Why is my baby crying so much during sleep training?
The amount of crying during sleep training is one of the most discussed topics during a sleep consultant intro call. It's also one of the most common questions while you are on your path. "How long should I let the baby cry?" or "How long is too much crying?" or "What kind of crying can I expect for my first night of sleep training?"
Well - that depends on your choices! At Lovebug, we provide you with all the options to choose what sleep training method works best for you. We will support you with whatever you choose.
We believe the best way to prepare your children for sleep is to start early and address each milestone as it comes. That is the only way to have the most limited crying plan.
But, if you have not been able to establish habits early for whatever reason, that's ok! There may be some crying. We purposely don't describe any of our three methods (Chair Method, Interval Method, or Extinction Method) by the amount of crying present. We don't use crying as a factor because the length and intensity of crying seen in each method will ultimately depend on the baby. It could be none or a lot. If you have been addressing each sleep milestone as they come and are getting to a schedule at 4-6 months, you may experience an hour total of level 3 crying. If you have an 18-month old baby with adult-dependent habits (like falling asleep during nursing or co-sleeping) and you decide to move to an independent sleeper, you could see 3-6 hours of level 8 crying at night. The amount of crying depends on the child's situation.
Furthermore, how do you calculate crying time? Would you rather have three nights of lots of crying or three weeks of little crying each night? The answer will entirely depend on the family's choices and situation.
At Lovebug, we think the ONLY no cry solution addresses each sleep milestone as it comes starting at six weeks old. Suppose you start later, and your baby depends on certain habits and sleep environments. In that case, it will be harder for your baby to sleep independently. First, we have to break old habits and establish healthy habits. And then, we start a sleep training method. Starting with creating good habits first will limit the crying, but you will still see crying.
Why is crying in sleep training "bad"?
Sleep training is very polarizing in the parenting community because of crying. Notably, our Extinction Method (which we will refer to as the "Cry-it-out" Method from now on) and the Interval Method (which is where you control the amount of crying before an adult check-in) get a lot of criticism because crying is present in those approaches. At Lovebug, we want to remind you that there is limited research to conclude whether sleep training with crying or without crying is better or worse. As a result, the best thing to do is to choose what's suitable for your family. Our video lessons in the Lovebug app can help your family have a conversation to decide.
A Case Against Crying at Night... or Not?
As attachment parenting has gained popularity, the debate against Cry It Out ("CIO") sleep training methods has increased scrutiny. Attachment parenting books and blogs most commonly cite Bell & Ainsworth's 1972 study that concludes ignoring a young child's cries will increase the crying frequency and duration. Smarius et al.'s 2015 study built on that research to say excessive infant crying doubles the risk of mood and behavioral problems at age 5. Instead of using CIO, Higley & Dozier, 2009 say the best way to stop crying is to immediately pick up and soothe the child, creating a secure relationship with the child. Any blog or book that cites research gains credibility, right?
Let's look at these studies...
Let's define CIO sleep training methods as a plan to ignore child cries during sleep times only. We only apply CIO if the child is video-monitored, healthy, and safe. Meanwhile, the research cited by CIO opponents is based on scenarios and sample sets where the sample subjects would ignore a child's cries completely, similar to situations found in abandonment and neglect parenting styles.
It turns out that many of the researchers of these studies intended to use their findings to combat abandonment and neglect parenting styles that were popular at the time. In Bell & Ainsworth 1972, they tried to fight neglectful parenting styles that started in the 1920s. Popular belief at the time of the study was that picking up a child at all between feedings would spoil the child. So, if you pick up your child and respond to them consistently and with love during the day, should you worry about the adverse effects associated with neglectful and abandonment parenting using Cry-it-out as a sleep training technique? Probably not.
We don't let a child cry without a parental response 24x7 with Cry-it-Out. So, what would make us worry? Research needs to conclude that children experience increased biological stress levels, a hindrance of emotional or behavioral development, or an insecure parental attachment following CIO sleep training in realistic environments to reject the CIO methods. But instead, studies suggest that CIO methods improve a child's sleep quality without adverse effects of stress, emotional or behavioral developmental issues, or changes to the parental attachment. Bilgin & Wolke note further implications that "leaving an infant to cry it out might not reflect parental neglect, but it may rather reflect authoritative parenting which includes both limit-setting and high levels of emotional warmth" (Bilgin & Wolke, 7). In Middlemiss, Wendy, et al.'s study, they saw that after applying the extinction CIO method to a sample of sleep-troubled infants, the infants' cortisol levels reflected no change, and their distress signals decreased. The stable cortisol levels imply that the children experienced little to no added stress from crying at night from the CIO application. So do these studies show that CIO methods are not only practical but safe to use?
CIO Critique remains due to limited research.
The Pro-CIO findings are limited in application because, despite the statistical significance of the existing results and controlled studies, the sample sets are not representative of the broader population. Instead, the researchers used small sample sizes that skew to white, middle-class, healthy, two-parent, heterosexual families. So if that's you, you can rely on this research. If that's not you, then you might not. The inclusion/exclusion criteria may change the distribution and statistical significance.
When evaluating these studies, we need to assess if the findings can hold up in real-world application.
Overall, we did not find research that supports a complete causal relationship between CIO methods and positive OR negative effects on a child. The only reason is we have not seen a study that includes a sample set representative of all babies in a controlled randomized trial. We require that research to make a universal conclusion, which would be expensive and time-consuming. In the meantime, we can assess the current research findings and see how it applies to each family.
Where do we stand at Lovebug?
Overall, we believe that as long as your care team is consistently responding to your child during the day, monitored crying at night won't hurt the baby. The sleep training method you choose is great if it fits your family. All of the methods work, and none of them have conclusive research on their effectiveness. If you want to avoid crying as much as possible and are early in your baby's sleep journey, we've got a product for you that grows with your child and gives you expert-led lessons to coach you through each sleep milestone.
Bell, Silvia M., and Mary D. Salter Ainsworth. “Infant Crying and Maternal Responsiveness.” Child Development, vol. 43, no. 4, 1972, pp. 1171–1190. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/1127506. JSTOR, LINK.
Bilgin, Ayten, and Dieter Wolke. “Parental Use of 'Cry It out' in Infants: No Adverse Effects on Attachment and Behavioral Development 18 Months.” The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 10 Mar. 2020, LINK.
Gradisar, Michael, et al. “Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Pediatrics, vol. 137, no. 6, 24 June 2016, doi:10.1542/peds.2015-1486. LINK
Higley, Elizabeth, and Mary Dozier. “Nighttime Maternal Responsiveness and Infant Attachment at One Year.” Attachment & Human Development, vol. 11, no. 4, 2009, pp. 347–363., doi:10.1080/14616730903016979. LINK
Middlemiss, Wendy, et al. “Asynchrony of Mother–Infant Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis Activity Following Extinction of Infant Crying Responses Induced during the Transition to Sleep.” Early Human Development, vol. 88, no. 4, 2012, pp. 227–232., doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2011.08.010. LINK
Smarius, Laetitia Joanna Clara Antonia, et al. “Excessive Infant Crying Doubles the Risk of Mood and Behavioral Problems at Age 5: Evidence for Mediation by Maternal Characteristics.” European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 26, no. 3, 15 July 2016, pp. 293–302., doi:10.1007/s00787-016-0888-4. LINK