Here's a question for new parents: when your baby is crying in her crib, do you pick her up or let her cry herself back to sleep?
Many new parents will tell you it is very hard to listen as their infant “cries it out,” but researchers at Temple University say it might not be a bad idea, after checking to make sure there is no obvious reason for the child's discomfort.
A study, published in Developmental Psychology, supports the idea that a majority of infants are best left to self-soothe and fall back to sleep on their own when they awaken and cry in the middle of the night.
Sleeping through the night
"By six months of age, most babies sleep through the night, awakening their mothers only about once per week,” said Temple psychology professor Marsha Weinraub, who specializes in child development and parent-child relationships. “However, not all children follow this pattern of development."
In the study, Weinraub and her colleagues identified two groups of infants -- sleepers and what they call “transitional sleepers.” While some may cry when they wake up, almost all wake up during the night on a regular basis.
"If you measure them while they are sleeping, all babies -- like all adults -- move through a sleep cycle every 1 1/2 to 2 hours where they wake up and then return to sleep," said Weinraub. "Some of them do cry and call out when they awaken, and that is called 'not sleeping through the night.'"
Boys tend to be criers
The study of 1,200 infants age six months to 36 months found boys tended to wake up and cry more often than girls. These “transitional sleepers” also tended to have “difficult temperament" when they were awake.
These babies were also more likely to be breastfed. Mothers of these babies were more likely to be depressed and have greater maternal sensitivity.
The findings suggest a couple of things, said Weinraub. One is that genetic or constitutional factors such as those that might be reflected in difficult temperaments appear implicated in early sleep problems.
When to talk to your doctor
"Families who are seeing sleep problems persist past 18 months should seek advice," she said.
Another takeaway is that it is important for babies to learn how to fall asleep on their own.
"When mothers tune in to these night-time awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breastfeeding, then he or she may not be learning to how to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep," she said.
There are many theories about how parents should react to their crying babies. In 1946 Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote that mothers should use their best judgment about what their babies need and comforting them when they cry -- no matter what the time of day -- is fine.
Experts at the Mayo Clinic point out that, when an infant cries, he is usually trying to tell you something. Parents, they say, should try to figure out why their child is crying. Sometimes, they say, letting an infant cry is the right course of action.
“If you've tried everything and your baby is still upset, consider letting your baby cry it out,” write members of the Mayo Clinic staff. “Crying won't hurt your baby -- and sometimes the only way to stop a crying spell is to let it run its course.”