How Crying Can Lead to Babies Sleeping

How Crying Can Lead to Babies Sleeping

A lot of times parents don’t understand how crying can ever lead to their baby sleeping. They think that they will certainly exhaust themselves and fall asleep that way, eventually, but what are they really learning?

This article is NOT about cry it out. There is a LOT in between helping your baby back to sleep every two hours at night and letting them cry it out. This article is discussing how crying can lead to sleep and why crying might be a necessary step in your baby learning how to sleep, even if you are right next to your baby.

Imagine you are learning to ride a bike. Your parents have put training wheels on your bike to stop you from falling. But now it’s time for you to learn how to ride your bike on your own. Your parents tell you it’s time to take the training wheels off, but they’re still holding you as you pedal down the street. All of a sudden, they ask you, “Are you ready for me to let go?” and you say, “I think so.” and they let go and you are off riding your bike all on your own. You look back and see your parent has let go of the bike. You freak out, fall down, and scrape your knee.

It scared you to think that your parent was no longer holding on to you as you rode your bike. You fell down because you lost your focus and confidence. You are scared and you never want them to let go again. Maybe you’ll just never know how to ride a bike by yourself.

At this point, your parent has three choices:

a) Put the training wheels back on.

b) Keep holding on to your bike while you ride up and down the street.

c) Let go again and hope this time you learn to ride on your own.

Having the age and wisdom, your parents know that you CAN ride a bike and all you need is practice and confidence. If they choose the third option, they can find a gentler way to teach you how to ride a bike. But, one thing remains the same. It is very difficult to learn to ride a bike without some spills. We parents want to cushion your fall as much as possible.

When it comes to helping your baby sleep, you might use “training wheels.” Training wheels can come in the form of a pacifier, rocking your baby to sleep, feeding your baby to sleep or any other sleep crutch. One day you may realize that it’s your fault your baby won’t sleep and it’s time to take the training wheels off. You have decided that what your baby once NEEDED to sleep, now it’s simply a crutch, hindering him from actually learning how to sleep well on his own.

There are endless sleep training or coaching strategies (are you sleep training a tortoise or a hare?). One thing that remains the same with all of them… It is difficult to convince your baby that she can sleep on her own without some crying, just like it’s difficult to learn to ride a bike without some falling. Does that mean you send your child outside to ride a bike on her own or let her cry it out all alone in her crib in her room? Not necessarily. Some people abruptly “let go” of the bike without telling their child (“ripping off the band-aid”) and others hold on for years, and know that, eventually, she will learn to ride a bike. Everybody parents differently and you should have confidence that your way is the right way for YOUR family.

Crying is part of the way babies communicate. She may have trouble finding that confidence that she CAN do this. Stay with her to encourage and support her through the transition, if you wish, but don’t keep “holding on” to avoid her crying. We all need to fall down sometimes to learn how to get back up. It’s part of growing up. Only you can decide the “right” time for her to learn to sleep on her own. I promise you that most of the time the first few nights are the worst and things can get ten times better after that.

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42 thoughts on “How Crying Can Lead to Babies Sleeping”

  1. Hi Nicole,

    Just a quick question. I have a four month old who is able to fall asleep as long as her soother is in her mouth, so early in the evening when she fusses I go into her room and put it back in her mouth. She sleeps for about 6 – 7 hours and then wakes up every couple hours and I usually feed her then she goes back to sleep. What I’m wondering is, how do I know if she’s really hungry or if she is just fussing? I wouldn’t mind letting her cry a little to learn to fall asleep on her own but I’m scared that she’s actually crying because she is hungry…

    Thanks for the great site and article!

  2. I liked the article and must admit I haven’t read through all of the discussion.

    Just in response to the suggestion that cry-out is a convenience thing: why would people let their baby cry for convenience? It’s the most heart-wrenching sound to bear ever!

    I guess we’ve been very lucky that our 4month old has always slept quite well and with the help of a dummy falls asleep by herself most days. Since I read the free advice downloaded from your site last weekend she has slept through the night every night from ca 7pm to 4.30am, and then till about 7am. So thanks a lot for that!!!

    On going to sleep with little help: I discovered early on that by just leaving the room – while she’s awake and quiet – she will just go to sleep, whereas when I stay and pick her up at the slightest little moan she will get more fretful and actually start to cry. I know this may be controversial by I wondered whether it’s sometimes us parents who have to dare to leave them and give them some peace and quiet? And whether we sometimes keep them awake and make things worse by overdoing the ‘helping to sleep’? I’d like to stress that I’ve never let her cry it out and I’ve always gone back in when there were any sign of distress. Like I say we may be incredibly lucky and I know it can be hard. After all I googled sleep problems at 4 months to find this site because it was suddenly getting harder to get her to sleep.

    Good luck everyone!

    PS: I had a home birth. Is it true, as I’ve been told, that having a home birth promotes baby sleeping well?

  3. Great post. I see there has been some issue with the link back to drug/alcohol abuse, I won’t touch that one.

    I think the general idea is to let parents know that crying is important. We were resistant to it for a long time. We finally did one night of cry out, after our daughter just couldn’t go back to sleep (after her usual middle of the night wake up) without us (this was about at 8mos). It was very painful for us, but she woke up like a fresh baby later that morning and ever since did very well with going back to sleep on her own.

    She then had a rough time with teething (4 teeth at once!) at just short of 1 year. So, at 25 pounds, I wasn’t about to keep holding her while she got comfortable with going back to sleep. So I put her down on the couch to sleep with me for a couple of nights. Big mistake. We had the same problem again. So one night, I just stayed with her while she cried, because now she can stand. And I just stayed with her and watched her fall asleep while she was crying and standing. I put her down and she cried for a minute (which always seems like an hour) and then she fell asleep. My dear sweet angel, it was ripping my heart out, but I knew I was doing the right thing for both of us. Ever since, she’s been so good about going back to sleep after her wake up. Yes, she still wakes up in the middle of the night. Just once. But we’ve been letting her cry herself back to sleep. It’s actually not as bad as it sounds. The first 30 seconds she cries pretty hard, but then afterwards she’s actually pretty calm and goes in and out of falling asleep. It takes about 40 minutes (just long enough to really wake us up), but she goes back to sleep. So, we’re getting there!

    I know it’s tough to hear your baby cry. I was crying during the first cry out session (and I cried at her first multiple immunization – just 2 – shots). But, it’s important to let them work things out on there own, even at this tender age.

    Good luck all!

    • @Julio Thank you for sharing your story!

      @Jeannette Thank you for chiming in! You sound like you are on the fortunate side, but I agree that sometimes parents do need to “let go” a bit. For some, it will be easy because their babies are “easier” and for others it will take a lot more work and timing it at the right age can be important, too. I have not read anything about home births affecting a baby’s sleep. I do believe a lot of it is just temperament and personality and some of it is just genetic. Continued luck to you!

  4. After reading your article, I decided to go and read the Wong paper to see the details of their study (linking adulthood problems to childhood sleep issues). Here is my take on it:
    The study uses a sample of “recruited a population-based sample of 311 alcoholic men, their partners (whose substance use disorder was free to vary), and their initially 3- to 5-year-old sons. The 3- to 11-year-old daughters in the families were also invited to participate after the study began. The majority of these girls joined the project between 6 and 11 years of age.”
    This is a very biased sample and I am not sure how any result from this study can be generalized to the entire population.
    To draw an analogy… I study a sample of graduates with degree in Indian folklore and find that most of them are unable to find a job… my conclusion… graduate degree does not help you get a job, or … graduate degree keeps you unemployed.
    There are several other problems with the study, but those are a little more technical and so I am going to leave them out of this comment. All I will say is that the study is definitely biased and probably flawed and its results are largely suspect.

    We have a small baby too and we used to look at this website as a source of intelligent and empathetic information. As it is we don’t understand what this obsession about sleeping through the night is…most kids with half decent parenting do sleep through the night at some point. Now if you want to keep scores and wave flags about when your child did this versus mine then it’s your problem. Most people seem to agree that every child is unique then why can’t we just let them be and let them grow at their rhythm and pace?

    And the next time you quote a research paper, it would be much appreciated if you took the time to read it critically – it would only help with your credibility.

  5. It was amazing and sad the first night that I put my son down and he fell asleep without me. Our usual routine was to change, rock, feed, and read. It would take a minimum of 30 minutes and most of the time much longer for him to fall asleep. One night, I just put him in his crib and the next second he was sound asleep. Now, when it’s bedtime, I just put him in his crib, kiss him goodnight and turn out the lights. Now, at 5 months, he’s asleep by himself in 5 mins and with no fussing.
    I was actually upset when he started sleeping by himself, but very pleased as well. It was one more step to his not needing me for EVERYTHING, but it was also a huge step for him to become the man he will one day be!

    • @Laurie It is bittersweet every step of the way that our babies don’t need us as much. Believe me, there will be many changes coming, not necessarily with sleep, but he will need you a LOT! 😀

      @Rahul Thank you for commenting. Sorry you were turned off by this article. I take many of these studies with a grain of salt. Most of these studies are with small samples and biased in one way or another, in my opinion. Same with the studies about cry it out and there really isn’t one that truly proves cry it out as damaging one way or another. That’s why I said that I didn’t really expect many of the babies whose parents read this site to fall into this high-risk group. On top of that, to point to any ONE thing as THE thing that leads to anything as in adulthood is difficult, which I say time and time again. Our baby’s personalities are very complex and a lot goes into them. Given the number of adult sleep aids out there, I do think there is merit to saying that adult sleep problems can be tied to the sleep habits you gain as a child, but no one knows for sure, and I don’t need any study to tell me how important my sleep or my kids’ sleep is to our family. The reason I quoted the study is mostly because it makes sense to me that if you are sleep-deprived you don’t always make the best judgment decisions and it would make sense to me that young adults would be prone to these mistakes (related to alcohol or otherwise), too. And, study or not, I do believe that adult sleep issues are most likely at least somewhat related to your sleep habits as a child. If you are a child who gets fragmented sleep for years, I do believe that can affect whether your sleep will be fragmented in the future. It is simply NOT true that all children will necessarily sleep all night every night. They might grow up and stop calling for you, but it doesn’t mean they are sleeping well.

      I don’t believe most of the parents I work with are “obsessed” with sleeping through the night so much as sleeping *mostly* during the night to the point of at least getting 6 hours of sleep in a row. Most of my parents will say something like “One feeding is fine, but I can’t keep getting up 5-6 times.” and I fed my own kids at night up through a whole year. I am the first to say that you might not get a perfect sleeper, but many people simply CAN’T function with getting up every 1-2 hours. It is normal for my son to sometimes have a nightmare and get up at night, but getting up every night every 1-2 hours might be common, but probably unnecessary. I only try to encourage people to take that very first scary step to make a change. That is often the hardest step to take.

  6. I have three kids the first is 10 second 4y3m the last is 1y5m old they all sleep well at night but they did not ever sleep in their cots they sleep with me till 3y before they start sleeping in their rooms but somehow agree with you that cry it out helps children sleep because during the day they find it hard to take a nap so when it’s time for that my daughters will cry the next they are asleep but if cuddle as they crying then you do not want them sleep,this method works very well so thank you very much for you time and effort in parents out i encourage parents to try all your methods and all use their God given

  7. My son is 1y10m. My daughter is 6. My daughter slept in my bed from the age of 10months (due to an illness) until 5.5y-o.From the day we moved to a new flat she was sleeping in her new room and in her new bed. She loves it. She does croll back in my bed sometimes in the middle of the night but she knows I am there so it does give her a sense of comfort. Regarding my son – he has been sleeping with me since he was 5m – we had no crib for him.When w moved to our new flat, I got a second hand crib for him and started having him sleep in the bed in the room with his sister. The first few nights he got curious and slept nicely in the crib. Then he understood that he was alone in bed and he started to get hysterical. I used to sit next to the crib or even sleep on the floor next to the crib. Then after I thought he was OK I woould leave him there – not crying – and 10 minutes after he would be in my bed. I tried to fight it but being a single mother I just decided to abandon it – he sleeps the whole night in my bed. I now noticed he wants to sleep in his sister’s big bed so I will try to get him a big boy bed and seemaybe that will do the trick. I just cannot have my son hysterical and throwing up because he is alone in his crib.
    I do however like the article but I do not agree with everything.

  8. What a great article, love the ‘learning to ride a bike’ analogy.
    I know every child is different, but we used a check-and-console cio approach when our daughter was almost 5 months old, to both break a newly formed pacifier ‘addiction’ and subsequent waking every 1-2 hours, as well as help her learn to put herself to sleep on her own. Until then she was either nursed or used a binky to sleep (and would when if it fell out).

    Like Janet, what convinced me, personally, that some crying wouldn’t hurt, was that REGARDLESS of circumstances, either in the car, the swing, and yes, most often being held by me rocking or in her sling, she would cry for 5-10 min before falling asleep anyway! The only thing that would prevent most crying (but not all fussing) was if her mouth was otherwise occupied with the binky. I figured if that was what she needed to blow off steam, then my presence wasn’t required, since it didn’t seem to make a ton of difference unless I nursed her down each time (which she would refuse sometimes, also!).

    The first night was tough, but the longest she cried was 15/20 min (about 3 check-ins from my husband). She was still up to eat 1 to 2x/night until almost 8 months, but we learned to tell if she was hungry or just disturbed, and she would lead us by skipping a feeding a few times before we were OK dropping it altogether. The pacifier was relegated strictly to naps, which was helpful until she was old enough to be on a more regular schedule and dropped her 3rd nap at just past 9 months. By then she was really great at going down on her own and no more binky was luckily not an issue – also because she found her thumb.

    Good luck to everyone still struggling!

  9. Thank you for this article. My 5 1/2 month old used her passy as a crutch (she struggled with reflux and it took us a while to get her on the right meds – the passy was the only thing other than nursing that soothed). Once her reflux was under control I noticed that she was not sleeping well because everytime her passy fell out of her mouth she cried. Finally, I decided to take it away and after a couple of nights she was doing much better and even sleeping better. Although, I notice that she still cries almost every time its time to go to sleep whether its for naps or bedtime. Since she was probably a month old she seemed to have to cry to get it all out before she would settle down and sleep and now she does the same thing in her crib. Some nights its not for long and others it can go on for a half an hour. I go in very frequently to reassure her and stroke her head and finally she will sleep. She still wakes at night at night usually only once and cries for as little as a few minutes up to half an hour, but we are getting there…I think!

  10. So many different opinions here and somehow I agree with all of them. I have a 6 month old and its been trial and error. When she was 1-4 months I never let her cry, I mean she cried and I was sprinting up the stairs swooping her into my arms and rocking, nursing, doing whatever I could to help her to feel better. Then I got tired! And more than that, I think she got tired, very tired. She needed more sleep. My rocking and soothing was keeping her awake I think. I found that if I just gave her an extra minute or two, she would be asleep. But of course, we both needed to be ready for that. My max. is 3 minutes for an extreme cry, 5 minutes for whimpering. I am always at the door peeking in to make sure she is not in distress (leg stuck out the crib, laying on her face, things like that). Like you say Nicole, it has to be what works for your family.

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