The cry it out method involves leaving baby to cry themself to sleep on their own. But does this controversial method work for sleep training? Or, should you skip it and soothe baby to sleep? Learn the pros and cons of the cry it out method.
The cry it out method involves leaving baby to cry themself to sleep on their own. This method is very controversial, as many parents prefer to soothe baby instead of letting baby bawl. And leaving baby to cry it out can be stressful. Still, many parents are willing to give this method a try.
But does the cry it out method work for sleep training? Or, should you skip it and soothe baby to sleep? Today, we’ll dive into the pros and cons, including what experts have to say.
What is the cry it out method?
The cry it out method is a sleep training method where you leave baby to cry themself to sleep.
This doesn’t mean training baby to sleep through the whole night on their own. After all, even adults wake up during the night sometimes!
And it certainly isn’t meant to get babies to get through the night without a feeding, as most babies usually need at least one night feeding until they reach 9-12 months of age.
Rather, the cry it out method is meant to train baby to soothe themself to sleep – to fall asleep on their own after they start to wake up. This way, they won’t need you to help them fall asleep when they rouse during the night.
The cry it out method is sometimes called the “extinction” method.
How does the cry it out method work?
There are two main ways to use the cry it out method, but both have the same idea behind them. Both are meant to get baby to fall asleep on their own, instead of having you soothe baby to sleep right away with rocking, holding, feeding, or any other method.
The first type of cry it out sleep training is known as “total extinction,” where you let baby cry themself to sleep for as long as it takes and don’t intervene at all.
The second type is known as “graduated extinction” – sometimes, it’s also called the Ferber method. With this method, you leave baby to soothe themself to sleep, but then come back after a specific timeframe if baby hasn’t fallen asleep yet. When you return, you’ll still leave baby in their crib, but you can quietly talk to them or pat them to comfort them. You’ll only stay for about a minute or two.
The goal is to gradually increase the amount of time between when you put baby to bed and when you return to baby. You’ll start by leaving baby for just a few minutes, then leave them for longer and longer, and eventually wait 30+ minutes before checking in. Eventually, baby will fall asleep without check-ins.
BabyCenter shows one example of graduated extinction in this video:
Does the cry it out method work?
When used correctly (as a way to train babies to self-soothe), the cry it out method does work to improve baby’s ability to self-soothe, according to a 2006 review of clinical studies conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Still, pediatricians, parenting experts and psychologists disagree on whether the cry it out method is a good idea. (Even the American Academy of Sleep Medicine points out some drawbacks of the total extinction method.)
And while some babies are successfully trained to self-soothe, the cry it out method doesn’t work for every baby and family. It’s up to you to make the right decision for your little one. Weigh the pros and cons below to help you make an informed decision.
Pros of the cry it out method
It can lead to better sleep for baby – and you. When used consistently, research has shown that the cry it out method helps baby sleep better and wake less often at night. In turn, this can lead to better sleep for you as a parent. Many parents say that, after consistently using the cry it out method, babies stop crying for you in about a week or two (of course, results may vary!)
It keeps baby from relying on you to soothe. If you keep soothing baby with rocking or feeding, baby may eventually start to become reliant on those methods and not fall asleep without them. Baby may even start “training” you, because they know that crying means they’ll be held and rocked to sleep. In contrast, the cry it out method helps baby learn to soothe themself to sleep without you around – an important self-regulation skill.
Sleep training is safe when done correctly. According to a study published in Pediatrics (a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics), the cry it out method doesn’t increase a child’s risk for any negative emotional, psychological or behavioral effects at age 6. This applies to both total and gradual extinction.
Cons of the cry it out method
It can be stressful for you as a parent. We get it – as a parent, you’re wired to respond to your little one’s cries, so leaving them to bawl at bedtime can be very stressful. It can often lead to your own loss of sleep.
It’s hard to be consistent. Since you want to respond to baby, using the cry it out method consistently can be difficult. But if you don’t keep your limits consistent with this method, this can make “crying it out” ineffective (as baby will start to figure out that you’ll respond to their cries). To quote the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, “Many parents are unable to ignore crying long enough for the procedure to be effective,” especially if they’re using total extinction.
You could miss when baby is in distress. Sometimes, babies are crying because they’re in pain or truly need you for another reason, not because they’re just reluctant to leave you for sleep. For instance, they may be crying because they have reflux or are sick. The cry it out method can sometimes cause parents to overlook these needs.
Don’t use “cry it out” before 4-6 months
Even though there’s disagreement about whether to use the cry it out method, most pediatricians, psychologists and parenting experts do agree on one aspect – don’t use the cry it out method with a baby younger than 4-6 months of age.
Before 4-6 months of age, babies usually need to be fed multiple times at night, and their crying is usually a sign that they need you. More importantly, babies at this age aren’t usually developmentally ready to soothe themselves to sleep consistently. Rather, the youngest babies need your comfort to help them fall asleep.
Tips for using the cry it out method
- Put baby to bed when they’re drowsy, but not overtired. They should still be partially awake so they can learn to soothe themself to sleep the rest of the way.
- Keep a consistent bedtime routine, so baby starts to associate the 30-45 minutes before bedtime with winding down.
- Give baby lots of love and cuddles during the bedtime routine, to make up for not rocking and cuddling them to sleep right before bed.
- You can still gently pat baby and tell them you love them before bed – just don’t prolong the time you spend with baby, and don't rock or feed them to sleep.
- Make sure baby is full, dry, and has a clean diaper before putting them to bed.
- Stay consistent – if using the total extinction method, don’t check in on baby at all, as hard as that may be. Let them fall asleep on their own.
- Don’t be surprised if baby cries for up to an hour at first. As baby gets more accustomed to being left to self-soothe, they’ll cry less and less.
- If you’re especially worried about how baby is doing, you can still use a video baby monitor to watch over them from a distance.
- If you want to sleep train baby but don’t want to give up check-ins, use graduated extinction. You’ll still need to be consistent, though – only check in at the time you choose, and keep increasing the time before you check in.
- After you’ve started using the cry it out method at bedtime, and after baby is at least 6 months old, you can start using it for naps so baby learns that the crib means it’s time to self-soothe.
- This should only be used for a maximum of one hour at a time.
- If baby’s naps tend to be short (half an hour or less), you might want to check in after 10 minutes or end the nap if they haven’t self-soothed by that point.
- You may also choose to soothe baby during the nap closest to bedtime, so they aren’t overtired when bedtime rolls around.
What else to keep in mind when using the cry it out method?
The cry it out method is only meant for healthy babies. If baby is sick, or has a diagnosed health condition, don’t use the cry it out method.
If a big change has happened in their life, baby could be stressed, so the cry it out method isn’t the best option in this case either. Wait at least two weeks after baby has gone through a move, started at a new daycare, or has gone through any other big change, to start the cry it out method.
Be sure to feed baby leading up to bedtime if you’re using this method (say, before their bath), since you can’t use feeding as a soothing method to lull baby to sleep. Baby needs to have a full stomach for the cry it out method to work.
Also, remember that the cry it out method is only safe when your baby’s overall sleep environment is safe: baby is placed on their back to sleep, on a firm crib mattress, and with no loose objects (like blankets or pillows) around them.
If letting baby cry it out doesn’t work for you, that’s ok. You can try gradual extinction, or use another sleep training method. There are plenty of other sleep training methods beyond the cry it out method.
And if you’ve tried “cry it out” for two weeks but aren’t seeing much success, talk to your doctor. They’ll be glad to help!
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