Cry It Out: Will it Harm my Baby?
Ah, the controversial topic of “Cry it Out”. We have all seen articles and blog posts floating around the internet claiming that cortisol floods your baby’s brain and nervous system when sleep
training is implemented. I remember having visions of this dreaded stress hormone circulating through my newborn’s body every time he cried. I couldn’t bear the thought of “sleep training” for fear he would grow up to be an anxious, emotionally dysfunctional adult due to the emotional trauma he would inevitably suffer from crying.
I am happy to provide some facts on the subject:
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a report outlining the effects of stress “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Childhood Stress“.
They defined three types of stress; not all are bad. As we all well know, stress is a part of life. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have developed some great ways to work through stress on our own. Adults need these coping mechanisms to help buffer the effects of tolerable and toxic stress.
- Positive stress response: This is triggered by situations that cause us irritability or frustration. For children, this type of stress may be experienced during their first day at daycare or when getting an immunization. This remains in the “positive stress response” category because a caring and responsive adult is present to help the child cope with their emotions. The stress response is “brief and mild to moderate in magnitude”. As children are supported through these experiences, they develop their own coping mechanisms to prepare them to work through this type of stress in the future. Cortisol spikes, but easily comes back into the normal range.
- Tolerable Stress Response: This type of stress response may be triggered by unexpected and undesirable circumstances such as the death of a loved one, a heated divorce, a natural disaster, or a serious illness and injury. Although these scenarios are devastating, when children are supported by an empathetic loved one and are able to retain some sense of control over their world, they learn to adapt to these situations as well. The risk of long term physiologic harm is significantly reduced. Cortisol spikes significantly during these episodes, but come back into the normal range within a reasonable time frame.
- Toxic Stress Response: This is the type of stress we want our children to avoid. Examples of toxic stress situations include abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, witnessing parental substance abuse, and maternal depression, among others. Such disruption may result in anatomic changes and/or physiologic dysregulations that are the precursors of later impairments in learning and behavior as well as the roots of chronic, stress-related physical and mental illness.  Sadly, the prolonged increase in cortisol levels in these scenarios, can lead to an under-production of the hormone in the future, meaning a decreased stress response.
The second part of the sleep training/cortisol debate lies in the myth that all cortisol is bad.
This is simply not true.
Cortisol is a hormone that is released by our body continuously, not only during times of stress. Cortisol only becomes a problem when its levels are raised for a prolonged period of time.
So what helps battle elevated cortisol levels when helping your baby to sleep?
Otherwise known as the “love hormone”, oxytocin helps produce feelings of wellbeing, relaxation, and a sense of calm. This incredible neuropeptide actually lowers blood pressure and blocks stress hormones.
Oxytocin is release through physical touch (so yes, cuddling your baby is good for them!), and close physical proximity to a loved one. Breastfeeding is another great way to get the oxytocin flowing.
What else keeps cortisol levels at bay?
- SLEEP for mom!
Well-rested mamas are at a lower risk of post-partum depression.
- SLEEP for children!
Both toddlers and babies have lower stress levels upon waking and throughout the day after a good nights’ rest. Toddlers and pre-schoolers who sleep are better able to regulate their emotions during the day.
- Decreased cortisol levels during positive interactions!
The cortisol levels of babies between the ages of 3 and 6 months have been noted to increase when they play with an insensitive mother. On the flip side, cortisol levels decreased when babies played with a sensitive mother for only fifteen minutes. If sleep deprivation is affecting the parent’s ability to be responsive to their child, getting 8 hours of night time sleep can help to improve their capacity to interact in a way that fosters lower cortisol levels in their infant.
Let’s talk sleep training methods:
Extinction Cry it Out (Weissbluth) consists of putting your baby to bed, and leaving the room until wakeup time in the morning. The theory here is that they will learn to fall asleep on their own.
Graduated Cry it Out (Ferber) consists of putting your baby to bed and checking in with them at set intervals. The physical presence of a loved one is intermittently used with this method. If you have a baby who is “high-needs” or a “cry-until-they-throw-up baby”, you may want to try a softer approach.
Gentle Sleep Coaching involves your physical presence (oxytocin!!!) and physical touch (more oxytocin!!!) for the first phase of the coaching process, encouraging your baby to learn to sleep in a supported and loving manner. Your child’s temperament, age, and developmental stage are all taken into consideration as well as your personal family sleep goals.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, and it is not possible to shield your child from stress completely, nor should you strive to. With your support, your child can learn to positively cope with stress and sleep at the same time. Did I mention why sleep is important?
Whether you sleep train at all AND the method you choose is entirely up to you. Always trust your intuition and that YOU know what is best for your child. I hope this gave you some information to assist you in making that decision.
Would you like to start sleeping now?
I would love to help!
Certified Gentle Sleep Coach