Jan 02, 2013
Typo yet again, should read '...my daughter was...'
Anonym
1.7 / 5 (6) Jan 03, 2013
If you would look to someone in a lab coat to answer this fundamental question, you aren't ready for kids. Now, if you want a kid who "knows" from an early age that no amount of complaining to management will effect any change, you let 'em cry it out (or beat 'em with a stick! -- lol). If you want your child to believe in themselves and the efficacy of communication, respond to their crying. (You may eventually figure out what it is they want, actually)... The child who is ignored has a good start on growing up to be a standard-issue, self-seeking, morally fixated fascist, while the other --- has to work at it.
freethinking
1 / 5 (5) Jan 03, 2013
How about this, do what you think is best. Expertitis is a disease of listen to too many experts.

For my 4 kids, did a bit of both. They all are growing up fine.
SmokedBort
1 / 5 (4) Jan 04, 2013
We prefer to keep our kids stress levels down. If you have the ability to watch your child scream for hours without helping, you probably have more than just parenting problems.
Aliani
1 / 5 (3) Jan 04, 2013
this does matter. this is when babies learn empathy, by having their needs met. babies whose needs are ignored will of course give up and go to sleep on their own eventually, but at a huge cost, and in some, leading to tragic results such as we saw in connecticut. how can people treat helpless babies in a way they would not treat their friends? this study does not in any way prove that babies' cries should be ignored; it is only used to justify people's cruel actions. sleeping with baby is by far the easiest way for everyone to get enough sleep.
rynox
3 / 5 (2) Jan 04, 2013
If baby cries and doesn't settle down in short order- pick up baby and try to comfort him or her.

Science not required.
freethinking
1.6 / 5 (7) Jan 04, 2013
Now progressives will mandate that parents MUST let their kids cry to sleep. Do it for the children.

Think I'm Joking. Who would have thought 15 years ago, government will regulate how much soda pop you could buy, and that mothers will be arm twisted to breast feed their children.

I say, let parents do what they think is best and keep government out of family decisions.
Tausch
1 / 5 (3) Jan 06, 2013
There is no incident in recorded history of an infant/newborn dying from too much parental attention.

You can try to 'spoil' an infant or newborn.
You will not succeed.

The label 'self sooth' - in this research/case/study is as far removed from science as a lobotomy to alleviate a headache.

Marsha Weinraub, without disrespect I call BS on this.

@rynox
Kudos.

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