Say the phrase “cry it out” to parents in a conversation about baby sleep and you’ll probably get one of two very different reactions: horror or begrudging acceptance. The cry-it-out method of sleep training can be a controversial one in the world of baby sleep, but as Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and author of Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor’s 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10, explains, there are (fortunately!) different ways of teaching your child to sleep that don’t involve endless bouts of crying.
Read on for more about the cry-it-out method, why it might not mean what you think it means, and why there are versions of sleep training that involve far fewer tears.
What is the Cry-It-Out (CIO) Method?
Sleep training is essentially teaching your child to fall asleep (and stay asleep) without assistance. The cry-it-out method is a particularly well known sleep training method that is involves letting your infant cry until they calm down themselves or fall asleep — without any intervention from you.
However, part of the confusion with the cry-it-out method of sleep training is that it can mean different things to different parents, Schneeberg points out. To some people, the cry-it-out method evokes images of locking them alone in a room and letting the child cry until they exhaust themselves to sleep.
To others, it means a more subdued method of checking on your baby, comforting them when needed, but allowing a few sniffles as they learn how to teach themselves to go to sleep. Both are actual methods that some parents have employed, but Schneeberg notes that for most parents, the whole leaving-your-baby alone to scream scenario would never be acceptable, so there is a more gentle method that she recommends called “Check and Console.”
(More on that later.)
Why is Cry-It-Out Controversial?
The cry-it-out method is controversial because some parents find the practice cruel, while others who have felt the extreme impact of sleep deprivation (been there!) know that not getting enough sleep is also a form of cruelty to both parent and child. Proponents of the method say that one night of crying may be all it takes for better sleep, while others contest that the baby’s reduced crying is not actually a sign of improvement, but one of the child “giving up” on efforts to reach a caregiver.
Clear studies on the cry-it-out method are also not widely available because the method can be a hard one to study; every baby and family is different, feeding and sleep methods vary, and as mentioned previously, a standard definition of what “cry it out” means does not exist. But at least one 2020 study in the Journal of Child Psychiatry noted that no adverse effects seem to be linked to the cry-it-out method, even when employed as early as 3 months old.
Ashley Thompson, Certified Infant & Toddler Sleep Consultant and owner of Play Sleep Grow, LLC, adds that the majority of research available does not support any long-lasting or adverse effects of the extreme version of cry it out, often called the extinction method. However, she notes that many families are just not comfortable employing extreme cry-it-out methods. Additionally, as additional sleep training methods have gained traction and credibility, most professionals will recommend a gentler approach.
Schneeberg explains that it can be helpful to simply look at why sleep training can be challenging from a baby’s perspective — abruptly changing the way they are used to falling asleep (such as switching to crying it out abruptly) can be confusing and upend any progress in the sleep department. Whenever possible, a more gradual and consistent approach tends to be much more effective, though Schneeberg cautions parents against using any soothing methods they’d rather not employ all throughout the night when putting their babies down to sleep.
“Whatever a child needs to fall asleep is what they need to get back to sleep,” she adds. “So if they need to be nursed, or rocked or bottle fed or walked around, then they need that again when they wake up.”
When To Start Or Stop Sleep Training With CIO
Schneeberg recommends parents start sleep training with any method — including cry-it-out, if that’s your chosen method — around the time their baby turns six months old for two reasons: 1) the six-month mark is when a baby’s circadian rhythms start to settle into a more consistent pattern, mirroring an adult’s and 2) at six months, most babies who are developing and growing at a normal rate do not have a physical need to eat overnight.
”Around the six-month mark, a child does not need to eat during the night for any physiological reason,” Schneeberg elaborates. “But they might need to eat during the night for a learned reason, and this learned reason is that they’ve always been fed to sleep.”
Thompson adds that from her experience, what’s equally as important as ensuring your baby is physically capable of sleeping through the night without eating is that you as the parent are ready too. “The best time to sleep train is when both you and your baby are ready,” she says. “This is because successful sleep training requires you to be confident and consistent, two things that will be very hard to come by if you aren’t ready.”
There’s no set time that you have to stop the cry-it-out sleep training method either; you may choose to use sleep training later as your baby goes through different sleep regressions or gets older and needs some additional retraining.
How To Do The Cry-It-Out Method
The key to sleep training using any method, Schneeberg explains, is understanding that the goal is to get your child to teach themselves how to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. If your child is used to a long elaborate routine of nursing, having their back rubbed, or rocking to fall asleep, it may take some gradual steps to eliminate each habit until your child can fall asleep on their own without you.
“Your job as a parent is to figure out how to help your child learn how to fall asleep more independently,” says Schneeberg. “And that’s hard to accomplish without some protesting or tears because you’re asking the child to learn to fall asleep in a new way.”
That being said, however, she adds that sleep training — even if your child is used to different ways of falling asleep — doesn’t have to involve long, drawn-out periods of crying. It may involve short periods of protest crying, but hours of tears? Not necessary.
Check and Console Sleep Training
The method that Schneeberg recommends is called “Check and Console” and may involve some crying. But more importantly, it gradually teaches self-soothing so your child can learn to fall asleep without you. Check and Console involves a few different steps:
- Step 1: Create a consistent routine that does not end with feeding. If you don’t have a bedtime routine yet, you can design one. But the crucial part is, the routine cannot end with feeding and especially not with feeding to sleep.
“Never put feeding as the last thing in the routine because then the child has a feeding-to-sleep association, and they will need to feed to get back to sleep,” Schneeberg explains. Instead, she recommends the following bedtime routine: feeding, diaper change, singing a song or looking at a book, then laying the baby down fully awake in their crib.
- Step 2: Leave the baby. This might be hard to get used to, but the next step in sleep training is to walk away from your fully awake baby in their crib. Remember, the goal is to get them to fall asleep independently, so that means you’ll need to provide less help.
- Step 3: Check and console as necessary. Inevitably and especially when you first start sleep training, your baby will probably cry a bit after you leave them. This is when the “check and console” portion of the training kicks in. If your baby is crying, you can check on them and console them, but try not to rock, hold, or feed them. “Just try to provide your calming presence,” says Schneeberg.
Cry It Out Sleep Training
If you choose to do cry-it-out sleep training, the first two steps are the same as the Check and Console method. The only step that will vary is Step 3, because you can choose any interval that you would like to let your baby cry before checking on them, consoling them, or simply reassuring them that they are okay without you.
Some parents may choose to let their baby cry for longer periods of time right away, while others will choose short intervals that become longer over every night. The choice is up to you!
How Long Should You Let Your Baby Cry It Out?
There isn’t a universally agreed upon amount of time to let your baby cry when sleep training, though many experts suggest starting small, with three, five, or ten minute intervals. The important thing is not how long your baby cries, but to refrain from using your old habits to get your baby to sleep.
“If we revert to our previous way of getting our baby to sleep after X number of minutes of them crying, then all we will do is reinforce the crying rather than allow them the opportunity to develop their own independent sleep skills,” explains Thompson. “In the methods that I use with my families, I do have parents respond at regular intervals, but there is no maximum amount of cry-time for the same reason — we don’t want to confuse baby.”
Instead of a set time, Schneeberg encourages parents to choose a “check in interval” that they are comfortable with. “You can check on them every five minutes or you can check on them every 15 minutes,” she says. “It’s really a parental preference.”
Schneeberg also suggests using a video monitor to check in — especially if parents will be tempted to pick their baby up while physically in the room.
Should You Use Cry-It-Out For Naps?
You can use whatever sleep training method you employ at bedtime for naptime as well, says Schneeberg. Just remember, the goal is to lay your child down fed, with a dry diaper, happy, and awake.
Does Cry-It-Out Work?
Sleep training is effective, says Schneeberg. And not only is it effective, but it can work as quickly as a few days to a week. If you’re using cry-it-out sleep training specifically, it can also work within a few nights; however, it’s important to remember that every baby is different and different methods may take more time. One study that looked at crying it out found it to be most effective after 6 weeks.
A Good Bedtime Routine for Baby
A consistent bedtime routine is crucial for sleep training, says Thompson, because routine and cues help kids – even young babies – learn new skills. “I recommend developing a bedtime routine that is calming, consistent, and concise,” she adds. “A bedtime routine should be calming so that it helps baby to unwind. Our crazy days can be overwhelming and overstimulating for us, and even more so for our babies.”
Thompson recommends the following tips for creating a positive bedtime routine for your baby:
- Use tools like gentle music, dimmed lights, and soothing scents. “These can help prepare our babies’ bodies and minds for sleep,” she says. Additionally, be sure to turn off screens at least one hour before bedtime and optimize the sleep space with tools like white noise and room-darkening shades.
- Be consistent. Do the same activities in the same order and the same way every night. “When we do the same activities the same way in the same order every night, they become cues for our babies’ brains to know what to expect next, which, in this case, is sleep!” notes Thompson.
- Keep it concise. The whole bedtime routine should take around 30 minutes, according to Thompson. Any longer, and you run the risk of bedtime becoming just another event in your baby’s day instead of a cue. Additionally, she adds that it could extend your baby’s wake window too long, leading to them becoming overtired, which will further sabotage efforts to get their brains and bodies ready for sleep.
Are There Alternative Sleep Training Methods To Cry It Out?
There are other sleep training alternatives to the cry-it-out method. Some methods may take more time and you may need to experiment with different methods to find the one that works best for your family. You can check out Sleepopolis’ Ultimate Sleep Training Guide to find the best method for you and your baby.
The Last Word From Sleepopolis
It might be helpful to remember that sleep is a skill that your baby can be taught, so it’s no different than other challenging parts of parenthood.
There is no right method of sleep training that will work for every family, but for babies who are over six months of age or older and developmentally able to go overnight without eating, sleep training can be a positive step towards healthier and happier nights — and thus, days — for both you and your baby.