Does the “Cry It Out” Method Cause Psychological Damage?

If you simply type “cry it out method” into Google, the results are overwhelmingly contradictory and confusing. I’ve scrolled through social media and seen posts from child psychologists proclaiming, “the cry it out method is torture!” I’ve also seen articles online from pediatric neurologists saying that there’s no physical evidence suggesting that the cry it out method causes any damage, at least not the updated versions of it.

Who do we believe? Is the cry it out method damaging? Is it safe? Has it been improved upon, maybe? Do doctors against the cry it out method have an alternative suggestion for getting our kids to sleep independently? These are the questions I asked myself before researching this topic.

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I’ve been very fortunate to have a baby that is a fairly good sleeper. From the time he was born, I stuck religiously to a nighttime routine and never tried co-sleeping (out of pure fear and anxiety). I’ve shared my nighttime routine in this blog. You can read it here. Thankfully, he has slept well most nights without needing the cry it out method or any method for that matter.

However, we’re moving into toddlerhood very soon. Things can change and sleeping habits can regress. I’m not out of the woods yet, and mama needs her sleep. As such, I looked into this “cry it out method” question and tried to decipher some train of reason within all the disagreements. Most importantly, I wanted to avoid the really bad choices.

This is what I found. I hope it helps someone…

origins of the cry it out method

Buckle up, because part is kind of sad. We can trace the notion of letting babies just “cry it out” all the way back to the 1880s. The medical community was adamant about protecting infants from germs and advised against touching them too much.

In the early 1900s, a behaviorist named John Watson argued strongly his opinion on “the dangers of too much affection,” particularly too much motherly love. He suggested that a child with an affectionate mother would turn into a useless, dependent person with nothing to offer society. Of course, now we know that to be entirely false.

Around that same time, mothers were encouraged to hold their babies only when absolutely necessary and train them to sit silently in a crib by the middle of their first year…because, according to Watson, parents shouldn’t be constantly inconvenienced by the simple existence of an infant.

We hear that more often than we realize, even today. We’re encouraged to let them cry in order to teach them independence so that we can get our lives back. It’s natural, but I would argue, as I hope most would, that John Watson was a little extreme.

Finally, the cry it out method as we know it was made popular by Dr. Luther Emmett Holt over 100 years ago. His book, The Care and Feeding of Children, was the pinnacle of childrearing education. Of course, much has changed in 100 years.2

Two types of cry it out method

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I was surprised to learn that there are actually two different types of the “cry it out” method. The extinction method and the graduated extinction method differ in the amount of attention you provide to the crying baby.

  1. Extinction: This is the most common CIO. This method instructs you to put your baby to bed and ignore his or her cries. The outcome is simple; the baby will cry until he or she literally can’t anymore. They typically give up out of shear exhaustion.
  2. Graduated Extinction: This version is more controlled. It’s sometimes called “sleep training” and is a gentler variation of CIO. Once the baby is put to bed and crying begins, you reenter to comfort your baby only every other time you hear cries, increasing the crying time with each interval.

The graduated extinction method has been adjusted in various ways over time to lighten the harshness of simply closing the door and letting your child just deal.

what are the arguments against cry it out?

Dr. Margot Sunderland, child psychotherapist with decades of experience, said:

“I would be very surprised if any parent continued to use ‘cry it out if they knew the full extent of what’s happening to their infant’s brain. The infant’s brain is so vulnerable to stress. After birth, it’s not yet finished! In the first year of life, cells are still moving to where they need to be. This is a process known as migration, and it’s hugely influenced by uncomforted stress.”

excerpt from interview by BellyBelly (CLICK HERE to read more)

This is a common argument against the cry it out method. Some research does suggest that excessive, prolonged crying caused by stress could be linked to changes in the brain during a period of vitally important growth.

Dr. Darcia F. Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of notre dame, said:

“One strangely popular notion still around today is to let babies ‘cry it out’ when they are left alone, isolated in cribs, or in other devices. This comes from a misunderstanding of child brain development.”

“Babies grow from being held. Their bodies get deregulated when they are physically separated from caregivers.”

“The brain is developing quickly. When the baby is greatly distressed, it creates conditions for damage to synapses, the network construction which is ongoing in the infant brain. The hormone cortisol is released. In excess, it’s a neuron killer but its consequences may not be apparent immediately.”

excerpt from Dr. Narvaez’s article in Psychology Today (CLICK HERE to read the article)

what are the arguments for cry it out?

The opposing opinions on the cry it out method tend to center around the variations of graduated extinction. Most doctors agree that putting your child in the crib and letting them scream until they fall asleep is not a good idea. However, they have differing opinions on alternative forms of sleep training.

Dr. Sujay Kansagra, pediatric neurologist at Duke University, said:

“Most of the debate around sleep training stems from the process of allowing an infant to cry. For those that are adamantly opposed to letting a child cry, but are frustrated by the lack of consistent sleep, there are other sleep training techniques that don’t involve simply leaving an infant in the crib to cry endlessly. Two examples of such methods are fading and scheduled awakenings.”

excerpt from article at Duke University of Medicine website (CLICK HERE to read more)

This is the general consensus from doctors that support sleep training methods. There are other ways to help your child sleep. “Sleep training” does not refer to the cry it out method. In fact, it is an umbrella term that encompasses an array of techniques that parents may try, most of which are approved by doctors.

The approach is much gentler. Here are some examples:

  • Place the baby in the crib and soothe him by rubbing or patting his back until he falls asleep. You then leave the room and come back only to soothe again when the baby cries, allowing them to crying a little more each time.
  • Another method, called camping out, involves sleeping next to the baby’s crib until they become increasingly more sleep independent.

If you are currently trying to get your infant or toddler on a better sleep schedule, talk to your doctor. Find out what options you have. You would be very surprised to learn that there are a plethora of techniques proven to be gentler and more effective than “cry it out.”

my thoughts on the subject…

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As a parent to an infant, I just can’t get on board with crying it out in basically any form. My gut tells me to get up and hold my son when he cries. Of course, there have been many times that he has awoken me from a dead sleep in the middle of the night, and I would say that most of those times, my dazed reaction is frustration. However, I can’t fight the instinct. The science seems to back that instinct, so I’ll continue to lead with that.

Overall, the general consensus in the medical community seems to be that the antiquated method of just “cry it out” is just that, antiquated. It’s time to bury it. “This is how we used to do it” can be a dangerous game to play. Progress is necessary, and behavioral science is booming with progress everyday. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we, as a society, need a harsh lesson in behavioral studies.

click below to read more from…


  1. Belly Belly. “Cry It Out Method | 6 Baby Experts Who Advise Against It”
  2. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR. “Sleep Training Truths: What Science Can (and Can’t) Tell Us About Crying It Out.”
  3. Sunjay Kansagra, MD, Duke School of Medicine. “Sleep training your child: myths and facts every parent should know.”
  4. Darcia F. Narvaez, Ph.D., Psychology Today. “Dangers of ‘Crying It Out'”