I spoke with a friend in New York recently who is trying the “cry it out” (CIO) method for sleep training her 6-month-old. In the first few days, as the baby wailed her way to sleep, my friend told me she had to physically leave her apartment and go for a walk while her husband stayed back. It was just too much. But how long you should let a baby cry it out?
For starters, “cry it out” is an umbrella term for several similar but slightly different styles; it may refer either to the Ferber method (also called graduated extinction) or, more commonly, to unmodified extinction, Dr. Craig Canapari, pediatrician, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Institute, and author of It’s Never Too Late To Sleep Train, tells Romper. Graduated extinction involves putting a drowsy child to sleep, then going to check on and console them at scheduled intervals. Unmodified extinction involves letting your baby cry until they’ve fallen asleep.
“Checks are generally more for the parents than the child — they don’t necessarily make sleep training go more smoothly,” Canapari says. “If you would like to use checks, I recommend going in every five minutes or so. A good check is simply going in, saying, ‘I love you, it’s time to go to sleep, good night,’ and leaving the room. Picking up your child, lingering in the room, or appearing visibly upset does not help.” He adds that some children will cry more every single time a parent leaves, so it’s wise to stay tuned to whether the checks are actually helping your baby settle.
You could also try the timed check-in, as suggested to Romper by Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, behavioral sleep psychologist. “A parent could check on the child after five minutes, then 10 minutes, and then every 15 minutes until the child is asleep,” she says.
It’s important to note that all experts I spoke with agreed that sleep training should begin when your baby is between 4 and 6 months old. “Sleep begins to become more ‘organized' — predictable — around this age because most normally developing children do not need to eat at night for any physiological reason,” Schneeberg says.
So your baby is the right age, they’re fed, they’re dry, and you’ve done a cozy bedtime routine with them, dimmed the lights, and left. And, now they’re crying and it doesn’t sound like they’re letting up any time soon. What now? Any parent will say how agonizing it is to hear their baby upset.
“As long as you’re confident your child can’t jump out of the crib, I sometimes tell families to turn off the volume on the monitor, or even turn off the monitor altogether. As long as you are confident that your child’s sleeping environment is safe. Unless you live in a mansion, you will hear them crying. When they are quiet, you can turn the monitor back on,” Canapari tells Romper.
Try not to get too discouraged if it feels like CIO is actually getting worse as the week goes on (easier said than done, I know). This may happen because of an “extinction burst.” Basically you're no longer rewarding the behavior you want to "go extinct" (in this case, you want your baby to learn to soothe themselves); in 24% of studied cases, babies performed an extinction burst, meaning they double-downed and started doing more of the behavior you’re trying to train them out of.
This sounds exhausting and it is, but it can unfortunately slow down your progress if you go in to soothe your child. In these moments when you feel like you’re also going to burst into tears if your babe doesn’t stop crying, remember that, “sleep training has been shown to be safe and effective by multiple studies; none have shown harm. Also, the crying is limited. A recent study showed that the maximum amount of crying was about 40 minutes on night one,” Canapari says. It will end eventually; even if your baby cries so hard they throw up (it happens, unfortunately, and you should go in to clean them, of course), their self-soothing should be improving by the end of week one, and resolved by week two, Canapari says.
If CIO doesn’t seem like the right choice for your family, you don’t have to use this method. “There are different sleep training methods so that you can be right at your child's side while they're falling asleep,” Christine Stephens, children’s sleep consultant, tells Romper. “If you're not sure what method will work for you or your child, talk with a sleep consultant — [the first]call should be free — to find out about your options. Do your research about different ways of doing it; some methods take longer than others to show progress,” she adds.
Dr. Craig Canapari, pediatrician, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Institute, and author of It’s Never Too Late To Sleep Train
Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, behavioral sleep psychologist
Christine Stephens, children’s sleep consultant
Honaker S, et al. (2018). Real-World Implementation of Infant Behavioral Sleep Interventions: Results of a Parental Survey. The Journal Of Pediatrics. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.04.009