The cry it out (CIO) method of sleep training is controversial, to say the least. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find something that moms get quite so worked up about. Except maybe breastfeeding. Or attachment parenting. Or baby wearing. OK, OK. We're a passionate and (dare I say it?) a judgmental bunch. If you decide to go ahead with this strategy, you may find yourself the victim of some literal and figurative finger-wagging, but you certainly don't deserve to be vilified. The fact is you can teach your child valuable life lessons when you let them cry it out.
If you're considering CIO, you need to do your research. Recent studies out of Australia shows the graduated extinction method to be both safe and effective. An older study in the Archives of Disease of Childhood found that prolonged crying was associated with adverse cognitive development. At the end of the day, it's up to you to do the reading and make the decision for your family.
As the parent of a former-newborn, I prided myself on being very attuned to the needs of my child. When she cried, I try to figure out what was wrong and fix it. I knew that crying was the only way she could communicate with me. As she got older, however, the aforementioned stopped being the case. My husband and I didn't intend to do CIO, we sort of fell into it. One night, our then 6-month-old daughter was fed, dry, and safe, and capable of manipulation of the tiny baby variety (if I scream, mom comes and gets me). We looked at each other, said "F*ck it," and rolled over. She lasted ten minutes, and that was the beginning. By eight months of age, she was consistently sleeping a blissful 12 hours a night and has ever since.
It's important to remember that there are lots of ways to cry it out. Maybe the Weissbluth method is too severe for you. Maybe Ferber isn't cutting it. You might have a threshold for how much crying is too much (I personally can't do more than ten minutes). You can do cry it out and still listen to your mommy instincts, you can still soothe, and you can find the right combination of methods that works best for you and your baby. Just remind yourself that, if you do go for it, you're doing your kiddo a lot of favors. Let go of that inevitable guilt and be strong, mama! You'll be reaping the rewards of a full night's rest in no time.
When I put my little one down for a nap or for the night or sometimes she wakes unexpectedly, she cries for a hot second, rolls over, sticks her butt up in the air, and places her thumb firmly in her mouth. I breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that she has managed to learn how to calm herself down. She doesn't need me to rock her or sing her a lullaby, and I don't have to stumble down the hallway.
This is a skill that is so helpful when she's awake. When she's upset because mom is making dinner (the nerve!) and not picking her up, she has some techniques for settling herself down. Being able to self-soothe will help your child in the future, too. While they won't use the exact same strategies (e.g. sucking their thumb or using a pacifier or lovey), they are building the confidence that they have it inside themselves as individuals to calm down when stressed or upset.
My mom always says that your job as a parent is to work yourself out of one, and I'm inclined to agree. As a mother to a young child, of course your kid is going to need you. There are plenty of things they can't do for themselves. However, there are still lots of things they can manage on their own, and going to sleep on their own is one of them.
I'm a huge Love and Logic buff, and I subscribe to the idea that when you do too much for kids, they learn that they're not capable. That's not the message I want to send to my daughter. When I let her cry, I tell her, "You're a big girl and you can go to sleep all by yourself. I'll be close by if you really need me." That's pretty much my approach to all aspects of parenting.
Sleeping Through The Night
I started sleep training when I realized I didn't want to end up with a kindergartener who was still waking up in the middle of the night. As with most things, it's so much better if you start earlier. When you decide to put your baby down awake and not respond to crying at nighttime, they will generally start sleeping for longer periods. It usually takes a few (albeit miserable) nights.
When I started CIO, we almost immediately got down to one wake-up a night, and baby girl extinguished that one on her own two months later. Everybody feels better after a good night's sleep. Your kid will be happier in the long run, and maybe you won't need quite so much coffee to feel like a person (I said maybe).
At some point, a child has to learn that their needs aren't necessarily going to be met immediately. I'm not talking about situations where safety and well-being are involved. When my daughter throws up the Baby Bat Signal, I come a runnin'. Don't underestimate your mama instincts; you learned to distinguish cries in your newborn, and you'll know when something is really wrong (and a video monitor is great backup).
However, when a mom is busy and the need isn't pressing, a child learning patience can go a long, long way. For example, I would love to read you that book right now, but mommy has to pee. Instant gratification is a dangerous thing because children learn to expect it. So in the morning, I let my daughter hang out in her crib for a few minutes and chatter to herself contentedly while I hatch out and check my e-mail. Cry it out can teach a child that sometimes they have to wait, and that's a good thing.
Breaking Your Fast
Did you ever think about the origin of the word "breakfast"? When you eat in the morning, you are literally breaking the fast of the previous night. I'm not advocating using CIO to stop night feedings. It doesn't work because hungry babies are pissed off. You have to do the work of night weaning when that time comes.
But by getting your child to sleep through the night (via sleep training and gradually ending nighttime feedings), you teach them to do what every adult does. Not that I don't sometimes need a midnight snack (how else can I eat Nutella without sharing?), but I generally make it through the night without eating. A toddler can, too.
Family Needs Vs. Individual Needs
Some people argue that they can't use cry it out because there are people in the house who need sleep. Maybe parents have to go to work or older siblings have to go to school. I would argue that that's a reason to do CIO. It's a short term pain in the ass with great long term benefits for the whole family.
Little ones need to learn that they're not the only ones with needs in the family, and that their needs don't necessarily supersede those of others. I explain to my daughter that I need her to sleep in her crib because I need sleep, too (I'm not sure she understands me, but I'm not positive she doesn't either). Initially, I felt guilty and selfish, but I now recognize that I'm a better mom when I'm rested. I'm at home with my daughter most of the day, and she's very in tune with my emotional state. When I'm better, she is too.
How To Deal With Night Wakings
It happens to all of us. Unless you suffer from insomnia, you probably handle night waking pretty well without realizing it. Even when I have to get up to use the bathroom, I drift off pretty quickly after getting back into bed. I don't think I even reach full wakefulness (so count sleep-peeing as one of my superpowers).
Babies wake at night for a variety of reasons: growth spurts, teething, developmental advances, missing mama, and discomfort, to name a few. CIO can help your child respond to sleep disruptions. When they wise up to the fact that mom is not coming in the middle of the night, they might fuss for awhile, but eventually they'll use those self-soothing techniques to trundle right back off to dreamland.
If you ask any teacher (me included), they'll tell you kids thrive on routine. Part of sleep training is setting a regular bedtime routine. My baby gets a bath, puts on her pajamas (OK, technically I put them on her), drinks a glass of milk, watches her daddy goodnight video, and listens to a story and a song; always in that order. I say the same phrase to her before I put her in bed. It's comforting to her.
She also knows (in her own baby way) that the expectation is that she goes to sleep. Mama won't be coming in until we wake up in the morning. The more sleeping through the night becomes habit and the more consistent you are in how you respond to crying, the easier it will get.
How To Fall Asleep
Most of us know what we need to fall asleep. I get in bed with my favorite blanket (I know I'm a grown-ass woman, but I love my blankie and my partner is deployed), prop up my two pillows, and read until I feel sleepy.
Infants and toddlers have to figure this out, too. That's why you put baby down awake. She may cry, but eventually she will settle down and conk out. In the future, she'll be less likely to throw tantrums at bedtime., and she'll be well on her way to a lifetime of falling asleep on her own, without mom's help.
Whatever your concerns about attachment or cortisol levels, there is nothing healthy about being chronically sleep-deprived. Cry it out is a last resort strategy for babies who just aren't getting enough sleep. Sleep has a direct impact on mental and physical development. When you sleep train, keep a regular bedtime, and yes cry it out; you're setting your child up for a lifetime healthy habit.
Don't underestimate the power of sweet dreams.