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Some people claim that "crying it out" is harmful. For example, the article on PhD Parenting states that crying it out is harmful to a child. I've heard others suggest that it's neglectful. I expect many of these references are to the Ferber method (Wikipedia).

Is there any scientific basis for concluding that "crying it out" or the Ferber method are harmful to a child?

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    How would you measure harm? – Jonas May 22 '11 at 1:00
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    This is how we were taught to train our first child to sleep. It was the hardest thing, as parents, we ever had to do, but he simply would not go to sleep. If we went in there, he would stay awake. Luckily, our second had more regular sleep habits. But the process doesn't seem to have done him any harm. – Robusto May 22 '11 at 10:21
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    I'm not a native English speaker. What does 'crying it out' mean? – Alexandru May 22 '11 at 10:52
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    @Alexandru: Crying it out: "CIO is any sleep-training method which allows a baby to cry for a specified period of time before the parent will offer comfort." link – Mihai Rotaru May 22 '11 at 11:59
  • @Mihai: Thank you. I missed that. I simply searched on Google. – Alexandru May 22 '11 at 17:10
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+50

The question asks "Is there any scientific basis for concluding that "crying it out" or the Ferber method are harmful to a child?"

The answer is: Yes, there is some scientific basis, but that the results are controversial, and there are (or have been) some gaps.

In the question, there is a reference to an article in PhD in Parenting which argues against Crying It Out. That article doesn't always stick with scientific claims (arguing, for example, that "crying it out" is disrespectful, which is hardly something that could be proven or disproven scientifically).

However, it provides a number of references to support the scientific claims it does make.

For example, the first reference is to a handout from "Dr Sears" which links to a number of relevant studies.

Another link that sounded promising was titled "Macall Gordon – Is “crying it out” appropriate for infants? A review of the literature on the use of extinction in the first year". The URL to the poster is broken, and now redirects to the Talaris Institute home page, who are the previous employers of Macall Gordon, an MA in Psychology specialising in the area. (I am assuming she is no longer employed by the Talaris Institute, as she does not turn up in searches on their site, and it seems they have pulled down the poster originally referenced.)

That same poster (presented in 2006) is archived from infantsleep.org. It points out where the existing (as of 2006) research has gaps.

Gordon's poster is criticised here, and defended by Macall Gordon in the comments, who describes herself as "in the middle of two very contentious sides who appear to have little interest in open-minded dialogue".

So, it seems that there has been active scientific research in the area, supporting some of the aspects of Crying It Out and others attacking some aspects of the practice. There have also been some critics of that research, and critics of those critics.

Welcome to the cutting edge of a difficult and controversial problem...

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    "Dr. Sears" is the usual conclusion-driven non-peer-reviewed "review", His sources are studies on rats, or on "intense stress early in life" which is fairly far from the Ferber method. There's some direct evidence there, but it's pretty sparse and would have been better to link directly e.g. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15499048 – Fizz Aug 1 '18 at 5:10
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Apparently not, as the following evidence shows, quoting from various doctors.

This is Doctor Richard Ferber: he states it is not the best option, but no damage occurs:

Cry-it-out stance: "Going 'cold turkey'—putting your child in the crib at bedtime, letting him cry, and not returning until morning—is far from ideal," writes Dr. Ferber. "[But] allowing some crying … will never cause psychological damage."

Dr. William Sears, a prominent opponent of the crying it out technique, wrote an article called Science Says: Excessive Crying Could Be Harmful to Babies. In it he notes:

One study showed infants who experienced persistent crying episodes were 10 times more likely to have ADHD as a child, along with poor school performance and antisocial behavior. The researchers concluded these findings may be due to the lack of responsive attitude of the parents toward their babies. 1 ...

Researchers at Pennsylvania State and Arizona State Universities found that infants with excessive crying during the early months showed more difficulty controlling their emotions and became even fussier when parents tried to console them at 10 months.2

Chad Skelton, who did research on Dr. William Sears article:

Curious, I tracked down the two studies to see if I could learn more (the numbers beside each statement corresponded to two specific studies included in Sears' footnotes).

To my surprise, neither study (which you can read for yourself here and here) appeared to have anything at all to do with the cry-it-out method.

Skelton went on to say:

In fact, rather than looking at whether leaving children alone to cry (for whatever reason) caused problems later in life, both studies instead examined whether persistent crying in infancy was a symptom of underlying problems,

and

Indeed, the Penn State study even made a point of noting that how responsive a mother was to her chid's cries didn't appear to make a difference, since "the infant who cries excessively in early infancy will be likely inconsolable."

Professor Cynthia Stifter, lead author of the Penn State study, states:

there is nothing in the paper to suggest either 'crying it out' is an effective or ineffective method for getting children to sleep.

In fact, Professor Dieter Wolke wrote:

Extinction is a powerful learning method. However, in clinical practice, most parents find it very difficult to apply as they are very distressed by their baby’s crying. Thus, a staged process of “crying it out”, the checking method has been developed that is much more acceptable for many parents (i.e. check after 10 mins when baby is crying – but no reinforcement, i.e. no touching or picking up; next time after 15 mins checking, next time 20 mins etc.)

It's up to you to decide from the evidence above, whether or not it is "neglectful".

.

1http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/109/6/1054.full

2http://www.hhdev.psu.edu/ebp/stifter%20and%20spinrad%202002.pdf

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    Interesting that the last quote suggests the staged process is more to train the parents than the baby! – Oddthinking Jun 2 '11 at 4:48
  • Haha! However, if this happened at night, it could be pretty trying. – Thursagen Jun 2 '11 at 4:53
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    "One study showed infants who experienced persistent crying episodes were 10 times more likely to have ADHD as a child" But couldn't it have been reverse causation? That is, ADHD babies just happen to cry a lot more? Seems like that would be the case. – Muhd May 25 '13 at 6:35
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Since, as someone mentioned, "harming" is hard to measure and the rest of the thread here seems to be geared towards anecdotal evidence, I want to share this site in general.

http://www.drmomma.org/2009/12/sleep-training-review-of-research.html

The content is mixed. Some is referenced. Some is anecdotal. Some is pure inspirational.

In my experience, when someone is asking this question, the person is oftentimes really asking for motivation to still be walking the baby on the sixth night solid in a colicky week. For that, I believe that that site is excellent. I don't know if the term "anthropomorphize" applies since a baby obviously IS a person, but there is obivously a danger of projecting qualities upon the baby that it hasn't developed yet. Anyway, the "Babies aren't soldiers" article from the site gave me a perspective that I hadn't earlier considered.

For your question, I would answer that neither extreme, CIO or attachment parenting, is considered harmful as in "harming your baby" simply on the basis that the topic is old and there is no law against either. And there is plenty of activism on baby's rights when it comes to forms of neglect and abuse.

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