Coddle or let the kid cry? New research awakens the sleep-training debate

While many moms and dads reluctantly allow their infant to ‘cry it out,’ some experts now say the practice can cause real damage.

There is perhaps no parenting decision that tugs on the heartstrings as strongly as whether to let a baby cry him- or herself to sleep.

At one end of the spectrum are parents who use some form of “cry-it-out” method to teach their baby to sleep through the night. The method is characterized by periods of letting a baby cry – from a few minutes to more than an hour – without picking him or her up. At the other end are the “no-cry” types who consider letting a baby cry for any length of time to be cruel and unusual punishment.

Stuck in the middle are a lot of exhausted parents hoping to make the right choice – especially since sleep deprivation in infants has been linked to behavioural and cognitive problems, not to mention its effects on mom and dad.

New research on infant sleep appears to deal a blow to those in the cry-it-out camp. Penn State researcher Douglas Teti examined the role of emotional availability on infant sleep and found that regardless of a family’s night-time routine, infants with parents who were responsive and warm had fewer night wakings and an easier time drifting off. In his study, which involved infrared cameras placed in families’ bedrooms and nurseries, a lapse of more than a minute resulted in a lower emotional availability score.