There seems to be some confusion regarding the cry-it-out method of getting your baby to sleep. Is it part of sleep training? Are there other ways to teach your little one to self-soothe? I have found that cry-it-out, sleep training, and self-soothing carry very different interpretations based on who you talk to. As a Contact Mom who is fully versed with Babywise/Preparation for Parenting, I will present how Babywise and Growing Families International define these terms.
* Sleep training means laying your baby down while drowsy, yet still awake, for a nap and providing him with the opportunity to fall asleep on his own. Actual sleep training begins when Baby is about four weeks old. By this age, babies are beginning to consistently have a measurable wake time. Will there possibly be some crying in the process of falling asleep? Yes, it is possible, probable, and completely normal. At this age, babies have very limited ways of exercising in order to burn off some energy. Expending some of that energy with a little crying allows Baby to be able to fall asleep and enjoy good, restorative sleep. In an attempt to avoid hearing any crying from our babies, we are not only putting a lot of unrealistic pressure on ourselves, we are also denying our baby a chance to learn this skill. Yes, a child learning to fall asleep on his own and self-soothing are skills. Now, to be perfectly clear, this does not mean babies will master this at four weeks old; it means you begin to proactively work on it at four weeks. While it is certainly OK to hold or rock your baby for some naps, you need to ask yourself, is my baby depending on this and needing this to happen in order to sleep? If so, is that what your long range goal is? Remember you want to ‘begin as you mean to go’.
* Self-soothing is the process of a baby learning to fall asleep on his own, without excessive crying, the use of a pacifier, or the parent holding or rocking him until he falls asleep. I encourage moms who ask for help in this area to limit the time of crying to 5-10 minutes in the early weeks. I’m sure you have heard, as I have, that babies can’t self-soothe until 3 or 4 months old. In my own experience, as well as other moms I know who are intentionally working on sleep training starting around the 4-week mark, we have found that by 3 or 4 months old, our babies have mastered this skill. However, by waiting to start sleep training until 4 months of age or older, you will then need to undo poor sleep habits that have already been established. Again, remember the principle of “begin as you mean to go”. On a personal note, all four of my babies were able to self-soothe considerably earlier than 4 months old and they were happy, alert babies who could sleep anywhere.
* For the record, cry-it-out is not a Babywise or Growing Families phrase. We do recognize and address in the teaching material normal and abnormal cry periods, and crying when going down for a nap is a normal cry period. Therefore, allowing Baby to cry for a small period of time (5-10 minutes) when being put down for a nap may be necessary to give him the chance to fall asleep on his own. As a mom, you are monitoring this time and intervening when and if needed.
The following is a sample of the sleep training method I have used. You will notice that the cry times listed are up to 25 minutes, which would be appropriate for someone who is starting late with sleep training (baby is 4 months old or older). In the earlier weeks, as stated previously, 10 minutes of crying is long enough.
- When it is time for a nap, lay Baby down, even if Baby doesn’t seem tired.
- Remember, some crying is normal. If after waiting 5-10 minutes, Baby is still actually crying, not just fussing a little, then go in; settle Baby by patting him on the back and speaking softly. If you have to pick him up, avoid rocking or holding him until he falls asleep. Gently place Baby back in his crib for 15 more minutes.
- If baby is still crying continuously after 15 minutes, go in and repeat the process, trying again for another 20 minutes.
- If Baby is still crying continuously, repeat the above: settle and down again for 20-25 minutes.
If he begins to show signs of settling himself after any of those time increments, try giving him a bit longer to settle on his own.
- Follow this pattern until he falls asleep or you get to the two hour mark since Baby last ate. If that’s the case, feed Baby and then place him back in his crib with no wake time. Then let Baby sleep until the next feed time.
- Feed baby, have a wake time, and then put him down for a nap and start the training all over again.
- After a few days of training, you will find that your baby is beginning to settle on his own and the crying becomes less and less. It’s important to remember that some crying is normal and needed for baby to release some energy in order to settle. In this context, crying is not mindless, endless crying but crying that you are monitoring, intervening when necessary and working towards a worthy goal that is going to yield a life time of benefits.
Here are some additional things to consider:
- By monitoring your baby’s cry, you have the opportunity to learn your baby’s different cries.
- Full feedings at every feeding are so important. If your baby is truly hungry, no amount of sleep training will fix that. Good feedings are the first step and are key to good sleep
- Using a pacifier for every sleep period makes it more difficult for Baby to stay settled when the pacifier falls out or if it’s not there during the light-to-deep sleep transition. This causes short naps and makes it harder to settle back to sleep for the rest of the nap. Pacifiers have their place, but beware of them becoming a sleep prop.
- If your baby has reflux or was premature, you need to take those things into consideration when determining how long Baby should cry and at what point Baby should begin true sleep training.
When you consistently implement these tips, sleep training can normally be achieved in a week to 10 days. That doesn’t mean Baby will not cry when put down to sleep, but you will know with confidence Baby can go to sleep on his own and transition to the deepest REM sleep resulting in a nice solid rest. A well-rested baby is a happy baby who trusts that Mom will come to meet his needs at the appointed time. Who doesn’t want that?