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Sleep Training and Cry It Out- One Hot Topic
Take one look at parenting pages on Facebook and you know it is a hot topic. Do a Google search and you get over 25 million hits. Google “sleep training methods” and you get over 3 million hits. “Cry it out” tops them all with a whopping 265 million hits. Clearly, a lot has been written on these topics. Add my blog to those search results.
My Experience With Cry It Out
Before I talk about the promised topics in my title, I am going to introduce you to my children. Although they are all fully grown adults now, my experience with their early sleeping habits helped form my opinion on sleep training and cry it out methods. Cry it out is sometimes referred to as CIO.
Nicholas is my oldest at 31. He is a chef, currently living in Italy. He was our first child and having been a nurse for several years before he was born, I felt like I had a good handle on this baby stuff. (Add laugh track here.) He was such a good baby. I remember when he was about two weeks old I said that if they were all this easy I would have ten babies. He ate, slept, grew and was generally a happy, easy baby. At bedtime, I would nurse him to sleep, and then put him down in his crib, and go cook dinner. My husband and I would enjoy that dinner uninterrupted. We would go to sleep and Nicholas would either sleep until morning, or wake in the middle of the night and I would bring him to bed with us, where he would nurse until he fell asleep again.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? It was, until about seven months. That was when some demonic baby took Nicholas’s place. He would nurse to sleep, but as soon as I put him down he would wake up again, and cry until I nursed him again. This went on for a few nights, making dinner preparation pretty much impossible. I can’t remember what we did for dinner those two or three nights. I finally announced that it was time for him to cry it out. I was raised on the belief that you had to do that at some point, and apparently, it was his time.
The way it was supposed to go was that you left the baby alone after saying good night, and they would start to cry. After five minutes you go in and hug them and reassure them and tell them to go to sleep. You never ever take them out of the crib, and then you leave again. You wait increasingly longer periods of time before you go back in. After a while, perhaps 45 minutes, they fall asleep. The next night should be a shorter period of time for them to fall asleep. At least that’s what I’d heard. That’s what the books said would happen.
Unfortunately that’s not what happened with us. Nicholas cried for three hours. THREE! It was horrific. And then he only slept for about half an hour before waking up again, at which point we took him into bed with us, as we were going to bed at that point, and we could no longer stand it.
It was no better the next night. The books had lied. The third night we happened to discover that if we patted him on his back, he would fall asleep after about five minutes. This was back when putting babies to sleep on their tummy was the recommended position. Finally, we had calm nights again. For a while, anyway. Sleep, as with everything baby related, is constantly changing.
If you ask me what one of my greatest parenting regrets was, it would be trying this cry it out thing.
People will say to me that they are sure he doesn’t remember it, at which point I will respond that I REMEMBER IT. I’m not so sure he doesn’t remember it either. When I talk about my third, that statement will make sense.
Babies Are Unique
In my “I have one baby so now I know everything about parenting” wisdom (cue in laugh track again), I decided that the reason we went through a lot of this was because he had slept through the night for a while and then stopped and I went back to feeding him when he woke up. I decided that was my mistake. I believed that once he stopped the night feedings on his own, I should have done whatever it took to not feed him again during the middle of the night
Along comes baby number two. Susie is 28 years old. She was totally different from Nicholas in just about every way. She only ate when she was hungry. She wasn’t into that comfort nursing thing. She didn’t want to co-sleep either. She was much happier in her own bed. She started sleeping through the night consistently at about four months. When she started getting up in the middle of the night about a month or two later, I would put her off until 5 am, which was the magic time I decided was officially morning and it was okay to feed her. It wasn’t a long time that I had to put her off. I thought this whole plan was genius. Until we went in for her 6 months visit and she had only gained 4 oz in 2 months. We went through a period of failure to thrive, and I wonder if I had just fed her when she wanted to eat, could we have avoided that whole ordeal.
No Regrets and Memories
Patrick, our third and last baby was born 25 years ago. I decided to have a different approach with him. My motto was, follow the baby’s cues. I would do whatever I wanted, and wherever his cues led me. He co-slept with us until he was 11 months old. We moved him into his own room at that point, because we moved into a larger house. He started sleeping through the night consistently at that point. I won’t say I didn’t have moments of wondering if he would ever sleep through the night. However, overall, I was much more laid back about everything. He did tend to fuss when he fell asleep, whether I was holding him or he was put down by himself. Nicholas really hated for me to let Patrick cry at all. One night I put him in his crib and left, knowing that his brief period of fussing would end in less that 5 minutes, and holding him would not change that. Nicholas implored me to go pick him up. When I explained that he would stop crying in just a few minutes, my 6 year old Nicholas looked me in the eye, and said, “I just want you to know, I don’t agree with this.” That made me believe, he remembered his awful cry it out experience on some level.
An Alternative to Sleep Training and Cry It Out
Fast forward 10 years later. I was a lactation consultant at that point and I read a lot of books that were relevant to the moms I worked with. I came across the book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley. I connected with what she said and wished this book had been around when I had my first child. It is a book that does not offer a quick and dirty solution, but it seemed so much more compassionate that the cry it out method. This book is what I recommend to moms ask me how to deal with nighttime sleeping issues.
There are other alternatives. One would be to incorporate baby-wearing and co-bedding and just wait for your baby to naturally start sleeping through the night. I do have to say that if you are going to co-bed, make sure you throughly research how to do it as safely as possible. I will be doing a post on that as part of this Sleep Series.
I will never recommend letting a baby cry it out. I think it often works because I think the baby gives up hope that anyone is come, that anyone cares, that anyone loves them.
I try not to judge mothers on the decisions they make. I understand that sleep deprivation can be a really awful experience. I just want them to know that there are alternatives. I also will say that a baby who is not growing well should never be sleep trained. Additionally, some mothers really continue to need more frequent stimulation to keep up their milk supply.
What Does the Research Say?
One question mothers ask is, can it be harmful to let a baby cry it out? The entire June 2013 issue of Clinical Lactation (the official journal of the United States Lactation Consultant Association) was devoted to Sleep Training, and primarily cry it out methods. Issues addressed were the harmful effects of higher levels of cortisol, which is one of the effects of stress. Crying is how babies show us they are stressed. One article in that journal cited how acute and chronic stress in babies can result in irreversible harmful effects throughout life. Another article talks about how it is important to not just tell parents to do this or, that, but to discuss with them what kind of parenting feels comfortable for them. Parents are encouraged to look at nighttime waking and feeding as a normal developmental stage. Nighttime feedings lessen. Babies sleep patterns improve. This is supported by what we see in other parts of the world, where there is greater emphasis on child-centered care.
One last thought
I believe that encouraging mothers to respond to their instincts is an important piece of advice. If letting your baby cry it out hurts your heart, don’t ignore that. Don’t learn to ignore your inner voice. It is wise.
Andrea Tran RN, MA, IBCLC
Andrea has been working with new families as an RN for over 35 years and a Lactation Consultant for over 25 years.
She has her MA in Health and Wellness with a focus in Lactation.