Many mothers have a polarizing reaction to these three words. It is easy to get cocky with one’s own success or ideas and we often want to thrust these standards onto other women. Women who have had success with the crying-it-out method may think that it is worth it to put in the work (by work, I mean crawling into the fetal position, praying baby would just give it up and go to sleep) and may even look down on mothers who aren’t “strong” enough to make these tough decisions. Other mothers who practice more of a baby-led approach may think that letting a baby cry it out is straight up cruel and border-line abusive. I am definitely a believer in letting a baby cry-it-out. But as I have grown and matured (hopefully!) and have been humbled by my four very different children. I now have a more understanding attitude toward baby-led moms and have even modified my crying-it-out method.
I don’t always like to weigh in on controversial topics because I don’t want other mothers to feel uncomfortable or offended by my parental decisions. Honestly, I don’t like other people to give their opinions on my personal decisions so I usually keep them under wraps for the most part. It’s no one else’s business, after all. Just by proclaiming what your position is on any topic with babies/kids can leave other mothers feeling judged or guilty as if they have done something wrong or they judge you for what you do. We all want what is best for our kids. We don’t have to emphatically defend what choices we have made like they are on trial. After all, we are all very different and our children are all very different so our parenting choices naturally vary. I wish I could just turn off the part in my brain that wants to place everyone in neat, explainable little boxes. Like if you are pro-home-birth, then you must think that doctors are evil and your kids probably co-sleep with you. Not true. Or if you happily get an epidural to avoid labor pain, you must also love giving your kids high fructose corn syrup and refer to the sharpie scribblings on your living room wall as your kids’ “art”. Also not true. Most people rarely fit into one all-encompassing category.
This post is all about the success I have had with letting a baby cry-it-out, what principles I follow, and times when I have had to adjust my expectations for different babies or different circumstances. Though this post is pro-crying-it-out, I want to be clear that it is aimed toward new moms who want to know that they will actually sleep again and also for moms who are struggling with night owl children and are desperate to find a solution. If you don’t let your baby cry-it-out and its working for you and your family, by no means feel that I am trying to convince you to rock the boat and do things my way. If you are offended already or are gearing up to be because you hate the practice of letting a baby cry-it-out, stick with me for a little longer!
What is crying-it-out? Letting a baby cry-it-out basically means to lay a baby down in their bed while they are still awake so they can learn to fall asleep on their own without being rocked to sleep, patted, or any other soothing action from a parent. Whether they lay in the bed while starring at the ceiling, scream their lungs out, or play, they have to learn how to fall asleep on their own. The idea is that they learn how to self-sooth.
What does it mean to “self-sooth”? When a baby self-soothes, they learn how to fall asleep on their own without a parent being present. Whether they cuddle a particular blanket, listen to a sound machine, suck their thumb, or let their leg drop on the bed making a soothing thumping sound (like my sweet Delly), learning how to fall asleep by themselves has huge advantages for the babies and the parents. Not only does it take some of the pressure off of me (I may have the time to rock a baby to sleep when I have one. But if I have three other kids running around, something has to give) but it also helps the baby to get the sleep they need without having to wait for me. If I let my kids pick out their own food, I am sure it wouldn’t make for a nutritional diet (I could also apply this to my husband). In the same way, why would I let a baby choose their sleep patterns? They need our direction even in this basic need. I am not leaving them to fend for themselves. I am just teaching them a valuable skill so everyone gets the sleep that we all desperately need.
Does “crying it out” actually work? My short answer is “yes”. But of course, its not a practice that stands on it’s own. It must be coupled with a few other principles. Its not a matter of just letting a baby cry until they fall asleep with no other thoughts as to why they may be crying. It needs to be planned out and have a routine in mind for which to aim your efforts. Having a bedtime ritual can still happen (and I would say that it should) all the while still teaching your baby to self-sooth. A routine of bath time, followed by a book, and a sweet cuddle with a lullaby is a great way to prepare your baby for sleep. But when the ritual is done, the baby goes to bed even if still awake. This alleviates the parent of the responsibility of jumping through hoops to get the kid to fall asleep. It also allows the parent to leave the room upright like a normal human instead of sneaking around the floor like a ninja snake (honestly, we’ve all been there. Am I right?). But life doesn’t always go like clockwork so be prepared for circumstances that can throw your baby off of the routine. When in a different environment like being at the in-laws house for instance, parents need to adjust their expectations.
The other day, a new friend of mine (we were still feeling each other out on where we land in parenting choices) expressed that she was having some difficulty knowing when her baby was hungry or sleepy and therefore was feeding baby when she cried only to have her fall asleep quickly into the feeding. She also mentioned that she missed having time to sit with her husband in the evening without having a baby in her arms. I poked around with a few questions, wondering if she wanted advice or just someone to empathize with her situation. Like I said, I usually keep a tight lip on my opinions unless someone asks for advice or a direct question of what I do. Somehow, she made it clear that she was open to suggestions. I gave her a few tips that I have found that worked for my kids and I recommended a book to her, Oh Becoming Baby Wise (Okay, if you hate this book and now want to stop reading, hang with me a bit more!) After reading the book and putting it into practice, she has told me that now her baby sleeps so well and everything is working like clockwork (as much as things ever do).
Because I have seen how passing on advice can really have a positive impact on another family, I have decided to break my usual silence regarding sleeping training (another scary phrase) to share with you what I have learned and what has worked for my family and myself.
I have found incredible comfort and ease of mind with this book. But it is most certainly a guide and not to be followed to a tee (which, I believe it says in the first chapter). If you think your baby is hungry, that is the best reason to break routine and feed your baby. I relied on this book a great deal with my first and have had amazing results. But when my second born came along, I realized that though Baby Wise still gives great advice and a great routine to aim for, I needed to adjust my expectations and my method a bit.
The main things I have gleaned from this book are:
1). Make sure baby gets full feedings and doesn’t fall asleep while eating. This should start from day one. The whole BW method works on a cycle of 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 hours long with the time starting at the beginning of a feeding (length varies on the age of the baby). Full feedings helps you as a mother know that your child is really full and that he/she can go the rest of the 2 1/2 – 3 hour cycle until next feeding. It is a huge comfort knowing that your baby isn’t upset because of hunger. Also, by keeping them awake during the feeding, it helps to ensure you don’t become a human pacifier that your baby relies on to fall asleep, if you are breast feeding. I had a newborn that decided to use me as a human pacifier and I was too sleep deprived to realize how long the feeding had been (three hours). Let me just say, sticking your nipple in a light socket may be less painful than nursing with sore nips. Its not worth it.
2). Follow a Feed/Wake/Sleep pattern: When it is time to feed the baby, wake them up (if the baby seems really sleepy, I will wait another 30 min) and feed them. Then let the baby have awake time even if it is only 5-10 minutes when they are just a few weeks old. When the baby shows signs of sleepiness or there is only 1 1/2 hours left of the cycle (I always want them to get at least an hour and half nap before the 3 hour cycle is up), lay baby down even when awake. Newborns usually go right to sleep. I practice this 3 hour cycle with babies that are older than 2 weeks old.
3). Be mindful of times of growth spurts and changes that may effect the routine. Babies are hungrier when going through a growth spurt, so feed them sooner or for longer. Also, as the baby develops, sometimes they start waking from their naps after only 45 minutes. This can be frustrating when you are used to the routine working. But babies are constantly changing. My rule is if they wake up crying, they are either super hungry or still tired. Most of the time, it has proven to be the latter. So back down they go until they wake up happy or if it is time for the next feeding.
4). Like in all things, consistency is the key. You can’t be super diligent every other day and expect to have good results. Your baby needs to know what to expect and you need to know what to expect from your baby. This will comfort the baby and help every day to have a peaceful flow. Guessing games as to why your baby is upset is one of the hardest things during the first year of a baby’s life because they can’t tell you what they need. It also helps when you don’t drag your kid to a million places every day. Traffic, long conversations, and little hold ups can throw your routine off and then the baby is either passed their point of hunger or tiredness. Establishing a strong routine will show you at what times getting out is do-able and where you can be flexible as the baby grows. Consistency, people! Its worth it a million times over.
**Side note: Sticking to a 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hour schedule may seem restricting, but it doesn’t last forever. And the benefits of full nights of sleep, and predictable days far out weighs the few months of small windows of time to do outings and other activities.
Keeping an opened mind/ just because something worked for baby #1, doesn’t mean it will work for every baby: My mom always says that if something isn’t working for everyone, it just isn’t working. This is so true. If you have a baby that refuses to sleep through the night, and mom basically never sleeps because of it, this isn’t working. If you have a baby crying it out every night, well passed the usual three to five day period of breaking a habit or starting a routine, then something isn’t working. If dad has to sleep in a different room because all the children have to sleep with mom, this isn’t working either. Anyone can muscle through for a certain period of time, but it can’t be the norm or it will cause too much stress on one individual and the whole family suffers. Its okay to admit something isn’t working. Every time I tell my husband that I am frustrated because such-n-such kid never/always does such-n-such, he asks what I have done to try to fix the problem. I think about it and usually the answer is I try the same thing over and over again with no change and I expect different results. Over-the-top-eyeroll. You would think I would have learned this lesson by now.
My second, Delano can create a habit after just one time of giving in to him. If I patted his bottom one time to help him go to sleep, he wanted it every time. He is 3 years old now, and if he is sick or something, and I lay next to him in bed to help him go to sleep, he will demand it the next three nights, usually. Also, when I let Del cry it out as a baby, he was much more determined to stay awake and wail than my first. We had a few long cries with Jenkins, but nothing like with Delano. I had to adjust.
So though I strongly believe in letting a baby cry it out, I have a new guideline that I have taken much comfort in. While I sleep train, I let my babies cry for 5 excruciating minutes. I go in and take about 1 minute to comfort them, make sure they don’t need a diaper change or feeding, and make sure nothing could possibly be hurting them (Mommas, you know how when your baby cries, and you get fixated on one thought like a strand of your hair is wrapped around their toe? Or a neighbor’s pet rattle snake must be biting the baby) When all is well, I lay the baby back down for another 5 minute crying session. I do this until the baby falls asleep or until the time is up for their next feeding. I can listen to my baby cry for this 5 minute period without becoming completely undone. I remind myself that they need sleep as much as they need food. Rest for a baby is so important, just as it is for all humans.
Even though I have four very different kids with four very different sleep habits, I can say (with humility) that having a routine to aim for and teaching my infants good sleep habits has been a tremendous reward for all of us. My kids all sleep 9-12 hours a night (and have since they were between 8 weeks and three months old) and have taken two hour (sometimes longer) naps twice a day when 6month to 1 year, and at least a 2 hour afternoon nap from 1 year to 3 years old (Pammy is 18 months old but going strong!)
With every kid, I have wandered away from sleep training only to realize that my world is falling apart with an unpredictable baby and lack of sleep. As soon as I fight to break bad habits and get the new one on a schedule, I see how nice life can be with four kids who all sleep well. I am a better mom when I am well rested and my kids get the benefit of their own sleep plus they get to wake up to a sweet, well rested mom.