"Crying it out" is a practice that began late in the 20th century as a tool for sleep-training older babies. Sleep-training is adjusting an infant's sleep habits to teach him to sleep through the night, on a regular schedule. Experts at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia are among those who believe newborns are too young for any kind of sleep-training method. Newborns -- who are in the first three months of their life -- do not have the capacity to stop crying until their needs have been met. Although some of the infant sleep experts disagree on when to start sleep-training, all of them agree newborns are much too young to cry themselves to sleep.
A Newborn's Cry
Babies are born with only one means to communicate -- crying. The cry is a signal for hunger, distress, discomfort, fatigue and many more human states of being. Newborns can't make hand signals, as they lack the conscious control of their tiny bodies. It isn't until the infant has left the newborn stage and is nearing four months of age before he can discern the difference between night and day, sleep time and wake time. An infant can't be expected to know how to cry himself to sleep at bedtime. He also lacks the capacity to self-soothe.
Sleep-training is the process that uses crying it out or sitting it out (parents sit in room with child until he is asleep) to teach an infant to put himself to sleep. The baby is essentially conditioned to soothe himself to sleep and stay asleep through the night until morning. Babies who go through this training don't get night feedings or changes -- two things newborns need to develop their tiny bodies. Newborns also soil more diapers than older babies and must be changed throughout the night. This is another barrier to sleep-training a newborn.
Parents who do plan to undertake sleep-training and teach their baby to self soothe by allowing them to cry should do so between ages 4 to 7 months. No matter what age the training starts, the baby must first exhibit certain signs. He should have distinct signs of sleepiness, such as eye rubbing, yawning, staring or slowed movements. He must have a schedule, if not a pattern, of sleep and wake time during the day and sleeping through the night. The baby also must be able to roll, lift his head and otherwise move so that he can make himself comfortable enough to self soothe, without getting stuck in one position. Newborns can do none of these things.
There's A Limit
The experts at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia urge parents of newborns to go to the babies when they cry, because there is often a reason. Answering the cries will help the baby develop a sense of security that will help with sleep-training later on. In fact, newborns who cry for an extended period of time should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.
Crying for an extended period of time is also not allowed when sleep-training an infant. There is a limit to the amount of time parents will leave the infant to cry in those first weeks. Sleep-training does include provisions to allow parents to lay a hand on the baby, stand by the crib, change a diaper or even pick up the child. Thus, the babies do not have to stay in their crib and cry for longer than five to 15 minutes.