“People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.” – Leo J. Burk
There’s really nothing in life that can prepare you for the exhaustion of parenting. Between midnight feedings and 3 AM blowouts, new parents are lucky if they can get a 4-hour stretch.
There comes a time when bleary-eyed moms and dads have had enough and are desperate for some rest. That’s usually when sleep training comes to mind. Of all the methods, cry-it-out is the most controversial.
Keep reading for the full scoop on how it’s done, if it’s safe, and some suitable alternatives if it’s not right for you.
Definition of Cry-It-Out (CIO) Sleep Method
The idea of sleep training a baby didn’t exist until 1895, when Dr. Emmett Holt’s The Care and Feeding of Children first suggested that babies should be left to “cry it out” if crying was habitual. A lot of his other recommendations are now outdated and contrary to current beliefs, but for many desperate parents, this one stuck.
CIO is also known as “extinction,” because the goal is to extinguish the behavior of needing assistance to fall asleep. We all have brief awakenings at night as we pass between sleep cycles, but most of us don't remember them.
Babies have light and short sleep cycles of just 50-60 minutes, so their opportunities for waking are frequent. If they fall asleep being nursed, cuddled, or rocked, they’ll expect those same conditions (also known as associations) to help them fall back asleep during their cycle transitions.
Unlike Ferber and other methods that allow some parental intervention, CIO means that parents say goodnight, shut the door, and don’t return until morning (or unless baby is sick, hurt, or genuinely hungry).
Suitable Age to Start Sleep Training
Every baby is different, so don’t worry about trying to keep up with the other moms at playgroup or force your little lad before he’s ready. According to pediatrician and sleep expert Dr. Sears, night waking has benefits for development and survival. Being a light snoozer helps to protect against SIDS and ensures that little ones will meet their growth needs with those midnight feeds.
Around halfway through their first year, babies naturally start sleeping longer stretches of five or six hours at a time. And while it may be hard to believe, this stretch is what experts refer to as “sleeping through the night.” Not exactly the 8 to 10 hours you were hoping for!
Somewhere between four and six months is commonly recommended for sleep training, but it all depends on your baby. Here are some of the signs to look for:
- Past four months sleep regression
- Rolling over on their own
- Self-soothing skills mastered
- No longer being swaddled
- Consistently gaining weight and have cut down on nighttime feedings
Infant Cry-It-Out Methods and Alternatives
If leaving your little one alone to figure things out on her own sounds a bit too extreme for you, there are several alternatives that may bring you (and your baby) peace of mind.
There are many other approaches to sleep training that range from more rigid, like Ferber, to more gentle, no-cry alternatives. Every family is different, and what works for another family may not be the best approach for you.
Ferber (Graduated Extinction)
A newer alternative to cry-it-out is graduated extinction, or the Ferber method, named after pediatrician and sleep expert Dr. Ferber. This approach allows parents to go in and comfort at timed intervals.
Similar to extinction, the goal of this method is to eliminate habits like sucking or being rocked to sleep. However, with Ferber, parents gradually extend the amount of time that their baby cries alone over the period of one week.
Pick-up, put-down is considered a middle-ground approach to sleep training. It involves putting your baby to sleep independently but going in and picking him up if he cries. Instead of assisting him back to sleep, you put him back down while he's still awake.
The goal with this approach is that babies will learn to fall asleep independently but won't feel abandoned.
Fading is a very gradual method that allows for a lot of flexibility. In this approach, you put your babe to bed drowsy but awake. You stay in the room sitting on a chair shushing her until she falls asleep. Every few days, slowly move the chair closer to the door and eventually out of the room.
Gentle, No-Cry Alternatives
If you prefer not to cause your little one any distress at bedtime or are practicing attachment parenting, a no-tears approach may be right for you. There are many ways to go about this, including co-sleeping, room-sharing, or positive routines with faded bedtimes. These approaches work well for many families, including those with children who have more sensitive personalities.
Letting Baby Cry Too Long Could Be Bad
It sounds so easy. Put your little one to bed, shut the door, let them cry, and come back in the morning. Voila! All your sleep problems are solved. Not exactly.
The reality is that very few parents achieve the “instant success” that this method claims to bring. After weeks of crying (from both parents and babes), many give up and falsely believe there’s no hope. Others report that their baby eventually cries so hard he throws up or seems clingy and fussy during the day.
Even if parents do see some success, many find that the smallest change—teething, illness, or even an overnight trip to Grandma’s—sends them back to square one. Cry-it-out was once thought to be the only way to sleep train a baby, and many parents simply follow the well-meaning advice of friends and families without realizing that there are other ways.
Some experts say that extended crying isn’t good for babies who have no ability to rationalize why they are being left alone to cry. In their undeveloped brains, crying is how they get their needs met for everything from food to comfort to pain. Ignoring their cries could lead them to feel abandoned and may have long-term psychological effects.
Pros and Cons of Crying-It-Out
Like every approach, this method may work well for some families and not for others. It’s important to factor in your parenting styles and your baby’s temperament when making your decision. With every method, there are also pros and cons that are worth considering.
Advocates of extinction say that little ones learn how to fall asleep independently. When babies are left to cry on their own, they are forced to use self-soothing techniques, like bringing their hands to the mouth, sucking on a pacifier, or cuddling a lovey.
Teaching young children to fall asleep on their own is also helpful for encouraging them to sleep longer stretches. Babies who fall asleep without assistance are better able to fall back asleep alone during the night.
Another advantage is that when this approach is a good fit, it tends to work quickly. For easy-going babies, many parents report good results in as little as one to two weeks, whereas other methods may take a little longer.
Because this approach doesn’t involve any parental intervention, parents don’t have to be the ones to hear their little one cry. Some families prefer to have a relative or friend come over while they go for a walk or drive, since listening to hours of crying can be incredibly stressful for moms and dads.
Another huge bonus for parents is that they finally get some much needed rest too. For families who are dealing with multiple wake-ups overnight, sleep training can decrease stress and improve moods. Some parents say their little ones seem happier when they are sleeping better too.
Opponents of extinction methods claim that it doesn’t teach children the skills they need to sleep independently; it simply teaches them that their cries will be ignored. Falling asleep crying doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly learned to self-soothe, and the underlying causes of nighttime waking go unresolved.
While studies have been done that show sleep training is safe, other research points to the harmful effects of extended crying. Unfortunately, not enough scientific research has been done to say with certainty that extinction methods do no long-term harm psychological harm. We also don’t know whether this approach has a negative effect on the important attachment relationship between parents and children.
Should I Practice Cry-It-Out With Naps?
Consistency is key when it comes to training, so what you do at night should stay the same for daytime naps too. This method may be more challenging for naps because it could mean babies miss their nap entirely. In most cases, naptime sleep will improve as nighttime sleep does too.
Is Sleep Training Suitable for Newborns?
Pediatricians and experts agree that training isn’t suitable for newborns or any little ones under the age of four months old. Night wakings are important for newborns to get their nutritional and developmental needs met, so their cries should never be ignored. However, it’s never too soon to start implementing a positive bedtime routine to help signal little ones that sleepy time is coming.
Tips for CIO and Safe Sleeping
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies share a room with parents for the first year, or at least the first six months, to reduce the risk of SIDS. This method should only be practiced with healthy babes, so speak to your pediatrician before you start. It’s recommended to use a video monitor so you can keep an eye on your little one and intervene if she becomes overly distressed.
Set a Bedtime Routine
A calming bedtime is one of the most important things you can do to help your little one learn to fall asleep. Things like taking a warm bath, putting on pajamas, and reading books can all help to signal that bedtime is near. Do this routine consistently, and end with putting your little one in her crib drowsy but awake.
Prepare for a Few Weary Nights
It’s a good idea to clear your calendar for a couple of weeks before beginning, because training can be exhausting for everyone. Listening to your tiny tot’s cries is challenging and means you likely won’t be getting much rest. Knowing this ahead of time can help you prepare mentally and physically (so nap if you get a chance).
Change the Schedule If Necessary, but Be Consistent
If extended crying isn’t a good fit for your family, it’s okay to try something else. Graduated extinction with comforting at intervals can bring reassurance to both parents and babies, or you may find you need to switch to a more gentle approach. As long as you’re consistent, you should eventually see results.
If Facing Further Difficulties, Switch Back to the Routine
Regressions happen during times of growth and developmental changes. If you hit a snag down the road, you may have to go back to training again until things improve.
Baby Should Sleep in Crib, Not in Bed
For safety and SIDS prevention, always put your little one to sleep in a crib. If you choose to co-sleep, be sure to do so safely.
Put Baby on Back on Firm Mattress
Safety guidelines from the AAP include putting babies to sleep on their backs on a firm mattress in a crib. The crib should be free of all bedding and soft objects, including bumper pads, blankets, pillows, and toys. The only thing in the crib with your baby should be a fitted sheet and a wearable blanket (sleep sack or swaddle).
Common Baby Sleep Patterns
Newborns have undeveloped circadian rhythms (biological clocks), which is why they often have their days and nights confused. By four to five months, most are taking daytime naps and sleeping longer at night. By 9 to 10 months, babies are generally going to bed and waking up at the same time of day.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and for many exhausted moms and dads—cry-it-out is that! This extinction-based training method can be challenging, but many claim it works quickly to bring some much needed rest. Like other methods, this approach has some drawbacks and isn’t right for everyone.
For easy-going babies and parents who can make it through the nights of prolonged crying, it can be a good fit. If you’ve gotten the green light from your pediatrician and are ready to give it a go, be sure to stock up on some extra Kleenex and remember that better sleep is at the other end of all those tears!