Cry It Out and Sleep Training

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I am a member of the ‘cry-it-out’ generation. When my daughter, Ameli, was just a few days old, my mother suggested we leave her to cry for twenty minutes and she would sleep better. If she was still crying after twenty minutes, we could go in comfort her, and then start again. I sat in the next room crying as I heard my newborn crying. We did it twice, and I vowed never again.
Since then, Ameli has slept either in her cot next to our bed, or in our bed. She is either soothed to sleep, nursed to sleep, or if we’re out and about tends to fall asleep in the sling before being transferred to the cot next to our bed.

To me, the whole concept of crying it out is cruel. Yes, babies need to learn, but babies also need to be mothered.

I know that if I was hungry, cold, tired or just feeling the need for affection and human touch and I lay in my bed crying and my husband simply ignored me, our relationship would very quickly suffer. If he could leave me to cry, and tell me to ‘just go to sleep’, or tell me ‘you need to learn’, but withheld his affection from me, I would not feel that I was able to trust him.

How then, can I ask a baby who has no understanding of life away from my heartbeat, or of temperatures outside of my womb, to whom quiet darkness is new, strange noises are unsettling and being alone is unknown, to get over it and go to sleep?

In her book, What Mothers Do especially when it looks like nothing, Naomi Stadlen talks about the heightened distress that some mothers feel when they hear their babies cry at night. She finds it surprising to see how many of these mothers were given sleep training themselves as babies, and draws an interesting parallel between those who were subjected to sleep training, and have become distressed parents.

She goes on to suggest that it perhaps “reactivates their own early shock at being trained to sleep without their parents at night. They have not retained conscious memories of crying. But when these mothers turn to their parents for suggestions for getting their babies to sleep at night, they are startled to hear about how they themselves had been left to cry”.

This makes sense, in many ways – you just have to look at the effects of cry-it-out style sleep training to see it.

I have listened to so many mothers over the last ten months talk about sleep and how desperate they are for their little ones to sleep through the night, and I’ll admit, eight solid hours sounds blissful, but at what cost?

I love how Stadlen phrases her thoughts on the false picture so much literature portrays of what motherhood involves: “Too much literature today implies that being a mother is about changing a baby’s ‘inconvenient’ behaviour.” She specifically mentions Gina Ford, who offers to help parents listen to what their babies are really saying and suggests that mothers who follow Gina Ford’s books are “encouraged to attend to the book before their babies.”

So yes, babies do sleep better when they have been left to cry, but they do so out of sheer exhaustion, and out of a very early awareness that no matter how long they cry (even to the point of being sick) no one will attend them. They are alone for the night and must console themselves. In an adult we would expect this to lead to depression (which makes people sleep more too!) and in a child it can be called neglect, but in a baby it is okay?

I know that cry it out and sleep training are emotional and sensitive topics for many people, and I know that everyone has their own thoughts and ideas and will do behind closed doors whatever they feel they have to. But I also know that before we can continue blindly following the instructions of an old man (Truby King) who tried to teach us how we should mother our babies it is our responsibility as mothers to at least know the true consequences of our actions.

I strongly recommend that every mother make the time to read What Mothers Do especially when it looks like nothing. It is not a ‘how to’ guide, but presents motherhood in an amazing and refreshing light.

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16 thoughts on “Cry It Out and Sleep Training

  1. Toni @ Carrigan's Joy

    Oh, I also just ordered the book you’ve recommended. :)
    Toni @ Carrigan’s Joy’s last blog post ..Dear Baby Soup: 12 Weeks

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  2. Toni @ Carrigan's Joy

    As a baby I was left to CIO and even though I dont recall a thing I have been told stories of how I would lay in my crib screaming, even being moved to the center of the room because I would tear down items off walls. I think I was a bit pissed. :)

    Anyway, I cant stand to hear my children cry, it physically hurts me and naturally that always leads us to bed sharing, to which I’ve always been ashamed of, yet this next time around, I’m going to research it, look at the pros and cons of it, and make the decision based on my views rather than on the situation. And when I do decide how me and my family will handle sleep, I’ll do so proudly, with no shame.
    Toni @ Carrigan’s Joy’s last blog post ..Dear Baby Soup: 12 Weeks

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  3. Great post! I’ve tried CIO with one of my older kids a while ago and it was the most heart-breaking thing, to listen to my child cry in the other room. I never did it again. I love my sleep and miss it, but my child deserves my attention and affection whenever she requires it.

    Kristi, Live and Love…Out Loud
    @TweetingMama
    Kristi {at} Live and Love…Out Loud’s last blog post ..TSA Pat-Downs- No One Touches My Children No One

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  4. As commented on the Family Vie website, I’m fascinated by all sleep-related issues at present, as I’m expecting my first baby in six weeks and trying to work out which “solution” will work best for us. I guess, though, until the baby arrives and I start to learn about his / her personality and needs, I will just have to be patient and assume parental instinct will lead me down the right path, albeit it a very exhausted one.

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    Luschka Reply:

    @The Contented? Maybe, You know, I really think that’s a myth – the whole exhausted thing. We weren’t exhausted at all, in the first three months. But then that’s because we coslept and breastfed so we didn’t have to get up every 3 hours for 30 minute feeds or whatever it is. And funnily enough we never ‘planned’ for it – it’s just how it worked out. I knew I would breastfeed and we started expressing at 11 days, but we worked it out and neither of us were tired.

    For us it set in when teething started. She does NOT sleep well when teething. Like her mommy and her mommy’s mommy and her mommy’s mommy’s mommy, teeth and everything to do with them are a… well, a she-dog. And if your baby is going to suffer with teething, then I’m afraid no amount of sleep training is going to make any difference, unless you (not you as in you, but you as in the parent) plan to leave your suffering and in pain little one to sort themselves out, which seems pretty cruel to me.

    I really believe in following your child’s lead and I think that’s the best way to be a truly contented mama. :)

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  5. I tried it for about 10 mins and it felt completely barbaric for exactly the reasons you describe. I too read stadlens book. I don’t know if I was sleep trained my mother is not around to ask and my father wouldn’t know but I do know it feels fundamentally wrong to me. Yes I’m tired and yes the odd full nights sleep I get is great, but not at the expense of my chdrems security and sense of safety. Children need comfort, we all do and leaving them to cry when they need us cannot be healthy for anyone. I do, however, think children need to understand that sleep is pleasurable and not scary, we all need it after all. There are ways of dpi
    G

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  6. Liz Burton

    I felt the same way as you when my daughter was tiny. We used to co-sleep, I nursed her to sleep and breast-fed until she was 1. I never let her cry, always went to her, despite advice of others and especially health visitors.

    However, when you have not had a full night’s sleep for 2 years, your perspective changes. We tried controlled crying and it was truly the most horrific thing I have ever done. However, after just one evening it was cracked. We had lapses when she was poorly and would wake and obviously I went to her, and when she was teething.

    I can’t say I’d particularly recommend it as a method, but finding a way much earlier than we did for your child to self settle, could probably avoid the destructive lack of sleep we suffered!

    By the way, she is now 2 and a half now and just moved from cot to bed. We are back at square one!!

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  7. I hesitate to comment, because I know I will be in the minority here, but… I think it depends on what you mean by cry it out. And at what age you do it. Tiny babies need you all the time. I will not dispute that.

    But I don’t agree with the position that letting (older) babies cry will mean they think they are not loved, and not trust their parents. When moo throws a temper tantrum, I let her. I ignore it. She can’t have everything she wants. When she wants cake, or icecream, she can’t have it, not all the time, and she’ll whinge and cry to get it.

    And sometimes, not often, when she goes to bed at night, she doesn’t want to, she wants to be up and partying. But it’s time for bed.

    I never followed Gina. When Moo was tiny, we did things the way she wanted, bedtime was late in the evening, she drove her nap routine. But as she got older and more opinionated, if she refused to go to sleep at bedtime, when she was clearly tired, but didn’t *want* to go to sleep, I had two choices. I could cuddle her, rock her, sing to her, cajole her and have her crying for another two hours, when she would fall asleep in my arms from exhaustion. I could keep her up, when she would be happy for a short time, then whingy and overtired, and even less desirous of going to sleep. Or I could put her in her cot, with a cuddle and her comforters, and shut the door. 9 times out of 10 after 5 or 10 minutes she’d be asleep. Much quicker than by any other method. And not because she was exhausted. Just because she realised, yes, she was tired, and the best thing to do is sleep. I would never just leave her to scream. I can tell by her cry whether she is going to sleep, or whether to give up and call it a day.

    Much like myself at the end of a party when my husband convinces me that another hour at the bar isn’t a good idea and we really should go home. I might complain, but when my head hits the pillow, I realise he’s right.

    Looking at the research studies you reference I have many queries. I wouldn’t let Moo cry if it was for prolonged periods, for many nights or weeks, as that handout suggests. I doubt many people would, even those who condone true cry-it-out routines. I sincerely hope I am not doing Moo the damage you suggest I am by letting her cry. I certainly have seen no sign of it. She is a little shy, like her mother, but she is not clingy and is more than independent!

    Sorry for the long comment. And really sorry to see we disagree again! I wish your methods worked for me and moo – they do sound lovely, but they’ve not worked for us so far.

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    Luschka Reply:

    @Bumbling, You make me smile Bumbling! I have no worries about the fact that our methods aren’t the same, and I am not trying to make everyone follow my methods – that would be a constant frustration for me! If I make one person a day think about WHY they do what they do, I’m happy with that! :)

    I think you’re very right – it depends on what is meant by CIO, and what CIO is. Sometimes K has cried for half an hour, non-stop while me or her daddy have been holding her. She’s just SOBBED. And I don’t see that as CIO, because she’s being held/cuddled/and just needs to cry, for whatever reason. (obviously if we’ve done everything in our power to make sure there’s nothing WRONG). It took us a while, but we eventually figured out she was actually over tired.

    Also, I think – and others might disagree with me – that CIO is different in a baby who cannot communicate verbally, and a toddler who can. Moo can TELL you when she’s scared, lonely, hurting, hungry etc, whereas K can’t yet. If Moo told you she was in pain and you said ‘tough – go to sleep’… well… I doubt you would. So, because K can’t tell me yet, I wouldn’t let her just cry for ages.

    You’re also right about knowing the different cries. If K niggles a little, moans a little and has ‘dry crying’, I leave her be for five – ten minutes. If she has real tears, I attend to her immediately. I can hear the difference.

    I DEFINITELY do not believe that they should get their way all the time and for everything – hello spoilt… – I think giving in to every whim is a form of child abuse, cause real life don’t work that way!

    Remember that there’s a difference between CRYING and CRY IT OUT. Crying is ‘fine’ within limits, but CIO is (in my view) something that is done to babies who can’t communicate verbally, where they are left to learn that no one answers their calls. If you ‘wouldn’t let Moo cry if it was for prolonged periods, for many nights or weeks’ or to the point of getting sick, then no, I don’t believe it’s crying it out – and sadly, I know people who have left their baby to cry for an hour without batting an eyelid,routinely, so there are those that do.

    Others may differ from my view on what constitutes CIO? I’d love to hear from you/them!

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  8. Whimsical Wife

    When they were tiny I never left them to cry despite being told to by grandparents regularly – however as they became toddlers we did do some sort of leaving them for 2 mins, then 5 mins, then 10 mins but that was due to them wanting to be out of bed rather than asleep…
    Whimsical Wife’s last blog post ..Ebenezer Boy

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  9. It’s great to know that there are other people feeling how I do about this because for a while I felt a bit alone on this one. Everyone else I know let’s their babies cry to sleep and I was being constantly told that I was doing things ‘wrong’ because my baby would be clingy and not able to self soothe if cuddled to sleep. I don’t disagree with people making a personal choice to do controlled crying and I know for some people who’s babies have very erratic sleep patterns it is the only thing that works. We are lucky to have a baby that in the main sleeps very well. (disproving the theory that cuddling makes baby unable to sleep on their own) We do leave her to have a little grizzle because she often will go back to sleep, and we do use a dummy at night. It is all about balance I think. It is great that you have written this post though because so often we are told that CIO is the only way to get your baby to sleep. I know parents who are scared to cuddle their babies in case they become too clingy- babies need cuddles and so do mums and dads. I think it’s sad if you never get the chance to bond with your baby in this way because of parenting ‘experts” and peer pressure from other parents.
    Motherfunster’s last blog post ..Part 1 This is me or should that be was me

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  10. I’ve never been able to let the boys cry it out, I physically can’t NOT go to them. It hurts me to hear them so upset.

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  11. i enjoyed your perspectives on this (probably because i feel the same way!). i struggle with how parents now do things just out of convenience. THEY don’t want to wake up at night– well sorry man, that’s kind of part of having a baby.

    but, on the other hand, i think there is a big difference between working sleep techniques on an infant and doing it with a toddler. luckily our son is a pretty happy sleeper but i can understand parents who are looking for a solution to nighttime waking as they get a little older. i’m still not pro-CIO but i get it, i really do.
    the grumbles’s last blog post ..do fun stuff

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  12. Tried crying it out once with Big when she was about 6 months old. I got across the room and to the top of the stairs before she cried herself into being sick. Wasn’t really that determined to do it anyway, and haven’t tried again with any of them.
    liveotherwise’s last blog post ..Friday in Framlingham

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  13. urbanvox

    as it is with everything, balance is the key… ;)
    urbanvox’s last blog post ..Hey Moshi!!!!

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  14. I simply don’t understand CIO…. It goes against all the child development theories I was ever taught in my 5 years at uni….it makes no logical sense, it makes no emotional sense…it makes no biological sense…. and I don’t think it works either… yet here we are being told by so called experts that it is the only way to go. Seems so odd!
    Must see if our local library has that book it sounds great!
    katepickle’s last blog post ..Reading Is Magical

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