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Cry it Out: Parenting Advice Gone Wrong?

Updated on July 6, 2011

Cry it Out and Attachment Theory

For many years the parenting advice most experts gave parents regarding the best way to deal with a baby’s crying was to get a baby to stop crying by just letting the baby cry it out. Sooner or later parents were advised the baby will eventually stop crying. This was a commonly held approach in western countries for much of the last century but in the last three decades or so more and more parents have begun subscribing to an alternative theory of parenting that indicates crying it out may not be the best approach and research appears to support this alternative method. Attachment parenting has been shown in numerous ways to be more beneficial and a more healthful approach in supporting healthy psychological development in children and adults.

Prior to the late 1960’s most experts believed that attachment was more of a secondary need for infants. It was thought that most babies only became attached to a mother because she was the person feeding them. The theory held that if someone provided sustenance for a child then the child would spend more time desiring interaction with that person. However, primate studies using infant monkeys began to contradict this belief. In one important study, baby monkeys were placed in a cage with a mother made of wire that had a bottle for feeding and with a mother made of soft terry cloth with no bottle for feeding. The baby monkeys, still preferred to spend time with the soft mother especially when they were under stress. Seemingly their need for food was not the primary motivation for attachment. In essence it was determined contact and comfort were actually primary desires, while feeding was secondary.


John Bowlby and attachment parenting

John Bowlby a psychoanalyst trained in object relations theory took this new information and created the approach to child development commonly referred to as attachment theory. Bowlby suggested that the need for infants, toddlers, and children to require attachment as a response to perceived threats was more innate than learned. What begins as crying and clinging in a baby gradually becomes a more complex form of signaling and communicating as a child ages. It wasn’t necessary for parents to teach this skill but how a child specifically showed attachment it was determined could be affected by learning processes. However, the key to this theory from a parenting perspective was simply that children innately need opportunities to bond with a parent when they are distressed.

As one might guess this approach significantly contradicts the traditional wisdom of the cry it out approach. If a key requirement of infant development is to have contact and be comforted when in distress, not providing this seemingly innate response would therefore in some way negatively impact the development of a child. Bowlby and his colleagues decided to study what happens when babies are in essence left to cry it out.  They found that babies left to cry it out responded in a predictable way, by initially protesting loudly, followed by desperate monotonous crying that lead to withdrawal, and finally concluding with a detached remote type or renewed interest in their environment. They determined that when babies cry it out they eventually give up out of a sense of despair and a loss of hope that anyone will respond to their cries.

Attachment Parenting Facts

  • Secure attachment develops from a caregiver's ability to form a bond by recognizing cues, responding quickly to a baby's needs, by being relaxed, and being able to sooth the infant.
  • Always responding to a baby's needs does not spoil them it creates a secure attachment. Securely attached kids are more likely to be independent.
  • Working mothers can still bond with children by responding to their baby's needs with quality responses when they are with their child.
  • Bonding begins before birth. A relaxed mother who talks to her baby in the third trimester of pregnancy can help build attachment.

Attachment parenting: Growing in popularity.

Despite all of the research supporting the attachment approach, many doctors, pediatricians, and parenting experts continue to suggest that parents allow their children to cry it out. Some professionals and institutions just seem slow to embrace change despite the evidence of good research. However, as attachment parenting advocates share their experiences and knowledge, more and more parents are ignoring this advice and opting instead to respond with celerity to the cries of their infants and spend more time cuddling, nurturing, and holding their babies. You may also come across the concept of baby wearing in the media. This is a practice that involves keeping an infant close to one’s body while going about everyday tasks. To some extent this mimics the practices of mothers in many cultures where keeping the child close has been shown to foster secure attachment. Baby wearing has been shown to be quite effective and research indicates that children who are held and cuddled up to three hours a day by their parents tend to cry much less than other children. Attachment parenting will likely continue to grow as an accepted practice as more and more parents see the results firsthand. Cry it out is still a commonly advocated approach but over time will likely become less acceptable to many parents and child care  professionals.

Can babies self sooth?

Some might argue that children need to learn somehow, and many parents have suggested why not find the middle ground and respond promptly by checking a child but only helping them when they need food, a change of diaper, or they are uncomfortable for an obvious reason. The theory behind this is that babies will learn to self sooth. However research doesn’t support this and the theory seems to have very little credence. There are two other key reasons why this approach doesn’t work. First, there is no indication that infants are in fact capable of self soothing to any significant degree. In fact it has been suggested that many babies simply lack the ability to self regulate emotions.  Second, the behavioral theory relating to the concept of extinguishment would leave one to believe that children who only have their needs met on an intermittent basis will cry more often and louder than children who have their needs met consistently. In other words, children who are left to cry it out some of the time are likely to cry louder, longer, and more often because they are never sure if their needs will be met. Children who are held and comforted on a consistent basis and are not left to try to self sooth are more likely to develop a sense of security and therefore are less likely to cry as often, as long, or as loudly as other children.

Securely attached kids as adults

Over the years more and more research has supported the attachment position. The question is are there differences among children and adults who are raised using an attachment parenting approach and those using a cry it out approach? More and more, research has shown that caregivers who are able to consistently meet their children’s needs in a responsive and nurturing manner will raise children who believe they are deserving of love. They will feel more secure in the world as they realize that they will consistently have their needs met quickly and satisfactorily by their caregivers. They learn their parents can be trusted to provide a secure and solid foundation. From here they feel comfortable exploring their world and returning to the parent when they experience difficulties knowing they will receive comfort and support. By being able to trust their parent they are more likely to become emotionally and psychologically secure people. Secure children tend to become secure adults and as a result tend to develop more intimate and trusting bonds with others. Studies have supported these conclusions and have consistently shown that securely attached individuals, compared to others, are more likely to be outgoing, well-adjusted, well-liked, empathic and caring people.

If parents are not consistently responsive and nurturing children are more likely become insecure and anxious. Insecure individuals tend to have more difficulty with emotional adjustment as adults. Insecurely attached people tend to struggle more in their relationships, often easily becoming anxious, jealous, possessive, and controlling. They may also be extremely clingy and dependent. In western cultures the parenting practice of Cry it Out seems to have been suggested as acceptable to a large degree as a way to help parents for various reasons feel less guilty about not responding consistently to the cries of their infant. It has also often been rationalized as a way to encourage independence in children. However, studies consistently confirm that promptly responding to the cries of an infant and providing regular physical contact leads to more emotionally intelligent, confident, and secure children and adults. As adults secure individuals tend to function better in a variety of social contexts and are better able to develop and maintain healthy relationships.

Editorial Content

All editorial content for this article is provided by TPSicotte


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    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 5 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Excellently argued. As an insecure and anxious person, I wish I wasn't left to cry myself to sleep when I was a baby. Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared.

    • profile image

      kelleyward 6 years ago

      Great Hub! I wrote about this also. I found out the history of how our culture embraced crying it out and was a little taken back. I think this is a very important topic to discuss.

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 7 years ago from The Great White North

      Thanks for summarizing my hub ;)

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 7 years ago from California

      There was a popular view that children would become needy if they were held or cuddled too much. The idea was to make children more independent, even in infancy. Letting a baby cry it out would teach the child how to self-comfort. But attachment parenting actually produces more independent children for the simple reason that these kids feel more secure. Plus, another benefit of attachment parenting is that children who are responded to when they cry spend far less time crying per day than cry it out kids. This means far less frustration for both parents and babies.

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 7 years ago from The Great White North

      Thank you Monisajda and Cristolite I am glad you found it useful. This one hub that I hope a lot of people will take a look at. Cheers.

    • crystolite profile image

      Emma 7 years ago from Houston TX

      Great hub,thanks for sharing.

    • Monisajda profile image

      Monisajda 7 years ago from my heart

      I am glad that this approach gets more and more exposure in media because the louder we get then more people will adopt it. I am a great fan of AP and enjoyed your hub. Voted up!

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 7 years ago from Oklahoma

      Kids are all different and some need more cuddling than others. I couldn't let mine cry and held them if they did. My mother in law told me I was spoiling them but they turned out okay anyway.

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 7 years ago from The Great White North

      Thanks Lily and BFP. I have worked with a lot of hurt kids who were neglected as babies and I have to say the degree to which they are out often out of touch with their own needs and their ability to regulate their emotions is astounding. I truly believe the more time spent with infants the more they will feel safe and secure in the world. They have no other way to communicate other than cry and ignoring that to me just seems like an unnecessary risk to their development.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 7 years ago

      I say, wrap that baby in your arms and coo. It works wonders.

    • Lily Rose profile image

      Lily Rose 7 years ago from East Coast

      Great hub. I was never quite comfortable with the cry it out method - I think I tried it out with my first daughter when she was around 10 or 11 months old but I realized after one or two tries that the technique was not for me - or her. It felt cruel.

      That being said, what I ended up doing was a modified sleep training technique which did involve some crying, but I was right there with her to soothe her. The technique I used came from a book, yet I modified it to fit into my comfort zone. It worked for us with both daughters and I have two great sleepers!

      I had a friend a while ago who would have to lie in bed with her daughter for over an hour every night to get her daughter to fall asleep. I warned her that it wasn't a good idea to do that and she was quite miserable about it but unwilling to complicate her own life by dealing with changing that situation - I don't know if that would be considered "attachment parenting" but it certainly taught me what not to do!

      I recommend the book and/or technique to many moms because I firmly believe that babies should not be left alone to cry it out and this book/technique helps parents reach the ultimate goal of their kids becoming good sleepers without the cruelty factor of leaving them to cry it out.

      Thank for the great information contained herein.


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