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The Competent Parent: Should you let baby cry herself to sleep?

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Bedtime for baby

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our daughter and her two children live with us. Because she often works in the evening, my wife and I put the children to bed most nights. The baby is five months old. What I want to know is, is it okay for the baby to cry herself to sleep? That’s what our daughter thinks.

Second Time Around

Dear Second Time Around,

Obviously the baby is telling you this is not okay.

The question of whether or not to respond to a fretful infant divides adults into two camps, each with rationale and passion to hold up their side of the debate. Let’s call them Instinctivists and Behaviorists.

On the Instinctivist side, the adult responds with comfort and consolation to the cues of the baby. In a back-and-forth, trial-and-error dance between the adult and the infant, bedtime routines are developed around the infant’s needs. These could be for touch, gentle rocking, quiet music, and the reassuring presence of her beloved caregiver. Variations to this package could include a particular blanket, a stuffed animal, a nightlight, a gently whirring fan, or a lavender-scented pillow. Breastfeeding is a blissful component of the bedtime routine for both mother and baby since the hormones oxytocin and prolactin soothe them both. Breast milk in a bottle at least provides calming hormones to the baby even if Grandpa holds the bottle. The rhythmic sucking action also calms a baby, so using a bottle for milk or water (or a pacifier) assists in lulling her off to dreamland. Please note the dental hygiene precaution of not letting milk linger in the mouth—particularly once teeth start erupting—since the sugar in milk can damage the enamel on the teeth.

Once a peaceful pattern has been established, the infant comes to expect the soothing ritual each evening, and all the responsive grown-up need do is watch the clock or the baby’s signals (whichever is more predictable) to know just when to start the routine. When there are two or more caregivers, the closer each one copies the standard routine, the better off for the baby.

The Behaviorist, in the extreme, will argue that the evening is all about the adult. The adult decides when he is ready to put the baby to sleep and when the baby has taken enough of his time in that process. The goal of behavioristic approaches—such as the Ferber technique—is to minimize the adult’s intervention.

I identify myself in this controversy as a Instinctivist. The goal is to have a mutually satisfying relationship through which the adult meets the child’s needs at every stage of development. Not only does it fit with my image of the role of the parent/grandparent/caregiver to assist the child with whatever she is not ready to do for herself (dress, bathe, eat, cross the street, etc.), it is backed up with research on brain development. Stress—as expressed by the crying baby—produces stress hormones which elevate blood pressure and weaken the immune system. There are also long-term detrimental effects of prolonged crying on the pathways being laid among neurons in the baby’s brain. During stress, the networks that have been made get unmade as neurons shrink and recede from each other. The negative effects of excessive adrenaline and cortisol can include learning difficulties and behavior problems.

Because you are supporting your daughter’s parenting, it would be best if you could reach an agreement about a consistent routine for bedtime. Hopefully she recognizes that you are on her side, wanting the best for her children. I recommend shoring up with some good points in favor of helping the baby fall asleep without crying. An advocate for “attachment parenting” is Dr. William Sears. He has several books on the subject as well as some specific research evidence online at:


You have a wonderful opportunity to influence your grandchildren during their most formative years, and a second chance to support your daughter at this stage of her life.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com.

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