CIO or GTFO
Honestly, Crying It Out Is A Gift For Tired Parents & We Should Celebrate It More
Once new parents make it through those first 16 weeks of chaos, you can rejoice! Why? Because it’s time to cry-it-out.
I am of the opinion that all new parents should be told — by everyone! constantly! — that all you have to do is survive for 16 weeks. If your baby wakes up every three hours that whole time and you fantasize frequently about sustaining a low-key injury that would require a hospital stay purely for the rest it would guarantee? All you have to do is survive. Cling to hope, ask for help, and survive.
As any new parent knows, that’s actually a pretty tall order. But if you can make it through those first 16 weeks of chaos (some would argue sooner, but the standard number is 16 weeks), you can rejoice! Why? Because it’s time for everyone to get some really great sleep. It’s time to cry-it-out.
You don’t have to cry-it-out. For example, if your magical little nugget is already sleeping from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. in their crib, unswaddled, without a pacifier, well, congratulations! You won the baby lottery, and there’s nothing to cry out!
The rest of us will eventually need to cry-it-out. “Why is this horrible woman saying cry-it-out so many times?” you ask yourself. “I really wish this lady would use some cute acronym instead so I don’t have to think very much about the, you know, crying.”
The big secret that expensive sleep consultants and certain social media sleep mavens would like you to spend hundreds of dollars learning is that you are eventually, most likely, going to need to leave your baby alone at night to cry themselves to sleep.
Since you asked, I’m calling it cry-it-out because — after years of obsessively reading about baby sleep, teaching my own children to sleep and helping a lot of friends teach their kids to sleep — I’ve decided that it’s the best thing to call it. The phrase itself is a very basic sleep training how-to. The big secret that expensive sleep consultants and certain social media sleep mavens would like you to spend hundreds of dollars learning is that you are eventually, most likely, going to need to leave your baby alone at night to cry themselves to sleep. You could also call this “learning to self-soothe,” which is both an accurate and more pleasant way to put it. But when you’re in the thick of the first night of cry-it-out and it’s minute 54 — and, oh yes, you are counting every last one of those minutes — of listening to your baby scream their lungs out, knowing full well that if you picked them up you’d both be temporarily relieved, well, I think it’s sort of comforting to remember that it’s called cry-it-out. It’s tough. It’s blunt. It involves crying.
The phrase “sleep-train” can have a lot of meanings, and is used by a lot of people in a lot of different ways to refer to many different approaches to baby sleep, so I’m also saying cry-it-out because that’s what I’m talking about! All sleep-training is not cry-it-out, but cry-it-out is a form of sleep training. “Cry-it-out” is typically most associated with Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s “full extinction” method of sleep training, which is where you put your baby to bed fed, changed, and drowsy; say goodnight; and don’t go back in until morning. It also happens to be my personal favorite. I realize that to some, that makes me sound like a really gosh-darn cold-hearted parent, so I’d like to just take this opportunity to say that no one likes to hear their babies cry. That’s just biology! I cried right along with both of my babies when we cried it out. It goes without saying, but one more time for the people in the back: No, I don’t love to hear my babies cry. Parents who cry-it-out do not like to hear their babies cry. But we do love that they sleep through the night and we love that more than we hate hearing them cry for a few nights. Not all of the work of parenting is comfortable, and cry-it-out certainly falls into the uncomfortable category, but I am confident that giving them space to learn to be good sleepers is a lifelong gift.
Cry-it-out is most new parents’ first experience of stepping out of our child’s way so they can figure something out for themselves. We cannot fall asleep for them, and that’s a weird thing to internalize, especially after weeks and weeks of doing every last thing for them. We grow them in our bodies! We feed them from our bodies. We regulate their heartbeats and body temperatures with our very skin. And suddenly, there is this basic thing that our still-quite-new little humans have to figure out on their own. What was even weirder than the act of getting out of my son’s way was how quickly he got it. It was incredibly rewarding to watch him learn. Our kids are capable of so much if we can just manage to get out of their way — a rather gargantuan feat — and the payoff is huge for everyone and almost immediate. That’s the thing with cry-it-out: Most babies get it very, very fast.
Cry-it-out is fast, you say? Like, how fast? Oh, my friend. Most kids get it in two to seven nights. Less than a week, for a lifetime (with the occasional blip) of good sleep.
Why didn’t our pediatrician tell me that at 16 weeks I could safely sleep-train a healthy baby? It would have been a beacon of hope.
When my first child was a few days old, I have a blurry memory of asking the pediatrician when the baby would have some sort of routine and when he might let us get a little more sleep. I am sure I tried to sound lighthearted and chipper, but I remember feeling absolutely desperate. He laughed, shrugged and moved on, as if there was no way to answer that question. Why didn’t he tell me that at 16 weeks I could safely sleep-train a healthy baby? It would have been a beacon of hope. Instead I had to cobble my understanding of baby sleep and sleep training options myself by texting friends desperately and attempting to absorb Precious Little Sleep in the middle of the night with a precariously dozing baby on my boob. We muddled through, and other mothers (it’s always other mothers, right?) lit the path. By 6 months, we’d successfully sleep-trained.
With Nellie, my second child, I was ready. I looked to sleep training as a beacon of hope as we prepared for her arrival and the bone-deep exhaustion we knew said arrival would herald. I re-read all of my sleep books towards the end of my pregnancy and made a plan before she was even born. I read about Tribeca Pediatrics and was comforted by the idea that if I was really losing it after eight weeks, they believe it’s OK to cry it out. I focused mainly on Precious Little Sleep and reminded myself about awake times, reasonable expectations for baby sleep and when to start the dreaded (but important) drowsy-but-awake tuck-in. I read around on Dr. Craig Canapari’s website to remind myself that “wake windows” might be garbage and sleep regressions aren’t worth worrying about and that sleep training is safe for babies and healthy for families. I got a pre-emptive OK from our beloved pediatrician over MyHealth when Nellie was a little over 15 weeks to let her cry-it-out after she hit 16 weeks (4 months). And sure enough, she hit a bit of a regression at 16.5 weeks — up every two hours instead of sleeping six- to eight-hour stretches — and we didn’t hesitate. We decided to lose all of her sleep crutches at once. I was nervous, but also giddy. I was literally jumping on the bed when I realized we were about to fully graduate from the twitchy sleep of people who have a newborn baby and into the much more restful sleep of people who have sleep-trained. In a single night, we swapped the Snoo for a crib, and a tight zipper swaddle for a sleep sack. Her weight was right on track, and pre-regression she’d been doing one feeding per night, so we decided to keep one feeding in the wee hours (4 or 5 a.m.). Otherwise, we would not go to her in the night.
Sleep allows me to be the mostly chill, calm parent I want to be. It allows me to be the patient, loving partner I want to be. It makes me better at my job. It means I’m a safe driver, not a sleep-deprived basically drunk person. It keeps me healthy. It keeps Nellie healthy, too.
Despite my borderline obnoxious commitment to cry-it-out (I have encouraged countless exhausted friends to do it over the years), I felt a little anxious as we stared down the first night. I posted in the r/sleeptrain subreddit asking for support and got it in droves. I bought some earplugs and CBD mints. I texted friends for support and was sweetly flooded. I wrote down our plan in clear steps so that I had something to look at if my commitment wavered. And Nellie? Well, she did her part, too. Our sweet, brilliant girl got it in one night. She (and we) discovered that she’s really, really into her hands. When she’d wake up and fuss, the crying would usually last 10 to 20 minutes and end when she managed to get at least one hand in her mouth.
Night two involved such minimal crying I barely remember it. All I know is, I felt superhuman — I was free! Free from waiting for the next shoe to drop, free from waiting for another little growth spurt or regression that would turn me into a grouchy ghost version of myself who is deeply unpleasant to be around. Other than the occasional blip — a cold, a tooth, a poorly timed poop explosion — I could count on a full night's sleep once again. Sleep allows me to be the mostly chill, calm parent I want to be. It allows me to be the patient, loving partner I want to be. It makes me better at my job. It means I’m a safe driver, not a sleep-deprived basically drunk person. It keeps me healthy. It keeps Nellie healthy, too. In fact, both she and her brother need good sleep as much as I need them to be good sleepers.
So please, fellow parents, cry-it-out! Without guilt or apology! Join me in loudly singing the praises of good old cry-it-out at every opportunity! Do it for yourself (yes, that’s an OK thing to do!). Do it for your kid — for your new baby and for the older one(s) who need and deserve a well-rested parent. For your friends who have listened to you complain about how tired you are for 16 weeks (or much, much longer) and are honestly sort of over it.
When I was fretting about trying cry-it-out with my first, many, many mom friends came out of the woodwork to give me some very enthusiastic advice. The piece of advice that has stuck with me and that helped me stay true through all of the screaming was from a friend with much older kids. She said that, in her observation, you either cry-it-out or you end up with a 6-year-old who can’t fall asleep unless they are laying next to you. This aligns with my own experience of watching my friends and friends of friends, and I bet if you ask around, yours does, too. So, polish up your bedtime routines, step aside and let that baby cry. Pop in some earplugs, brace yourself for some amount of screaming — possibly not even that much — and a good night's sleep. Prepare to wonder at what your sweet babe can already do all by themselves. Seriously! You can do this, and so can they.