If baby won’t sleep and is overstimulated when you try to comfort him then cry it out (controlled crying, extinction, self-soothing, etc.) may help.
I read a ton of research in my certification for infant and child sleep training.
I read countless books by sleep experts, many of whom suggest drastically different approaches to solving sleep problems. Do you know what method nearly all of them employ to some level or the other?
Essentially, babies need to be able to get themselves from being awake to being asleep on their own. It’s the only way they’ll learn to transition through their sleep cycles at night without waking up frequently in distress.
We are going to use the terms cry it out, controlled crying, extinction, and self-soothing here all to mean a similar thing.
Many renown sleep experts have their own names for this method of sleep training. Going forward in this article they all mean the same thing.
One involves leaving to cry and the other coming in at intervals to check, but allowing crying, but here is the gist.
Cry it out is not the first resort
Before we dive into the logistics, know this. If you create a proper sleep schedule for your newborn from the beginning, you won’t need any strategy that causes baby to protest.
Because they will have taken advantage of the newborn drive to sleep and learned to self-soothe from the very beginning.
Learn how to space naps, how many a day per age, best times, etc. and get your nap game ON!
Controlled crying and cry it out explained
Let’s dive into exactly what these practices entail.
Controlled crying is:
- A method of phasing out sleep props
- Letting baby protest the changes in sleep habits without rescuing them from their needs. (aka allowing them to continue life without meeting their need for sleep because of your own inability to do what it takes)
- Allowing babies or toddlers to fuss and cry for certain periods of time before going back to comfort. This allows baby the time needed to learn to get to sleep on their own.
Controlled crying is not:
- ignoring your baby’s cry to teach them not to cry
- ignoring their cries because you are busy or can’t be bothered to attend to them
- a way to punish or discipline your baby for not sleeping
Self-soothing in action
Pretty much all babies who do not sleep well, for very long, or as many hours a day as they should have one thing in common.
They don’t know how to self-soothe and go to sleep on their own.
There are a variety of ways to accomplish this without any cry methods, but some babies simply
Babies need to learn to go to sleep on their own.
Putting your baby to bed with rocking, singing or any number of other tricks is not a helpful practice to start. If you put babies to sleep with tricks during the first few “easy” months then, by the time they are 4-6 months they will stop being as sleepy and you’ll have some real sleep struggles on your hands.
They won’t fall asleep everywhere all the time and you will want them to be able to sleep in their crib. However, if you haven’t trained them to do this they will fight it. The training process will be louder, harder and more involved than it needed to be.
I have friends who say at 4 months, “wow, now it’s getting tough” whereas I have said at 4 months- all 5 times – wow, all the hard work is over.
Sleep is very important and the sooner babies learn to do it on their own, the sooner you’ll all benefit from it. Eventually they will have to learn, the question is, when do you want to put the work in? You’ll still have to train them at some point, so why wait?
How long does controlled crying last?
Nobody likes to listen to their baby cry.
When using cry it out for sleep training, you only do this after you know their needs are met and the issue is simply learning to sleep. If they are well fed, clean, dry and otherwise okay, then letting them cry a little to learn to sleep will not hurt them.
If you can pick them up and they immediately stop crying and smile, you know they are fine, they are just fighting sleep. They’d rather be with you! Of course they would. However, sleep is a need and baby’s moods shouldn’t dictate their needs.
Generally speaking, controlled crying lasts less than one week. For most babies, on the 4th day baby has learned to go to sleep on their own without tears. So, for a few naps and bedtime, there may be some protest crying, but it resolves itself quickly.
Ready for everyone to start sleeping better? Use this checklist to help you get there.
Different options for self-soothing
There’s no one size fits all. Different experts like Ferber and Weissbluth, for example, have different terms and different suggestions.
All agree babies need to learn to go to sleep on their own so they can transition through sleep cycles without having a “job” to do.
- Extinction (basic cry it out) – This is Dr. Weissbluth’s method and involves letting your child cry until they fall asleep.
- Capped extinction – This is the same as above, but with a cap. An amount of time you’ll let baby try to sleep on their own before throwing in the towel and starting another day. This is often used at nap time.
- Check and console – Here parents allow baby to cry for pre-determined periods, then return to assure baby you’re there, then allow baby to fall asleep on their own again.
- Any combination of the above – Depending on whether it’s naps or day time, you may employ a variety of methods to help baby sleep. Babies strong drive to sleep at nighttime often helps accelerate the learning process.
Learn how to space naps, how many a day per age, best times, etc. and get your nap game ON!
Just letting your baby cry is not the same as self-soothing
Using extinction with your baby (aka cry it out) is not just letting them randomly cry. There is rhyme and reason and methods involved.
If you do choose to utilize some “let cry” method (and many mothers do not and find levels of success with “maybe cry” or “no cry” methods) then you need to commit.
Letting baby cry for 5 minutes then returning, and repeating, does not work with some babies. They quickly catch on to the time limit and cry until you come. They are, in fact, quite inconsolable often because they desperately want to sleep and yet cannot do it on their own.
This is why self-soothing is so important. It gives baby the chance to learn what they need. Sleep is a survival need.
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It’s not the only way, but it is one way
Many mothers know their babies need a change.
Whether moms have to go back to work or they are suffering from anxiety and depression due to lack of sleep (which is backed up by research), they need baby to start sleeping and they need it to happen quickly.
I know many moms simply won’t be able to do it or don’t agree with it. I often think some people give extinction a bad rap because they think mothers let their baby cry all day long to try to teach them to be silent. This is not the case.
Cry it out is a method used to facilitate learning to self-soothe.
It is used when you are positive their needs are met. When you know they are asserting their desire to not sleep or their initial difficulty putting themselves to sleep.
But, as we’ve discussed before here on my site, it’s both irresponsible and unkind to give babies control of their life.
Adults have a hard time controlling their live, much less babies!
When to considering using extinction or other “let cry” methods
You may want to consider extinction in the following cases.
- When your child is not getting enough sleep.
- If baby is fighting sleep and becomes over-stimulated the more you step in to help.
- You are exhausted to the point of becoming mentally ill (depression, anxiety, etc.).
- Baby is 4+ months, naps are not consolidated, and he’s waking up multiple times per night.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this story. Mom is exhausted from night after night of night wakings. Baby wakes up crying for the 4th time and mom is too tired to get up and attend to the baby. Mom falls asleep even though the baby is crying and, lo and behold, baby goes to sleep.
And stops waking at night permanently.
The goal is not that the baby sleeps so you have an easier life. The goal is that the baby sleeps so that the baby is well-rested, happier and able to learn and absorb the stimulus in their surroundings.
Letting your children become exhausted is not fair to them and it does not set them up for successful habits later.
If your baby fights sleeping now, it will not likely resolve on its own.
Whether or not you use cry it out doesn’t matter, find a way to help baby get the rest they need.
If baby is well fed and other important factors taken into account, cry it out shouldn’t last more than an hour at a time, and even then it should peak at 2 days, then after 3 days be very little crying.
You teach your baby self-soothing by giving your baby a chance to calm themselves down to sleep. This can take from 3 days to 2 weeks, depending on your method. Methods involve gradual withdrawal, shush pat, controlled crying, etc.
Every time baby cries you should try to figure out WHY baby is crying before rushing to action. A tired baby needs sleep, not feeding. By determining what baby needs you’ll know exactly what to do.
Babies who have colic are typically crying for a few hours a day, every day, inconsolably. If you are using crying as a tool to get baby to sleep (and all appropriate factors are in place) baby shouldn’t cry for more than an hour to get to sleep.
Ferber uses extinction and controlled crying methods. Capped extinction is letting baby cry for intervals then going in to soothe in other ways. Extinction is letting baby cry until they go to sleep, usually capped at an hour.
Babies fight sleep for a number of reasons. They are overtired, overstimulated,, or don’t know how to settle themselves into sleep. Babies cry because they want you to settle them. They cry because of pain and hunger.