This topic “How long to cry it out?” has come up a few times in the last few weeks in one way or another, so I thought I’d talk about it today. I always preface any discussion about cry it out by making sure that everyone understands that I’m not a “Cry It Out Pusher.” I’m very much NOT an extremist or a hard-core “sleep trainer.” I try to be realistic and just know that all babies are different. All family structures are different. What works for one won’t work for everyone. I even debated Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No Cry Sleep Solution, about this very topic, because while I think she has some good ideas, they simply will NOT work for all challenging baby types. I always respect a parent’s choices, and I don’t recommend cry it out for long-term co-sleepers.
If you are adamantly against cry it out, please do NOT do it! It probably won’t work, and you’ll just feel bad about it. I always work with parents on helping their baby sleep with as few tears as possible. Why? Because who wants their baby to cry? We all do what we can to limit our baby’s tears and as a sleep consultant for 15+ years, I understand that. My son’s sleep struggles are still very near and dear to my heart. I pretty much relive them every day in every consultation. I very much remember where you probably are right now.
How long do you cry it out if you do choose that path?
First, make sure your baby is at an appropriate age for cry it out, he is no longer swaddled, and if you are feeding baby on a schedule that you have set a realistic schedule. One thing that I can’t emphasize enough is… Please don’t make your baby go hungry if she still needs night feedings. One thing that really does make my heart hurt is hearing about letting a two-month-old cry throughout the night to avoid two feedings, which is hardly a “sleep problem.”
Another reason I recommend exhausting all other methods before trying cry it out is that you must be 100% committed to cry it out for it to really work. So, typically, I recommend that you feel like you’ve “tried everything” first. If you let your baby cry for a set length of time and then you “give in,” you have basically set a precedent and he will cry that long (or longer) next time (if there is a next time). Many babies respond well to non-crying methods (highly depends on your baby’s temperament). Only a small percentage of my clients really have to go full-blown cry it out, so make sure you’ve truly given it your all on the other methods.
What if your baby won’t stop crying?
Once you 100% commit to cry it out, there really isn’t a length of time that you really stop, when you’re working on nights. (Though you want to limit nap time crying.) The goal is for your baby to fall asleep without said sleep association. Every parent will need to decide what is “too long.” I recommend deciding that before you start, if possible. Having a plan (do you visit or not, how long between visits, do you stay in the room, etc.) is of utmost importance so everyone is on the same page and will stick to it. Once you decide to stop said association, it can’t really be an option to change your mind, otherwise, you go backward and might even make things worse.
Many people against cry it out will paint a picture that cry it out is cruel because a baby can’t communicate what she needs. This is true, to an extent, in that you can’t ignore all your baby’s cries and I would never recommend that. That’s irresponsible parenting. My argument is that if you give your baby a pacifier ten times per night and that’s all she “needs” then you know why she’s crying. Does that mean you give your baby everything just because she cries? Not to me. If it had, my son would not have sat in a car seat for his first year of life. Your baby only thinks she needs a pacifier to sleep because that’s all she’s known. It doesn’t mean she can’t learn a new way to sleep. Enter…the parent.
Are you done now?
Down the line, after initial “sleep training” is over, does this mean you never go in to your baby at night? ABSOLUTELY NOT!! We all do pretty crazy things to get our baby to sleep, but when you’re ready to make a change, it’s important to commit to your plan of action. Whether you succeed in finding a no crying sleep method or try cry-it-out, babies are destined to change. Cry it out is NOT a cure-all and it doesn’t mean your baby won’t need you during an illness, when she’s getting new teeth, growth spurt, etc., so it doesn’t mean never go to your baby or use your instincts. It also doesn’t mean that cry it out “didn’t work.” because your baby needs you at night for something.
In my opinion, there is a right and wrong way to approach “sleep training.” If you’re doing cry-it-out, it might take you a few nights or a couple of weeks. Do expect things to pop up and change on you. They will. Just remember, that cry it out won’t change your baby’s personality. There is no proof that cry it out is harmful, not even by Harvard. It’s not always clear when you’re done sleep training. Most importantly, remember that being a parent is an everyday challenge.