Even Though "Cry It Out" Worked For Us, I Still Feel Guilty About It
Before I had kids, I never would've imagined that how you put your baby to sleep could be such a controversial topic. But when it comes to so-called "sleep training," it turns out that that people have some strong opinions — and a lot of them aren't afraid to share those opinions whether anyone asked for them or not. The truth is, the degree to which sleep training (aka, the "cry it out method") is seen as totally horrifying and heartless by some people still sometimes makes me second guess our decision to sleep train our twins when they were infants. Even though "crying it out" worked really well for our family, the judgment that surrounds it honestly makes me feel guilty for using CIO, even though I know it was by far the best choice for our situation.
It's easy to understand, of course, why crying it out would seem so awful to some parents. The name alone conjures images of innocent babies left in cold, dark rooms alone to scream their heads off because their mothers didn't love them enough to pay attention to their needs. But, according to The Baby Sleep Site, crying it out really just refers to the act of setting clear boundaries around sleep and bedtime. Yes, sometimes (perhaps often) that includes crying. Crying it out isn't (and certainly should never be) synonymous with ignoring or punishing your child, though. In my experience, crying it out gave me and my husband a way to create healthy sleep habits for our kids early on that still continue now that they're in kindergarten. And, from my view, that's meant that we're all a little more well-rested and relaxed than we may have been otherwise. However, I struggle to shake the feeling that using the CIO method was somehow something I should feel guilty about.
When I first learned I was pregnant with twins, I wasn't exactly thrilled as much as I was terrified. The realization that I'd soon end up with two infants at once was hugely daunting, so I went on a mission to gather as much advice from other twin moms as I possibly could. One thing that almost every single one of them said? Get them on a schedule ASAP. I didn't really know what that meant, and honestly, the entire idea sounded so antithetical to the type of relaxed, natural, "go with the flow" kind of mom I envisioned myself being. I wanted my infants to know they were loved and safe, that they could always count on me to meet their needs, and putting them on a schedule, I figured, seemed like the opposite of forming a secure, loving bond.
Once my husband and I took our twins home though, I started to understand that, logistically, some kind of organization is essential. I only have two arms, and can only change one diaper at a time. The twins needed formula, which at least meant I could feed them simultaneously if I sat them in bouncy chairs on either side of me, but for the most part, taking care of infant twins is a never-ending series of trade-offs, of assembly-line-style parenting.
If it was my job to let them know that going to sleep wasn't scary, wouldn't I just be reinforcing their discomfort by scooping them up whenever they cried and letting them fall asleep in my arms? I began to think of it like giving them medicine — I wasn't going to avoid giving it to them if they were sick simply because they didn't like the way it tasted.
Since I couldn't exactly rock two babies in my arms all day long, our infant swing and bouncy chairs became huge super helpful. The downside? My son quickly decided that the swing was the only place he wanted to nap. Whenever I'd move him to his bassinet, he'd wake up and scream, and since I was pretty much delirious with sleep deprivation, I'd usually just put him back in his swing so he'd be happy. The thought of sleep training never even crossed my mind — how could I do such a thing to my precious babies? — until some wise words from the twins' occupational therapist, Laura, during a home visit made me reconsider entirely.
I'd explained to Laura my frustration over my son's naps in the swings, and his seeming hatred of his bassinet. I told her I wasn't sure what to do, that anytime I tried to put him down he was upset, but that I really didn't like him sleeping in his swing or bouncy chair. She gave me some suggestions, like trying to put him down while he was still awake, but groggy, or making sure to move him very slowly so he wasn't startled. Then she said, "you know, all humans need sleep, but learning how to sleep is a skill. It might be a bit uncomfortable for him to adjust to napping in his bed at first, but it's something everyone needs to learn at some point."
I realized she was totally right: sleeping might be natural, but going down to bed each night in a darkened room, in a bed, at a particular time of day? All of those are things that we've learned how to do, and we've been doing them for so long that they feel natural. But to my twins, who have spent the vast majority of their short lives falling asleep whenever, wherever? That was an entirely new concept. My husband and I decided that teaching our twins how to sleep was going to be our priority, and it wasn't long at all before both babies were sleeping through the night, in their own beds.
Hearing other people say that people who CIO are selfish or cruel is hurtful, because, in our experience, CIO was the opposite of those things. And comments from people saying they "could never do such a thing," make me suddenly paranoid that I somehow overlooked my children's acute emotional trauma, that I had somehow turned a blind eye to their suffering.
For the most part, Maddie and Reid have always been great sleepers, and I feel reasonably positive it's because we've never wavered on the boundaries we've set around sleep. We've always kept an early, consistent bed time, and they've never co-slept in our bed unless they were sick or really upset. Yes, sometimes that's meant they cried when they were put down, but sleep is important for their development, and their cribs were safe, contained spaces that they could learn to feel comfortable sleeping in all night. If it was my job to let them know that going to sleep wasn't scary, wouldn't I just be reinforcing their discomfort by scooping them up whenever they cried and letting them fall asleep in my arms? I began to think of it like giving them medicine — I wasn't going to avoid giving it to them if they were sick simply because they didn't like the way it tasted. Letting them realize they could fall asleep on their own would be good for them.
These days, I've become exactly the kind of twin mom who recommends to twin moms-to-be that they get their kids on a schedule as soon as they can. It's made life easier and saner, both for the kids and for us, and trying to do it any other way just seems unnecessarily difficult. But that doesn't mean the comments from anti-CIO parents don't bother me. Hearing other people say that people who CIO are selfish or cruel is hurtful, because, in our experience, CIO was the opposite of those things. And comments from people saying they "could never do such a thing," make me suddenly paranoid that I somehow overlooked my children's acute emotional trauma, that I had somehow turned a blind eye to their suffering. I've heard people say that babies who CIO become less well-adjusted, that they don't feel loved, or some other dagger-in-the-heart unfounded claim (for the record, a 2016 study found practicing cry it out doesn't raise a baby's stress level and also may help them to get more sleep over time.) While I don't think those things are at all true, it doesn't mean I don't feel guilty about it just in case I'm wrong.
What I wish we could all remember in conversations about polarizing parenting topics is that, for the most part, we really are all doing our best we can. For the most part, we really do all adore our children, and we honestly want the very best for them. For us, that meant making the decision to teach our children how to feel confident and safe sleeping alone. For others, I imagine it means co-sleeping, or rocking them to sleep, or some other way to physically be there to help with the falling to sleep process. But the pervasive guilt — the kind mostly all parents feel about something whether they've sleep trained or not — seems totally twisted and of zero actual value. Parents who actually neglect or harm their children? Yeah, we should be outraged. But parents who are just trying to help set some healthy boundaries around sleep? Maybe we could ease off on the judgment a little.