Can I just start by saying how much I hate the phrase “cry it out” (CIO).
Did I sleep train my kids?
But did I neglect and let them cry for hours without meeting their needs? Absolutely not.
Are you considering sleep training? This is the post for you.
Let me start with some of my personal journey that led me down this path and then I’ll explain [contrary to some of those crazy articles out there] why you’re an amazing parent.
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When I brought Ry (my first child) home from the hospital, I had this dream that I would be one of the lucky ones that would have a great sleeping baby from the start.
Many of my friends had stories about how their babies slept through the night at starting at 6/7/8 weeks. I listened to all the advice: don’t hold the baby for naps, make sure you start a bedtime routine, swaddle tightly, put the baby down awake… and I honestly did my best to listen carefully and perform it all.
As you may know, I own my own business, and contrary to popular belief that doesn’t mean I get to take off as much time as I want. I have bills to pay, employees who expect paychecks, and a business that needs to be run. I was very fortunate to have family close by that was able to watch him (which was such a blessing because he was so young).
On my first day back to work, my business partner asked if I was exhausted. I said yes because I thought I was.
Honestly, I didn’t know yet what exhausted meant. Those early days I was still fueled by adrenaline. I still had all the excitement of the new baby, trying to figure out my new relationship with my husband, adjusting to taking care of a house with tons of baby items and clothes, and catching up with all the things I’d missed after being out of work for 5 weeks.
My brain was always running on overdrive, and it was keeping me charged.
Fast-forward to when baby Ry was about 4 months old. NOW I discovered the true definition of exhaustion.
I was literally falling asleep on my desk at work, being snippy with my mother-in-law when she came over to watch my son, fighting my husband over every little thing, and getting frustrated with my baby when he wouldn’t let me take a shower in the morning. I definitely wasn’t being a good wife or mother.
Don’t get me wrong… I loved being at work, I loved being a wife, and I loved being a mom – but I didn’t like myself and what I was becoming.
Do you get the picture? Do you see how I reached the decision that something had to change?
Maybe this situation sounds familiar to you, or maybe you decided from the start you wanted to sleep train. Or just maybe you’re still trying to decide IF you want to sleep train. Let me encourage you to feel confident in your decision to help your baby sleep better, and dispel some of the myths out there.
There is no research out there that had proved that CIO will cause permanent (or even temporary) damage to your child.
Yes, there are these “scare-tactic” articles that claim they are based on science. These might sound like they’re from reputable sources, but do your research, just because something is called “The Super Scientific Doctor Magazine” doesn’t mean it’s reputable. They usually talk about how crying produces the stress hormone cortisol and that large amounts can damage neurons.
But do you know what else produces large amounts of cortisol?
Crankiness from sleep deprivation.
Some babies don’t sleep through the night until 2 years old – that’s a lot of time for the cortisol to build up. Crying from sleep training is usually less than a week.
Are attachment disorders real things that children develop? Unfortunately, yes. But remember that these are generally in cases where the children have been abused and/or neglected. CIO is not abuse or neglect when executed properly with care. If you’re taking the time to read this post, you are a loving parent and your child is not at risk of developing an attachment disorder.
I mentioned before about reputable research – so let me talk about the study that came out in 2012 that was published by the freaking American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Now THAT is a reputable source of research in my opinion.
While short pieces had been previously published about the short-term effects of sleep training – this was a long-term study (over 5 years of data, in fact). You can read the summary from the AAP’s website here or listen to me paraphrase it.
This randomized trial followed 7-month-old infants who had sleep issues until they were 6 years old to see if sleep training had any long-lasting effects on their “mental health, stress levels, the child-parent relationship, or maternal mental health”. Eligible babies were divided into groups that either (1) performed no sleep training, (2) used a technique called “camping out”, and (3) used a technique called “controlled comforting”.
They checked up on the families at different intervals over the years and the overall conclusion was that sleep training techniques were safe for the child, mom, and child-parent relationship as there are no long-lasting negative effects OR benefits at age 6.
Did you catch what I said in that last sentence?
There were no negative effects OR benefits in children who had sleep training at an early age when they were assessed at age 6.
Why is this important? Because it says that no matter what you do your child is going to be just fine.
Now of course you can take this however you want to. Do you want to cuddle your baby all night long for the first 3 years of their life and never get any sleep for yourself? Great! Your baby will be fine. Do you want to sleep train at 6 months old so you can get more than 3 hours of sleep at a time? Great! Your baby will be fine.
Obviously for me, I chose the latter.
Your Baby Doesn’t Need to Eat During the Night
There is some discrepancy on exactly when babies no longer need to feed during the night. Ferber claims 3 months, some pediatricians say 4 months. However if you want to be conservative, you can safely assume that your baby no longer needs to feed at night at 6 months old.
At 6 months they are getting all necessary nutrients during their day feedings. One quick important note, “sleeping through the night” is considered 6-8 hours of continuous sleep, NOT 12 hours straight.
You may be asking: “If they don’t need to eat, why is my baby still waking up?” Many infants at this age don’t know HOW to put themselves back to sleep. They rely on the comfort of the parent (whether it be rocking, nursing, singing, etc.) to help relax them back to sleep.
Remember how I said some pediatricians say babies don’t need to night feed after 4 months old? Well here’s one: award-winning pediatrician Dr. Scott W. Cohen, father, and author of the amazing book Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year.
I know, I know – there are TONS of baby books out there, but this one was different than those others I had but didn’t read.
First of all, it’s organized really well so I could look up items as I needed them. Who has time to read a whole book with a newborn baby? Second, it’s written by a pediatrician – that’s a source to trust in my opinion. Third, it’s an easy and funny read as he talks about things from two perspectives – as a pediatrician and as a new father.
Anyway, I digress. There were a lot of things I liked about this book, but in particular today we’re going to talk about the sleep training section. He recommends the ideal age to start sleep training is between 4-6 months for a variety of reasons, but one of them was that by this time babies no longer need their night feeds.
Still not convinced? I wasn’t either. So I decided to test it.
In my research about sleep training, I also came across the book Twelve Hours’ Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old: A Step-by-Step Plan for Baby Sleep Success.
Honestly, I read it mainly because I liked the title and love fantasizing about 12 hours of consecutive sleep. I didn’t agree with a lot of aspects in this book, but it did have some very helpful tips for getting your baby ready for sleep training. Specifically, weaning off of night feeds.
A few days before Ry turned 6 months, I decided it was a perfect time to attempt to wean off the night feeds. He wasn’t sick or teething and we didn’t have anything crazy coming up on the calendar that would alter his sleep schedule.
I started by timing how long he nursed one night and found that most of the late night nursing sessions lasted an average of 9 minutes. The next night, I watched the clock as I nursed, cutting him off after 8 minutes, then 7 minutes, etc. And still the next night, I continued to decrease the amount of time I nursed him at night.
I did this until I would literally latch him and immediately remove him and rock him back to sleep without feeding him. And you know what? Turns out that pediatrician was right – he didn’t need to eat at night after all. Because let me tell you when babies are hungry they won’t go down without a fight.
After weaning off the night feeds, my hope was that Ry would automatically realize he didn’t need to eat and start sleeping better on his own.
Alas, that didn’t happen. But it did prove to me that he was waking up for comfort, not out of hunger.
Believe It or Not, Not All Crying is Bad
We can all safely agree that one cry is good, if not essential, for babies – the very first cry directly after birth. Many mothers can recount what a relief it is to hear that first sound announcing your baby’s arrival.
From a medical standpoint, this cry is important for the transition to life outside the womb. It allows the baby to breathe in and take in air as the lungs open.
Because of that fact, an old wives’ tale was created saying that you should let babies cry because it’s good for their lungs. Now that myth was disproved in the 1970s, and while I feel it’s a stretch to say crying is “good”, I do feel you can safely say that not all crying is completely bad.
As your child grows up, there are multiple instances where pediatricians encourage you to let your child cry.
During the newborn stage, doctors say if a parent is exhausted you should put your baby down in their crib and walk away (for the parent’s sanity, not the newborns).
Around 9 months, babies start to develop the controversial “fake” or “manipulative” cries. These cries are fake in that the babies aren’t hungry/in pain/tired, but that they are seeking attention from a caregiver. It’s accepted during this stage that you can calmly tell your baby you are busy at the moment (cleaning off the highchair tray, attending to another child, etc.) but will be there soon.
Then shortly after their first birthday until roughly 18 months, the bad separation anxiety starts to kick in. While it might be tempting to sneak out when dropping them off with a family member or at daycare, the recommended procedure is to say, “Goodbye, I love you. Have a nice day”, turn around, and walk away. The tears end just a few seconds after you’re out the door, and staying longer can actually make it worse.
Then come the “terrible twos” and the “threenager” years. Unfortunately, sometimes there’s not negotiating with a toddler, and the only option is to let them cry when they’re having a tantrum. We all need to shed emotional baggage sometimes.
As you can see from above, sometimes crying is “good” for the baby in the sense that it has a purpose: it teaches them important skills they need to grow and develop emotionally. Now this doesn’t automatically translate to all CIO is “good” for baby, but I would argue there are sometimes this is absolutely true.
A few nights ago, my daughter (12 months) woke up around 3:30 am crying. This was really rare for her, as after sleep training she generally wakes up between 5:30-6:00 am.
Also unlike her, I could see on the video monitor that she was laying down tossing and turning (as opposed to standing up like she normally does when she wakes). After a few minutes, I went in to console her.
My daughter went from crying to screaming when I opened the door and she saw me. I tried to rub her back but she only screamed harder. I picked her up and she continued to wail. Finally, after what felt like an eternity (probably around 5 minutes), she succumbed to exhaustion and fell back asleep.
In those minutes while I was holding her, swaying around the room, I was thinking about the situation at hand. I realized that she hadn’t actually been awake when she was initially crying, just fussing in her sleep. Me opening the door had woken her up and apparently severely pissed her off. So would letting her cry initially have been the better thing to do? I would argue yes.
I’ve seen a baby’s limbs caught between the slats of the crib and had time to correct it before they wake up hysterical.
You can watch to make sure they’re not climbing out of the crib, check to see if they’ve fallen asleep for their nap yet, and even just watch them sleep in all the cute positions. I had one like this. I even have two cameras so I can move them around! Can’t recommend enough.
So yes, I sleep trained both my kids. And yes, the first week was tough (mostly the first day or two). But by the following week I had the gift of hindsight.
I didn’t at all feel that I neglected my baby, or that I had been cruel. I made sure all of his needs were met. During the day when he was hungry he was fed, when he was bored he was entertained, and when he was hurt he was comforted.
At night, he quickly realized he wasn’t any of those things, just tired. Up until then he relied on me to help him get to sleep, but sleep training allowed him to do it on his own.
I know babies are only this little once, but I preferred enjoying those snuggles during the day when we were all at our best. Not in the middle of the night when we’d all rather be sleeping.
I know it’s not for everyone, but I just want to say that it’s OK if you decide it’s right for your situation. And no matter what decision you make, rest assured you’ve made the right one for your family. Stick with it, don’t question yourself, and be consistent.
Not convinced on sleep training? Read Rachel’s post about how it isn’t the only option.