Your baby doesn’t have to cry it out
Before my child was born, I just assumed that I would sleep train, that my baby would cry it out (CIO).
In fact, conventional wisdom had me convinced that this was necessary. Then, I had my son.
I threw out my baby-sleep-game-plan and was lost. As my sleep debt escalated, I started to panic.
If I don’t want to let him cry, what do I do? How do I get this kid to sleep through the night? Am I doomed to never sleep again?
I felt like a failure as a mom: too weak to teach my baby to self soothe, too soft to let him cry, and too tired to fight this nightly battle.
I started to do some research on no-cry sleep training methods and was surprised to find so many anti-CIO resources.
I read different theories and started to feel a bit better about my decision. Just knowing that I was not only not alone in my feelings, but that there was actually support for this decision, was invaluable. It was a reminder to be true to my instincts and a boost when I needed the confidence.
When it comes to baby sleep, I don’t think there is a one size fits all solution.
I won’t judge a mom for doing what she feels is best to get a bit more shut eye.
(Seriously, I understand exactly why sleep deprivation can be used as a form of torture…)
I don’t expect to convince you not to sleep train, just to offer some support for the moms who choose that route.
Just because your friend/aunt/mom/check-out clerk/bitchy coworker used CIO for their baby doesn’t mean you have to also or even that it will work for you like it did for them. Your job as mom is to figure out what works best for you and your family.
So first, let’s tackle my original hurdle, that sleep training was the “normal” thing to do.
In regards to human history, the idea of sleep training is relatively new and pretty much limited to Western culture.
From what I could find from some quick googling, it emerged somewhere after the industrial revolution likely correlating with changes in family units, housing, and living arrangements. So for the first few million years of humanity, most likely mothers slept in close proximity to their babies and tended to their nighttime needs, as is still done in many parts of the world.
“Normal” is relative.
That said, it is “normal” for babies to wake up at night.
I’m sure plenty of people have told you that your baby should be sleeping through the night or that their baby was by that age.
The thing is, babies aren’t meant to sleep through the night. The “good” sleepers are not actually the norm.
In fact, according to this study in Australia, only around half of 1 year olds sleep through the night.
Thinking that your infant needs to be sleeping through the night is not realistic because babies sleep differently than adults.
Babies sleep lighter and with shorter sleep cycles which means that they wake up more easily and more often.
This is actually a good thing. Not only is it important because they have small tummies so they need to eat often, but it is also essential for their brain development.
Related Bedsharing: Pros, Cons, & How to do it Safely Baby sleep cycles are about 50-60 minutes, as opposed to adults which are 90-100 minutes.
They also have less complex cycles and spend about half the time in active sleep or REM sleep (from which you are more easily awoken) and half in deep sleep. This is important because research suggests that babies need this REM sleep to process all of their rapid growth and development.
If you have ever held your baby until they fell asleep only to have them wake up when you set them down, it was because they were in active sleep.
While to the exhausted parent this seem like nature’s cruel joke, it is actually a good thing because babies who are more easily aroused are at a lower risk of SIDS.
Don’t feel bad if you kid isn’t sleeping through the night by some arbitrary time point.
It is not an issue of your parenting skills or feeding habits or that you’re spoiling your infant or whatever other well-intentioned-but-misguided thing people say to exhausted parents.
Your baby is just being a normal baby.
And like a normal baby, when they do wake up at night, they’re going to cry.
Generally, babies cry for a reason.
At least for my son, I’m convinced this is true. He was generally a pretty happy infant and his cries meant something.
Was he hungry, wet, uncomfortable, tired? Maybe he wants to cuddle, be close to mom, or comfort nurse? I’m definitely not saying I could always figure it out or even that it would have been something I could have logically understood.
So many people told me that my baby was manipulating me by crying.
It sounded to me that they were saying he was being underhanded or deceiving by crying because he didn’t need something. But I couldn’t believe that at all.
First of all, crying is literally the most effective, if not the only, way a baby can communicate.
Perhaps he did not NEED to eat at 2am, maybe he just wanted some snuggles, he still only has one way to bring that to my attention.
Secondly, even in that instance, I want to be there for him as well. I didn’t want to ignore his desire for comfort or closeness even if it doesn’t seem like a true “need”.
Finally, I think that using the term manipulating is way over estimating an infant’s cognitive capabilities.
Yes, he knows that if he cries I will come, I actually want him to know that, but to think that he is trying to “trick” me by crying is not developmentally appropriate.
It also seems kind of sad to project such a negative perspective onto a baby. He’s not waking me up in the middle of the night to be jerk or push me to the edge of insanity.
He’s being a baby.
While it would be nice if my baby could just be reasonable and calmly tell me what he wants, we all know that’s not possible.
Until he’s able to use words, he’s really only got one option to communicate any want, need, or complaint and it didn’t feel right to me to try to ignore this.
It is natural for a mom to want to respond to her baby’s cry.
If I’m being honest, my initial decision to avoid “cry it out” was as much or more for my own well-being as for my child’s.
Obviously, I know that no one likes to hear the sound of crying, so trying to explain how his cries affected me seems like poor excuses.
Feel free to call me weak, but the anxiety I felt listening to him cry was too much. I felt like there was something wrong with me, until I looked into it a bit more.
It isn’t just a coincidence that the sound of a baby crying is unbearable, biology has designed it that way.
A mom’s actual body changes to be attuned to their infant’s cry. Hormonal changes that start in pregnancy and continue through postpartum cause physical changes and affect activity in a mom’s brain.
At the risk of getting a bit science-y, the hormone oxytocin is likely in part to blame for the torture you feel listening to your baby cry. Oxytocin is linked to childbirth, lactation, and maternal bonding. If your breast ever leaked when you heard your baby cry, blame oxytocin.
There is a lot of research on oxytocin, so I’ll just mention a few examples:
- Here is pretty extensive review of literature regarding bonding using a lot of scientific jargon, but we’re busy moms so the gist is that oxytocin increases when moms see, hear, smell, or touch their baby.
- This study suggests that oxytocin changed the way sounds were processed in mom mice brains making them attuned to their pup’s cry and attending to them.
- Another research study showed changes in moms’ brains postpartum by increased grey matter volume. Researchers noted that these physical changes seemed correlated with the mother’s reporting the more positive feeling about their baby. More positive feelings = more grey matter.
- Other studies have noted that looking at photos of their baby activates the reward centers of a mom’s brain. These areas of the brain also have lots of oxytocin receptors, so the whole system just works together.
Now none of the research I mentioned above was about sleep training. All of that really just explains why it is miserable to listen to your baby cry.
Nature made us that way. We are biologically hardwired to respond to our baby. Why fight biology?
If you’re breastfeeding, night feedings are good for your supply
Breastfeeding moms know that it is a supply and demand system, in fact, many of us become semi-obsessed with maintaining/increasing our supply.
The more baby nurses the more milk you make.
Going long stretches without expressing milk, especially early on, will impact supply. Many moms notice a decrease in milk supply when their baby begins sleeping through the night. Some moms go as far as to set an alarm to pump at night to combat this drop.
When I went back to work after my maternity leave my son’s sleep got worse. He drank less milk at daycare and woke up more often to nurse.
This is actually not uncommon, it is referred to as reverse cycling.
Good news – this is great for your milk supply.
Bad news – it is terrible for your sleep.
In an effort to get a bit more sleep, my pediatrician suggested trying a dream feed. This is when you feed your baby without fully waking them up.
Admittedly, it sounded kind of crazy to risk waking my sleeping baby and I didn’t think it would work, but it did!
I would pick him up and feed him right before I went to sleep. At that point we had been waking twice at night to nurse, but adding the dream feed took the place of one of those feedings. He still fed twice at night, but he only woke me up once.
For breastfeeding moms, a dream feed can offer the benefit of the night feeding without sacrificing additional sleep.
It won’t last forever and they will someday sleep.
I can not even count the number of people who told me that my son would never sleep if I didn’t train him.
I don’t know any adults who still wake up their parents at night, so I tried to ignore these comments. But I will admit that at low points, I doubted, as well, if I would ever get a full night’s sleep again.
My son did eventually sleep through the night, but it took 13 months.
That first year is so full of development and growth. His sleep patterns changed and evolved, sometimes better, sometimes worse.
There was travel, illness, transitions, teething, and new milestones that all impacted his sleep. I often had to remind myself, that it wouldn’t last forever, that this was just one (sleepless) season of our lives.
Around 1 year we hit a particularly disastrous stretch of sleep. Neither of us was getting enough sleep and something had to change. So what worked for us?
When he cried, we would respond, but not always the same way.
Did we try to comfort in the crib or immediately pick him up? Sway with him for a moment or rock him back to sleep? We didn’t know.
Sometimes we’d try one thing, then another. Consistency is probably the most common theme is most baby sleep books regardless of their method and seemed to be where we were failing.
I pieced together the ideas that I felt comfortable with in a way that made sense to me. Admittedly, this may not pass muster with the no-cry purists, but for the sake of consistency, I came up with a plan and stuck to it.
After our bedtime routine, I would lay him in the crib, say goodnight, and walk out.
If he cried – I would shush from outside the door,
If he still cried – I would go in and try to comfort him without picking him up,
If he still cried – I would pick him up to comfort him until he stopped, then put him back in the crib and start all over.
I didn’t wait between interventions, so I would cycle through them all very quickly if he was really upset. I should also note that I only did this at bedtime and not for his night wakings.
Within a couple nights, I was able to leave the room without him crying and he began sleeping through the night.
The sudden change from terrible sleeper to great sleeper felt like a miracle. It confirmed to me that our inconsistency had been holding us back. I can not stress enough, how important I think that consistency is to baby sleep.
A few moms had told me that sleeping through the night was a milestone that he would reach when he was ready.
He must have been ready then because we haven’t had any issues since. He’s woken up in the night maybe a handful of times in the last year, generally when he’s been sick.
If you aren’t comfortable with letting your baby CIO, you absolutely don’t have to do it.
Will the same thing that worked for me, work for you too?
I don’t know. Every baby and mother is different.
That may actually be one of my biggest issues with sleep training methods – the whole idea that a single method works for all babies.
To me, any method that insists that it will work for everyone, ignores obvious personal differences and variations, which to me, doesn’t even make sense.
Figure out what works for you! Sure, this is not always easy to do and may take some trial and error.
You know yourself and your baby better than anyone else. Trust yourself!