Earlier this week, on a message board I frequent, members were asked to define what it means to let an infant cry it out. Personally, my definition of crying it out is somewhat broad. It's first, ignoring the importance of baby's crying as a communication tool. Then it's leaving them to soothe themselves when the parent is capable of responding (sometimes we're in the car, or going to the bathroom but will get there when we can. For me, that doesn't count). It usually goes hand-in-hand with sleep training.
Babies cry. This is normal. I've seen some Attachment Parents get so hung up over their abhorrence of letting baby CIO, that they try to make it so that baby never cries. I don't think this is practical or normal. Baby should cry. That's their first form of communication.
But we should respond to a baby's cry.
First of all, it's a mother's instinct to go to her baby. Baby cries, we answer. This is how they know their needs will be met. Some parents think this will spoil their kids. But while we're not born as blank slates, there are still a lot of things we humans need to learn. Having their cries met will teach our babies two things: that someone is there to take care of them, and that they can trust us to do so. These things are so important, I think it's partly why we're so strongly wired to respond. And I'm distrustful of anyone who tells me to ignore my instinct as a mother.
Apparently there's an MD in New York City (I read about it here) who actually tells people to put their babies in a room and leave them. Period. The blogger who wrote about her experience with it actually had her baby crying for five hours the first night. She says she's not sure how she survived it. Honestly, I'm not sure either.
Her baby was only 10 weeks old. And she was told to ignore her baby for 9+ hours at night. Yes, you read that right, 9+ hours. Apparently, it's important for babies to "self soothe". I don't know how babies are supposed to know how to soothe themselves. They're just babies. Sometimes I still need soothed as an adult. And if my husband were to ignore my tears, insisting that I needed to learn to calm myself, I might have to throw something heavy at him.
During the night baby may cry because he or she is hungry or thirsty (breastmilk is digested fast, and formula does not take too much longer), because he or she is lonely and needs to know that comfort and protection is still there, or they may cry because they're in pain, sick, or have gotten themselves into an uncomfortable position. I'm disgusted that a pediatrician would encourage such stringent sleep training, but even more so that they would do it at 8 weeks old (which is when she recommended they start).
The doctor in this story apparently compared night feeding an 8 week old to eating a 3 am pizza. I can't tell you how many levels on which this comparison fails. Breastmilk is nutritionally not comparable (being healthy, unlike pizza). Babies need to eat more frequently than grown-ups, and breastmilk meets a need for fluids as well as food. I know I like some water in the middle of the night. My baby doesn't know much, but he does know when he's hungry.
In the blog post, the baby eventually gave up on the hope that someone would come to her, and her crying stopped. To me, that's the saddest part of the story. I want my children to know that I'll be there, even at night, to go to them if necessary. Sleep is important, I know. Believe me, I'm not getting much of it these days. But so is his learning that he has a voice. A voice that is valuable, and will be listened and responded to.
Responding to a baby's cry acknowledges them as people who deserve to be heard. It teaches them that they are cared for and loved. It allows us to meet their needs for food, fluids, and comfort. And it plays into our most basic instinct to nurture our infants. So, honestly, I really can't see the sleep being worth missing out on all of those things.