I understand that letting kids "cry it out" is supported to various degrees in our culture. You don't have to look far to find books and magazine articles and lots of opinions about why it's okay and how to do it. I think that many parents don't know what else to do, and everyone's telling them to let their child cry himself to sleep, and no one ever tells them there are other options. So I'm writing this post, not to criticize people who really do believe in crying it out, but to let people know that there is another way and to encourage parents to listen to their own hearts.
I write this as a parent who has been at the other end of the spectrum in the past. When my seven year old was a baby/toddler, I did leave him to cry it out. I was exhausted and stressed out, and I just didn't know what else to do. I didn't like to do it, but I was afraid that if I didn't, he'd never learn to fall asleep on his own and he'd always be dependent on me at nighttime. (Note: any parenting advice that relies on fear-mongering by using words like always and never is probably not worth your time. As children grow and mature, they develop new abilities and naturally become more independent. Being dependent in a particular area at a young age does not mean a child will always be dependent in that area.)
My nearly-18-month-old son has never been left to cry himself to sleep. We have done what's called "parenting to sleep," which is simply staying with him and helping him fall asleep. Depending on what he's needed at the time, we've held him, rocked him, nursed him, given him a pacifier, hummed songs, gotten in bed next to him, patted his back, and so on. And he is learning, at his own pace and according to his own developmental abilities, to fall asleep on his own. He's still dependent on us at bedtime, and that's okay. He's only eighteen months old; still very, very young in the grand scheme of things! We don't believe in pushing children to be more independent than they are capable of being at any given developmental stage. He's less dependent on us than he used to be, though. I rarely nurse him to sleep anymore; in fact, Clark is usually the one who puts him to bed these days. Isaac is also growing fond of lying down in bed together, where he gets comfortable and goes to sleep without being held, rocked, etc. He's getting more and more independent, and I fully believe that he will learn to fall asleep on his own when he's ready.
I don't believe that leaving a child to cry himself to sleep teaches healthy sleep habits or healthy sleep associations. Bedtime and falling asleep can become associated with loneliness, stress, and even fear. Maybe not for all children, but definitely for some. I want to help my son learn to fall asleep on his own in a gradual, developmentally-appropriate way, without it being associated with stress. You can find all kinds of research on the negative effects of leaving kids to cry it out, and I can vouch for the validity of some of them because I've seen it happen in my oldest son. :-(
I won't lie; sometimes parenting to sleep isn't convenient. But in the end, I feel strongly that I must choose what's best for my child over what's most convenient for me. My heart just will not let me do the "cry it out" method again. The most important lesson I've learned in parenting is to listen to my heart. God gave me mothering instincts for a reason, and I have learned to listen to them over culture or other people's opinions.
In the end, we are each responsible for the decisions we've made regarding our own children-- both the positive and the negative ones. I encourage you to listen to your heart and your God-given parenting instincts. Don't rely on culture or parenting books or magazine articles or other people's opinions (not even mine!) to tell you that you must do [insert parenting method here] with your child or risk ruining him forever. Research, absolutely-- seriously weigh the pros and cons, and take other people's thoughts into consideration. But then decide for yourself what feels right in your heart, and take responsibility for that decision. What I encourage more than anything, for ALL parents, is informed, intentional parenting and following your heart. :)