Let them Cry? Pick them Up? Does it Matter?

The practice of letting infants cry it out on their own when they wake up at night versus picking them up and soothing them has been an ageless parenting dilemma, especially since sleep expert Ferber popularized his technique.   While there are many strong opinions on the subject, there is surprisingly little long-term data.  Approximately half of six month old infants have sleeping problems.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics presents data from the Australian Infant Sleep Study that has previously examined developmental outcomes of infant sleep problem interventions at 12 and 24 months.  Nurses were randomized to deliver usual care or to deliver a brief sleep intervention for 8 month old infants.  The two techniques used were “Controlled Comforting” in which the parent responded to the infant at gradually increasing intervals, or “Camping Out” in which the parent sits with the child as the infant tries to self-soothe and slowly removes their presence. A total of 225 of the original sample of 328 infant-parent dyads participated in the follow-up assessment when the child was around 6 years old.  Outcomes were assessed using a variety of questionnaires.  Cortisol levels were also obtained.

As far as results, there were no differences found between the two groups with regards to child behavioral problems, sleep habits at 6 years, child-parent relationship quality, maternal health or high levels of cortisol.  While improved child sleep and maternal mental health was previously found when assessing children initially, these behavioral sleep interventions during infancy resulted neither in improved or worse developmental outcomes at this longer interval.

It is worth noting that the cold turkey approach of letting infants simply cry it out has been replaced with more gradual techniques that are now the recommended practices. 

Parents who feel strongly that they should go comfort their child (but who might have been worried about spoiling them), and parents who have wanted to train their child to sleep independently (but have worried about hurting the parent-child bond), can all take some comfort in these data.


Price AMH et al.  Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: randomized trial.  Pediatrics 2012; 130:  643-651

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