Let Baby Cry It Out or Not? Advice from a Gentle Sleep Expert

baby girl is crying while standing in her crib

As parents and more specifically mothers, when we hear a baby cry, some part of us reacts on a physiological level (thanks, hormones!).

This happens involuntarily, like when our heart rate skyrockets when we hear a baby cry in a restaurant. Or, it can happen we hear a baby crying in her mother’s arms at a park and give her a look of solidarity and empathy. We’ve all heard it, and we’ve all dealt with it!

As a mom of three boys, ages 11.5, 6.5 and 2, I still get rattled when I hear a baby cry.

I’m also a Gentle Sleep Coach, but when I hear that cry, I still just want to swoop in and cuddle that baby up close! This is my mother’s instinct.

And yet…when it comes to sleep, there are so many opinions about crying.

As both new and experienced mothers, it can be very confusing to understand all of the different advice we receive (mostly unsolicited).

And the question that all of us have thought of at one point or another is, “do we let our baby cry it out?” In this article, I’ll use my expertise as a Gentle Sleep Coach to help you understand the Cry It Out Method (CIO) and why you might want to consider other options for helping your baby (and you!) sleep better.

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What Is the Cry it Out Method?

When we talk about (CIO),  what are we really talking about?

Does every baby have to do it at some point? Is there a correct age and way to do it?

If you’ve experienced the overwhelming exhaustion that comes from a baby who will only sleep when being held, or a toddler who wakes up multiple times a night needing to be rocked back to sleep, you’ve likely asked yourself these questions (probably multiple times).

The term CIO is really confusing for parents because, over the years, it’s come to mean different things, but in the infant and toddler sleep world, when we say CIO, what we mean is “extinction.”

Extinction is not actually as scary as it sounds. It simply means leaving a baby alone in their sleep space to cry until they fall asleep.

Dr. Marc Weisbluth’s CIO Advice

This idea of extinction is not a new idea–parents have been doing it for generations.

But in the late 1990s a Sleep Disorders Specialist at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, Dr. Marc Weisbluth, wrote a book called Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.

Weisbluth described the Cry It Out method as the best way to get your baby to fall asleep starting as early as 4 months old.

And that’s what many parents have done ever since, and for many families, it works.

Parents lay their baby down in the crib, turn off the light, close the door, walk out, and do not return until the morning.

These families see results in 1-3 nights. As a result, they often feel that the difficulty of hearing their baby cry for so long was worth it to get everyone’s sleep back on track.

Is CIO Harmful to My Baby?

But for many other parents that just doesn’t work, whether because they’ve tried it and it went on for several weeks without any improvement, or they knew that they wouldn’t feel comfortable letting their babies cry all by themselves with no parental support.

Although there is little research on what is happening to babies’ brains when they cry unattended for extended periods of time, the research that does exist shows us one important thing:

When babies cry unattended for extended periods of time, levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) rise in their brain and do not go back to normal, which means that these babies have a harder time controlling their body’s response to stress as they get older.

This isn’t to say that any unattended crying is dangerous to a baby.

Rather, long periods (1-2 hours/night) over several days or weeks with no improvement is where we have seen the most change in baby’s attachment to caregivers.

I worked with one family who had been letting their baby cry for several hours a night by the time they had begun working with me. They came to me for help because they began to notice that their baby boy was no longer making eye contact with them during the day and was uninterested in engaging in play with them.

When we started working together, the first thing we did was stop any sleep training. A shift in attachment often shows up after a period of time of using CIO because baby’s responses were not being met when they needed parents. Therefore, the baby no longer feels secure in their attachment to caregivers.

This shift in attachment can manifest itself in several ways:

  • a child avoiding eye contact,
  • refusing physical contact,
  • no longer smiling or engaging in a playful way with caregivers.

How Long Should You Let A Newborn Cry?

Newborn brains and bodies just aren’t developed enough to handle the potential hormonal and attachment disruption that can occur from letting them cry unattended.

This is one of the main reasons for avoiding prolonged unattended crying when trying to help your little one fall asleep, especially when they are under 6 months old.

Once a baby is about 3-4 months old, you can try letting them fuss for 5-10 minutes to see if they can settle themselves, but if not, I recommend picking them up and getting them to sleep however you can.

Until your child is 6 months old, it is normal for them to wake up once a night to feed. Many children often wake up 2-3 times a night until 3 months old.

This is typical and age-expected, and therefore it is not recommended to sleep train your baby by letting them cry themselves back to sleep when they wake up in the middle of the night.

Instead, you can pick one feeding time and stick to it, and before that try to gently get your baby back to sleep using one of the suggestions at the end of this article.

Using the CIO Method

If you decide to do CIO, consider the following:

  • how long your child cries each night,
  • how many nights they have cried,
  • and be sure to note any difference in their level of engagement with you or their overall attitude and energy

If there are no notable changes in these areas, and you find that everyone feels well-rested and happy, then you’ve found something that worked for your family.

If this is the case, there’s no need to feel guilt or worry about your child’s emotional development.

If, however, you have tried CIO, and it just doesn’t seem to be making a difference in your child’s sleep, then take a break for a few days.

You’ll want to spend time reconnecting with your child one-on- one, and then try some gentler strategies listed below.

When is Crying Okay?

As a Gentle Sleep Coach, I am often asked, “Will my baby cry a lot?”

I explain that I can never guarantee that a baby won’t cry because crying is the language babies use to tell us how they feel.

So when there is a change in routine or something is happening that they do not like, they will likely cry. Just as we would if we had zero emotional vocabulary.

I should also stress that there is a difference between unattended crying and attended crying, which is when parents are in the room to support baby while they are learning this new skill.

Research shows that, when parents are in the room and baby is crying while trying to fall asleep, the levels of cortisol do not rise as dramatically as when left alone.

It is for this reason that I recommend staying near your child while they are learning any new sleep skill.

It is ok to let your baby cry for 5-15 minutes to see if they can settle themselves and fall asleep. This is not considered harmful to baby, and realistically, we all need a bit of time to settle into sleep when we get into bed.

You do not have to jump up the second your baby cries to attend to them, but rather wait a little bit to see if they go back to sleep. Often babies will self-soothe and fall asleep.

Gentle Ways to Support Baby’s Sleep Development

However, if your child is really crying hard, and you know it’s because they are frustrated and not scared, then pick the baby up and try some strategies below:

For children aged 4-6 months, here are some gentle ways to support baby’s sleep development:

  • Practice placing baby in crib when she is drowsy but awake (calm but alert)
  • Develop a good bedtime routine at 4 months of age
  • Pat baby’s bottom (for belly sleepers only) to help them fall asleep
  • Rub/pat baby’s tummy
  • Make shushing noises
  • Sing them a song
  • Help them navigate their pacifier back to their mouth
parent's hand is placed on baby's tummy in gentle, loving way

For children older than 6 months:

  • Ensure the bedtime routine is 25-30 minutes
  • Keep the room dark and use a noise machine
  • Rock in chair
  • Read books
  • Place in crib drowsy but awake
  • Help soothe baby physically without picking up unless they are hysterically crying
  • Reassure them with your voice and words

Facts to Remember About Sleep Training

No matter what strategy you pick for sleep training, you have to be consistent for at least 5 nights to see if there are any changes.

And whenever there is any kind of illness, time change, vacation or any other disruption to their schedule, know that there will often be a slight setback. This is normal.

Just remember that you want to keep as much consistency in place as possible while also tending to your child’s needs.

A setback is easy to come back from, but sleep regression takes longer to sort out.

Don’t worry that if you travel, everything will fall apart; just be as consistent as you can!  When you return home, pick up baby’s sleep routine again, and take it from there.

Do you use the Cry It Out Method? Why or why not? We’d love to hear about your baby’s sleep routine!

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