Whether you opt for cry it out, no cry, or no sleep training at all, is a personal decision, and one which should be made for the ‘greater good’ of the whole family in mind. It can be a contentious topic, so let me first start by stating: whilst I don’t endorse cry it out professionally, personally, I understand the demands of modern day parenting and therefore, I place no judgment on other mothers or fathers for their parenting style or sleep training choices.
There are so many reasons why our children may not sleep as well as we ‘expect’ them to. As newborns, our babies are biologically wired to wake for feeds – for both nutrition and the mother’s milk supply. Until three months of age, they are still developing their circadian rhythm required for deciphering day from night – so sleep patterns are naturally inconsistent. As they grow older, you’re dealing with; developmental changes and leaps (physical and cognitive), teething, illness, fears, injuries, life transitions, changes in sleep requirements, routine changes, temperament, genetics, environmental factors, evolving physiological needs, growth spurts, and nutritional influences – all impacting our children’s ability to sleep well, or at all.
Although there are many, the most popular variations of CIO were pioneered by Ferber and Weissbluth. Weissbluth’s ‘Extinction’ method leaves the baby to cry up to an hour at nap times (indefinitely at bedtime), whilst Ferber’s method of ‘graduated extinction’ is a modified version of this, which involves leaving the child to cry for intervals of 3, 5 and 10 minutes (up to 20 minutes) whilst checking on them intermittently to resettle and offer comfort.
Often referred to as controlled crying, controlled comforting or responsive settling, CIO – or a modified version of – is the ‘method of choice’ of many sleep schools and baby sleep consultants. I must admit; it may seem like an appealing option for parents who are at their wit’s end, with some experiencing results as early as one to three nights (compared to one to three weeks for most alternative ‘no cry’ methodologies). Most parents I know (myself included) have resorted to such behavioral methods of sleep training due to either; a lack of knowledge, support or confidence – or sheer defeat, feeling they have exhausted about just every other avenue for improving sleep patterns without success.
And does it work? It can, albeit in my experience; rarely long-term or without drawbacks.
Children are fast learners. If you leave them to cry without intervention over a period of three days or more, they will stop crying eventually; it’s cause and effect – and in fact, survival instinct. However, it is largely debatable whether this is actually successful in changing sleep habits long term, or whether this just is just attributed to learned helplessness. Some experts claim that this method can compromise secure attachment. Others have linked excess crying to raised cortisol levels (causing undue stress and rise in blood pressure), and in extreme cases, resulting in developmental delays, poor social skills, and a higher risk of behavioral and psychiatric disorders later in life.
I have worked with many families who have endured varying degrees of sleep regression after implementing a controlled crying method. It is also very common for babies to experience some level of trauma after being left to cry alone, and consequently, a child may begin to resist – or become fearful of – their usual bedtime routine, wake more frequently overnight and, or exert more off track behavior during their waking hours.
Sleep is a biological and emotional process, not a behavioral one. Behavioral sleep issues develop when a child’s emotional needs remain unmet. Therefore, if parents desire sustainable changes to sleep patterns, they must focus on connection as the priority.
If we want our children to sleep well long-term, we need to communicate to them that they are safe. By implementing any method which would allow them to cry alone with limited or controlled responsiveness, we directly negate the trust and security we intend to instill. Babies thrive on love and connection; it is essential for healthy brain development, secure attachment, confidence, and emotional intelligence. When we deprive our babies of our responsiveness, even briefly (refer to the still face experiment), this can cause distress, anxiety, overwhelm, and insecurity. These are not feelings conducive to happy babies, or quality sleep.
There’s also no such thing as a “no cry” approach – nor do we want this. Crying is an effective medium for babies to communicate and is essential for emotional regulation. Because feelings of fear, stress and overwhelm are often inextricable with (developmental and routine) change, it is important to acknowledge our child’s need to cry to release such feelings during these times – without us attempting to stop them by means of distraction, shushing, rocking or feeding. Unless our children can release ‒ and heal ‒ their fears through crying in the supportive presence of their parents, rather than being left alone to do so behind a closed door, these feelings will continue to be repressed, and often become the catalyst for ongoing sleep and behavioral difficulties.
So what are the options when you are feeling exhausted, down and out, and you just want some sleep? Well, I don’t have the ‘magic’ solution, and there is no overnight ‘fix’. Improving your child’s sleep (and yours) starts with addressing the core foundations to sleep; emotional wellbeing, quality nutrition, routine, and environment. By implementing an age-appropriate strategy in the aforementioned areas, you can eliminate the need for sleep training altogether. Encouraging healthy sleep associations, trust, consistency, and responsiveness to our child’s needs can be enough to restore their confidence and security, enabling them to sleep independently – without the cry-it-out.