Cry It Out: The Method That Kills Baby Brain Cells

I know. A dramatic headline. Made you look. But it’s not fiction. It turns out that the “Cry It Out” method of baby sleep training, where you ignore that your kid is screaming, crying and turning 40 shades of purple so that she can break herself out of the habit of being spoiled and cuddled to sleep, does more harm—way more—than good.

In her recent piece for Psychology Today, Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame, writes that when babies are stressed, their bodies release cortisol into their systems—a toxic hormone that kills brain cells. Considering their brains are only 25 percent developed when they’re born full-term and grow rapidly in their first year, killing off baby brain cells is a huge no bueno. Narvaez notes that studies out of Harvard, Yale, Baylor and other prestigious institutions show that said killing off of baby brain cells can lead to the higher probability of ADHD, poor academic performance and anti-social tendencies, and that human babies are hardwired for hands-on comfort and care.

“Babies are built to expect the equivalent of an ‘external womb’ after birth… being held constantly, breastfed on demand, needs met quickly,” Narvaez writes. “These practices are known to facilitate good brain and body development. When babies display discomfort, it signals that a need is not getting met, a need of their rapidly growing systems.”

Um, remember that scene from the True Hollywood Stories: Rick James episode on the Dave Chappelle Show—the one where Rick James is grinding his feet into Eddie Murphy’s couch? Yeah. *insert an image of Denene doing the Rick James foot stomp into the couch thing here* In your face, Nick Chiles! For the record, I argued and fussed and fought with my husband over “Feberizing” our Mari. The infant self-soothing technique, invented by Dr. Richard Ferber, requires parents to let their babies “cry it out” for a predetermined amount of time, in increasing intervals, before they comfort them—and even then, comforting involves talking to and rubbing the babies; picking them up or cuddling them is forbidden.

Now, it’s been 12 years since we tried this “cry it out” thing with Mari, but I promise you, I can still hear her screaming in her crib in the next room. My breasts would throb at her every whimper, and every second on the clock would feel like an eternity while I waited for my chance to go in and pat her on her stomach, rub her arm and cheek and tell her, “it’s okay, baby—Daddy promises you won’t die from crying.”

But I was. It just didn’t feel right to let my child scream and holler and thrash by her little self in the dark in her crib when I knew full well that a little rocking in her glider, maybe a song and a sweet nuzzle of her cheek would send her off to dreamland. Granted, some nights that meant multiple rocking/singing/nuzzle time, but, to me, it was a small price to pay for feeling like I was mothering my baby and helping her feel like her mommy was there. Always there.

Of course, plenty other parents think differently about it and that’s their right. We all do what we think works for our kids, our families, our lives. Not gonna point fingers at y’all. But I will point them at the hubs. When I showed this Yahoo Shine story chronicling Narvaez’s anti-cry-it-out research—and an interview in which Ferber actually backs off his own method—to Nick, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It ain’t fun for the baby, but that shit worked. Everybody got some sleep. You going for two years with only three hours of sleep at night isn’t healthy either.”

I think he might have said those exact words to me the first time I left Mari in her crib. Still, as much as his reasoning made sense, it just didn’t feel right to me—her mother. And when Nick told Mari we did this to her when she was a baby, she was incredulous: “What? You use to let me cry? You didn’t come get me? You just left me there by myself?!

That was Daddy, baby!

Yeah. That Ferber training didn’t last long in our house, and I don’t remember even trying it with my Lila. (Which might explain why our daughters’ nighttime routines were a little worthy-of-a-Broadway-production hectic for longer than they should have been. But whatevs.) My babies and I benefited greatly from our nightly bonding sessions and co-sleeping arrangements, and I’m glad I did it for as long as I did.

Now that we’ve got this babies need to cry it out business out of the way, I’ve got some ideas on what researchers need to look into next: I’m waiting for the study to show that beating your kid like she stole something in what is supposed to be a friendly game of Go Fish and Checkers causes brain melt. I’m looking at you, Nicholas Chiles. I’m looking at you.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

41 Comments

  1. I have to giggle at your showing the article to your husband because that is so something I would do!

    I was against crying it out for the get go, probably a cultural thing (I’ve never known anyone in the West Indies to do that), and even though in France it is the done thing, so was my husband. Yes it was a struggle, but we persevered and once our son started sleeping through the night (at 14 months! Cry!) he would sleep 12 hours without a peep. The bedtime routine can still be touch and go, but we roll with it. Some nights he is out like a night, others it takes longer.

    • My daughter started sleeping through at 14 months as well with no crying. :) Maybe that age is around when they are confident and ready.

  2. Good to see that someone’s Broadway-worthy nighttime routines turned out okay. I refuse to cry-it-out, but if I could fight anything as hard as my one-year-old fights sleep, I’d be unstoppable. So you’re saying it’ll stop eventually, right? Like by middle school, I hope?

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      LOL @BalancingJane. That was what I always said: They’ll know how to sleep through the night by the time they get to Yale! Our kids (FINALLY) started sleeping without intervention when they were about eight (though both still like to be tucked in and kissed and nuzzled to this day).

  3. Yes, I still harbor guilt over Ferberizing my baby too. :) But I have to admit, she only cried it out ONE night, and from then on she “slept like a baby”. I hate to admit, but it was kind of worth it.

  4. I can’t stand to hear a baby cry, so when mine cried… I picked them up. I hated to hear people say that I was going to spoil the baby, I would rather lose a little sleep them have them crying and hollering.

  5. Hubby and I suffered 18 months with lack of sleep because I refused the Feberize/CIO method. When she was ready to sleep w/o breastfeeding and cuddling, she did. If I had a dime for every time her former pediatrician, my OB/GYN and every other know-it-all told me she’d turn out spoiled rotten… Turns out she’s more independent than most kids her age and I believe it’s because we invested that time up front.

  6. Great post. I have little ones, and am one of the few of my friends who have not ferberized their children. It just goes against my gut, you know the feeling we make wise choices with? Love your writing style, I am a new fan!

  7. I let my husband Ferberize my youngest, and I felt awful about it at the time. I never let my first CIO – and he was in our bed until 18 months. But I knew he felt secure. But after my second, I was going through what turned out to be a nervous breakdown, in the hospital and everything, and having her sleep without needing to breastfeed or getting up multiple times a night turned out to at least delay the onset of my illness. I can have manic episodes when I don’t get enough sleep, but then I was simply doing too much – I had and 18 month old, starting graduate school, in a new place all the way across the country from any family and help. This time around, I don’t plan for crying-it-out to be a part of our plan. I’m cleaning out my life a bit so that I can be the attentive mother to an infant that I was with my first. My daughter certainly got a raw deal.

  8. Thank you for this wonderful post. It distresses me no end to see how many parents still subject their infants and toddlers to barbaric inhumane practices when so much credible evidence regarding the long term repercussions exists. Even before having my little boy ( now 18 months old) We were adamant we would not subject him to any controlled crying/controlled comforting methods and we would breast feed (and yes, feed to sleep too) and co-sleep exclusively. Its been wonderful for us as a family-we have always got more than enough sleep, its facilitated bonding and breastfeeding ( still doing this actually!) and I feel very smug to say so, but I believe that its due to these practices that my little one is far more confident and socially engaged than his peers who have always slept alone, left to cry to sleep, and weaned as soon as possible.

    • Be careful with using harsh, judgmental words. Not all parents have the luxury of being able to stay at home or be able to survive on such little sleep if you were like me and had to go back to work 6 weeks after my son was born! However, we still catered to his every need at night until he was about 9 months old. Then, hub and I decided to start the Ferber method not just to improve our own sleep, but to improve my son’s sleep too! Yes, the first couple nights were awful, but it’s been great ever since, so you can judge me all you want, but I don’t regret my decision. It is careless to post articles like these without including important facts such as how much crying and how many bad nights a baby would have to endure to incur these side effects. The Ferber method typically only needs 1-2 bad nights before the baby learns the important independence-buildng ability to self-soothe. Journalists need to be more responible and think before they publish alarming things like this without a lot of scientific data!

      • Recalling how my husband and I decided to sleep train/soothe our children to sleep does not mean I’m judging you or any other parent who decided to let their children cry themselves to sleep. I made a specific point to say that I AM NOT JUDGING parents for the choices they make in THEIR homes. So please don’t stomp onto this site pointing fingers and getting your panties into a bunch because you don’t agree with what I chose to do in MY house and how I chose to write about it on MY site.

        As for calling my journalistic integrity into question: this piece was based on scientific research cited by a psychologist who penned a piece about the negatives of the “cry it out” method. One of the MANY things she cited as a potential problem is the neurological effects of letting a baby cry instead of soothing them and attending to their needs. As she cited:

        What does ‘crying it out’ actually do to the baby and to the dyad?

        Neurons die. When the baby is greatly distressed, the toxic hormone cortisol is released. It’s a neuron killer Panksepp, 1998). A full-term baby (40-42 weeks), with only 25% of its brain developed, is undergoing rapid brain growth. The brain grows on average three times as large by the end of the first year (and head size growth in the first year is a sign of intelligence, e.g., Gale et al., 2006). Who knows what neurons are not being connected or being wiped out during times of extreme stress? What deficits might show up years later from such regular distressful experience? (See my addendum below.)

        Now, granted, as with anything, you will find people, doctors, experts, etc. to study something to death to have the exact opposite outcome of others. What I did here was REPORT what an expert in the field said and apply it to my real-life experience. If you have other scientific evidence to refute what she wrote, please feel free to find it and write about it on your blog, and save the vitriol for The Huffington Post.

  9. Thank you for the article. My husband will be reading it as well.
    I snuggle my baby to sleep. I sit in my four year olds room and cross stitch while he doses off. I listen to his last mutters as his brain fillters through the days events.

    Precious time that will never come again.
    humans are social animals

    Linda

  10. Denene,

    I was sent a link to your article, and as per your suggestion, I read Narvaez’s article and followed up on the citations she references. At no point does she ever establish that the Ferber sleep training method does any of the damage you are talking about, psychological, neurological or otherwise. In fact, I have yet to encounter any peer reviewed study that provides any proof whatsoever that these types of sleep training methods do any physiological or psychological damage to infants. It is all conjecture based on studies of TRULY chronically neglected children who experience extreme early childhood traumas, not being left in their crib for 5 minutes at a time over a few nights.

    There is, however, good evidence that infants of depressed mothers experience increased incidence of attachment issues. There is also good evidence that sleep deprivation contributes to postpartum depression. I understand that you do give lip service to the notion that you are not pointing fingers, and I appreciate that. But I hope that you understand that by promoting opinion, even professional opinion, as scientific fact, that you are doing a great disservice to other parents who might make different choices for their children.

    Your personal opinion on how best to attend to your child’s needs is absolutely legitimate, and it is a shame that your husband pressured you to go against what you found best for your child. But the research you make reference to is just not there, and I urge you to be careful in making claims that are substantiated only by the opinion of a psychologist and a string of loose correlations.

    • Sarah,

      Please refer to my reply Marlene re: the scientific research that Navarez cited, in particular the piece about neurological damage that can be caused when a baby is forced to self-soothe. Again, if you do not PERSONALLY agree with it, that is your choice, but the fact of the matter is that she does cite credible research that says there is a chance that letting a child cry can damage brain cells. I know I’m not crazy, and Denene can read. What I did here was REPORT about what was cited in Navarez’s research and apply it to my own child-rearing techniques. Perhaps you should go back to the article I cited and read it again.

  11. Again, Denene, I will respectfully tell you that I did read the article you referenced, and I did follow-up on several of her references. I am studying at a medical institution and was able to access the full text of several of the studies cited. I did not find any evidence specifically regarding sleep training and psychological, neurological or physiological damage. Perhaps you can tell me which study you in particular you are referring to?

    I do not find Narvaez’s writing very compelling. She is very clearly stating her opinion and draws conclusions based on research on chronic stress and chronic neglect, which is not an appropriate comparison. Also, I am wary of anyone who refers to “the toxic hormone” cortisol, since cortisol, while damaging in excess, is in fact essential for human health.

    Opinion, even professional opinion, should not be regarded as scientific evidence, and based on what I’ve read there is still no compelling scientific evidence showing that the Ferber method does any damage to children.

  12. Thank you for this lovely piece :) I could never bring myself to let any of my babies cry on their own – they are intelligent little things and I’d hate them to even consider the fact that mommy doesn’t care enough to come and offer comfort. I don’t care if it’s backed by scientific evidence or not; I don’t need a scientist or lab results to tell me that the best way to love my children is to simply love them when they need it, not just when it’s convenient to me. No child under the age of 3 is convenient, and that’s fine – I understood that when we wanted to start our family… Sure the sleep deprivation thing is hard, but now that big boy is 5, middle boy is 3 and baby is 11 months I am so used to broken sleep that when they recently all started sleeping right through I was shattered for a week! hahaha

    Love your writing style and have bookmarked your site to come read regularly :)

  13. Lauryan, I agree with you whole-heartedly, you don’t need scientific evidence or lab results to know how best to attend to your child’s needs.

    You do, however, need scientific evidence if you’re going to start writing articles that say that a certain parenting choice causes brain damage to children. Narvaez does not have that evidence, and her article is misleading and irresponsible for a professional psychologist.

    I won’t take up too much space on your blog, Denene, and I’m really not trying to start a fight. I just got this article on a mommy listserv, and the topic always bothers me because it is really a non-issue that needlessly pits good parents against each other. In all these countless choices we make, carrier vs. stroller, how and if we breastfeed, how to manage sleep, what kids of toys, clothes, food, etc. it matters less exactly what we choose and more that we make our decisions out of love, armed with good information and with awareness of and respect for our child’s and our family’s particular needs. I think the best way I’ve heard it said is that good parenting is more about “choosing parenting” rather than “parenting choices.”

    Sorry for the parachute visit, Denene. Thanks for providing a forum for discussion, and Happy New Year.

    • “You do, however, need scientific evidence if you’re going to start writing articles that say that a certain parenting choice causes brain damage to children. Narvaez does not have that evidence, and her article is misleading and irresponsible for a professional psychologist.”

      Agreed. :) But this is Denene’s site and with that comes her right to post (Albeit tongue in cheek) anything that she feels will increase readership (or not) and help make sense of what she is thinking about.

  14. Sarah,

    Thank you for your time and your comments—they are appreciated, and I wholeheartedly agree that our choices as parents are valid, no matter if they fall in line with what other parents choose to do with their own kids in their own homes. That is what this site is all about. As I said before, you can find scientific research to support pretty much any point you want to make, and you can especially find research to refute anything with which you don’t agree. The point of this specific piece was to show the argument that occurred between my husband and I as we worked through a child-rearing issue that every parent faces (which hardly makes it a “non-issue”). Here on MBB, we don’t judge (well, let me say that I DO judge when it comes to child discipline—especially if it involves hitting); I talk about what I did in my home and what my thoughts are on specific subjects—sometimes the posts are tied to newsworthy events and studies—and my audience comments about what did and did not work in their own homes. In other words, we share, sans judgment. I find that I only get push back when people who’ve never been here before find their way over to MBB from mainstream sites and bring the vitriol and judgment and righteousness with them.

    There is no room for that in the comment section of MyBrownBaby.

    Now, you’ve said your piece. I’ve said mine. Clearly, we’re not going to agree. No disrespect taken or given. But now, I’m respectfully asking you to let it go.

    Again, thanks for stopping by MBB. Happy New Year.

  15. I don’t believe in the “crying it out” method. I think that the message it sends is that your needs are not important for me in this moment. My son would wake up every night and either my husband or I would get up and attend to him. I read many books and material on the subject. And, eventually one chooses what method to follow.The one book that I read was about how we lived when we were still in the “caves”. I thought that it was a very humorous take on child rearing even though the author would not find my take very funny. It was serious research after all. And, side note, I am giving a very simplistic view of what I read. If a child did not cry, it would be eaten. A child’s cry was a warning to the mother that something was wrong. Basically, the theory was rear your child by instinct, our instinct to protect and love.
    Then, imagine you have spent, nine months in a warm and tight space listening to your mother’s heartbeat. Then, you are ripped from that environment and placed in a darkroom. You cry and no-one comes. You continue to cry and still no-one comes. Finally, you realize the futility in crying and you stop. And, this pattern repeats itself until your adulthood. Through your teen age years where you know that if you have an issue you can’t bring it to your parents because they won’t understand. Because, it might not be important to them.
    Good article and I enjoyed reading it.

  16. As a terrified (and not to mention exhausted) new mom of a 7 month old, your blog post made me cry. It seems like you go down a path that you believe in and have RESEARCHED and then just as soon as you start to get some traction, a really upsetting, terrifying counter-argument finds its way to you and suddenly you feel like you are destroying the most precious thing you’ve ever been given.

    So while I sat in tears, my husband did some quick research and found that you have no idea what you are talking about. At best, you’re a mediocre writer with an ethical deficiency. At worst, you’re a really irresponsible and obnoxious woman.

    I feel better now.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      Kate,

      I’m glad you got that off your chest. I hope you get some sleep soon; clearly, you need it. After you wake up, take a chill pill, hug your baby and TRUST YOURSELF TO BE THE KIND OF MOTHER YOU WANT TO BE TO YOUR CHILD. And after you figure that part out, maybe you can take some lessons in etiquette. I suggest you focus on the part where you learn how to disagree without being insulting and disagreeable. You know, like a grown up.

      Until then, happy dreaming.

    • You kate clearly need sleep.. if trying to find an article about leaving your young child to cry themselves to sleep and everything will be ok makes you feel better. Then by all means leave your child cry. . But don’t be upset with other mothers who choose to nurture and comfort and sooth they’re child to sleep because you chose to let yours self soothe. . Just by reading your post you sound like a horrible person, I can only imagine what type of parent that makes you. .

  17. I was never able to do the cio method, i have a friend who was great at it. It has only been the last 100 years that we dont sleep 5-6 to a room and multiple people in the same bed. How do we expect a tiny, helpless child who we care for and hover over and not let out of our sight all day go in to a room , to be alone, in the dark and fall asleep? That is when we are our most vulnerable. If my child cries, she needs me. If i am at her side when she sleeps there will be no need to pick her up as she is not hysterical. Have you ever cried your self to sleep? its is not exactly a restful slumber and not something to look forward too.

  18. My goodness ladies, when are we going to learn to stop judging each other??! I think as long as we are not truly abusing our children they are going to turn out okay. Even if we had them cry it out a little. I actually have a developmentally disabled child, so I know what I’m talking about here. Support for each other is what we need! I followed this link here because it made me laugh. I loved the last paragraph. Thanks Denene!

  19. My little girl is almost 20 months and sleep was a major issue for us. Being first time parents, we had a lot of adjustments to make in our lives. Even though we didn’t have major expectations, the reality of it all hit us hard. My daughter woke up every two hours in the night to nurse for over a year and sleep deprivation hit me after the first month and never left. I was too exhausted to be the kind of mom i wanted to me. My husband helped as much as he could with but I only got enough sleep to get by. We read and tried many methods but my heart of hearts kept screaming at me that my daughter will mature and grow into her sleep when she is good and ready. Wasn’t it my job to just be there for her whenever she needed me? I mean when she cries during the day for whatever reason, don’t I just swoop her up in my arms and soothe her? Why should night time be any different? aside from the fact that I was suppose to be sleeping that is. But under all those doubtful moments, tearful nights (my tears,not hers) I knew that this was my job temporarily until she is ready to take over. Enjoy it. I am happy to say that my little girl is finally starting to sleep longer blocks…(knock on wood) and I am once again the loving mom and wife that I have always known I can be!

  20. My favorite sleep book is Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Sleepless In America. Lots of good strategies and adaptations to make based on your child’s temperament.

  21. Where did you get that baby in the picture? He (?) is so cute I think I’M losing brain cells.

  22. After a friend in an AP Moms group asked for specific scientific support, I was researching specific studies evidencing the harm caused by CIO and found the following article with many peer-reviewed links:
    http://www.drmomma.org/2009/12/excessive-crying-harmful-to-babies.html
    Another great link with tons of links to sites arguing against the practice of sleep training:
    http://www.drmomma.org/2009/12/sleep-training-review-of-research.html

    I enjoyed reading your article, Denene, and also the discussion it generated.

  23. If crying it out is killing brain cells, then circumcision should be banned due to off the chart cortisol levels.

  24. I have triplets. I had a horrid pregnancy, and side effects from delivery that left me recovering for 6 months. My husband chose to do CIO with my son (who spent the most time out of the 3) in the NICU. It was tough for me hearing him cry and checking in on him, but I had to get my sleep to continue to heal. My husband works an intense job, and was phenomenal caring for me and the babies WITHOUT ANY HELP. I am now grateful that we did CIO. It took a NICU nurse to remind me how many crying babies were left crying until a nurse could get to them in the NICU. I did research – reading articles favoring CIO and articles against it. I ended up doing what I frequently do, praying. I feel confident that my children will be fine. I just hate when moms judge each other for choosing various methods.

  25. Interesting take on a method I am trying out right now. This very second. My first slept like a dream! Straight out of the hospital I was gifted with a baby that slept all night every night. This new one over here, girl she doesn’t know which way is up. Now to people who have colic babies, she is a dream come true, but my goodness does she grate my nerves. She doesn’t cry, she SCREAMS and doesn’t stop. I have the luxury of being a stay at home mom, but I still get tired too. So I thought OK fine I will give this a shot. Its making me sad that my little bean is in thee yelling but I am hoping she will tire out and then I will go get her and rock her the rest of the way to sleep. Anyway, I enjoyed your opinion on the subject.

  26. This topic brings out the fire in moms. I wonder if my mom used CIO. I certainly turned out okay. And I can imagine that long term neglect certainly harms children but without the study stating that 30m harms and 15m doesn’t, it’s too broad and intimidating and comes off as making mom’s feel neglectful when they’re likely not.

  27. You should have stopped your conversation with Sarah the scientist much earlier if you wished not to have let her make you look foolish. The very title of your article is what she’s saying is scientifically unfounded, and it’s difficult to understand why it was so difficult for you to understand that. I agree that your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s opinion, and I might even agree with some of it (read your post because I’m still trying to decide); just don’t keep trying to pass conjecture off as fact simply because it’s made by a scientist and supports what you feel to be right.

  28. Sorry if that seemed harsh but my brain is turning to mush from waking up five times a night

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      That was pretty harsh, Allison. No sweat; I’m a mom of two who spent many a sleepless night with babies. I get it. No harm, no foul.

  29. I am a mom of 2 and I would never use the ferber method. I have contemplated it, but my maternal instinct to protect and comfort my kids won.. I wouldn’t judge anyone’s right to use this method on their own children. But there are many studies to suggest it does harm and those that say it is just fine to do. .I am glad I read this article makes me happy to have chosen NOT to use this cio method on my kids.. I am sleep deprived, but my now 3 month old is happy and I have learned to get by on the little sleep I get. . Mothers adapt well..

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