Should infants be allowed to cry themselves to sleep?

The question of whether to allow a baby to cry herself to sleep is a very heated one in many circles. Opponents of the "cry it out" method (also known as the "Ferber" method, after its most famous proponent) often regard it as tantamount to child abuse; proponents of allowing babies to "cry it out" often seem to think that any baby NOT allowed to cry it out will turn into a spoiled brat.

Neither position is correct.

Your child will not be scarred for life by the cry it out method when it's used properly. Nor will he turn into some kind of little monster if you decide not to use it.

It is up to you, as the parent, to decide which will work best for your family. I did choose to use the cry it out method with my own daughter, and it worked successfully for us. I've seen it fail miserably with other families, while some families who have never tried it have children with perfect sleep habits and others are still rocking their five year olds to sleep. The secret to success with any method of teaching good sleep habits is commitment, consistency, and common sense. The method itself is the least important factor.

Photo by Qole Pejorian
Photo by Qole Pejorian

Things to Consider

Here are some things to consider when deciding whether the cry it out method is right for you:

How old is your baby?

Very young infants should never be left to cry it out. However, you can start teaching them healthy sleep habits and self-soothing skills by waiting and listening for a moment before rushing to their side. You will quickly learn the difference between a real cry and a "test" cry.

If you leave a fussing infant by herself for a minute, she will often quiet herself without adult intervention, learning valuable self-soothing skills.

If the cry becomes more intense or lasts for more than a minute or two, then the baby genuinely needs your attention.

What kind of personality does your child have?

If your child is strong-willed or stubborn, using the "cry it out" method may quickly begin to feel like a test of endurance. However, especially in the case of older babies and toddlers with ingrained bad habits at bedtime, the cry it out method, when done properly, may be the only method that can provide results.

Children who are insecure or have strong separation anxiety, on the other hand, may be terrified by the "cry it out" method and in these cases it is likely to do more harm than good.

How tolerant are you of crying?

if you have an older child with ingrained bad habits at bedtime, it is entirely possible that he will cry for an hour or more the first night you try the cry it out method. If you can't handle this, don't even attempt the cry it out method.

It is extremely important that you remain consistent when using this method until the new habit is developed. This can take anywhere from three days to several weeks, and it is quite common for the child to improve quickly, then regress to old habits after a few days or a week, before finally settling permanently into the new habit. If you give up and "rescue" him even once (exceptional cases such as illness excepted) you will add days or weeks to the time necessary to develop the new habit.

What is your current sleeping situation?

The cry it out method works best with children who are accustomed to sleeping in their own rooms. Proceed carefully if your child is not used to sleeping alone.

For example, if your child is used to sleeping in your bed and being rocked to sleep every night, do not try to change both these habits at once. Instead, start by getting her used to sleeping in her own room while continuing to rock her to sleep. Do NOT use the cry it out method during this period. Once she is used to sleeping in her own bed, then you can start phasing out the rocking by putting her in her crib while groggy but still awake. She may fall asleep on her own, or your may need to introduce the cry it out method at this time.

Trying to change too many habits at once is one of the most common reasons for failure of the cry it out method.

How To Use the Cry It Out Method Effectively

1. Develop a bedtime routine and stick to it as closely as possible. Try to put your child to bed at roughly the same time every night, and do roughly the same things every night before bed. When my daughter was a baby, we used to change her into pajamas and a fresh diaper, read her a book or two, and then nurse her before putting her into her crib for the night. If your child does not have a regular bedtime routine, start one several weeks before you plan to begin using the cry-it-out method so there is enough time for it to become established.

2. Put your child to bed groggy, but still awake. Once good sleep habits have been established, you can start putting him to bed while tired but still awake and he will be able to put himself to sleep, but when you're just starting out, do your best to help him get most of the way there.

3. Wish your child good night and leave the room.

4. Listen. If your child doesn't start crying, thank your lucky stars and go do something nearby, so you can hear if he changes his mind. If he does, continue with step five.

5. If your child starts crying, go back in the room without turning on the light. Give her another kiss or a brief backrub and tuck her back in if necessary, but do not pick her up. Instead, repeat your good night wishes and leave again.

6. This time, wait for a couple minutes before going back in to see her again. Repeat step 5.

7. Gradually increase the time between visits, from one or two minutes to five. If the cries start petering out, wait even longer, since going back inside can wake him back up if he's starting to fall asleep on his own. If the cries intensify again at any time, however, go back in immediately and repeat step 5.

8. Continue this until your child falls asleep. If it takes a long time, her sleep may be unusually fitful for the first few nights. Check to make sure she doesn't need anything, then repeat step 5 if she wakes up at unusual times. Do not skip any normal feeding times. Do, however, repeat step 5 when it is time to go back to sleep after a normal feeding. Remember - do not try to change too many habits at once.

9. Follow as normal a routine as possible the next day, and repeat these steps at bedtime. Most children will spend about half the amount of time crying the second night, and one fourth or less the third night. In fact, many children may go to sleep within minutes on the third night. For some, the improvement may be permanent. Others will regress after a few good nights. Remain consistent and the improvement will eventually become permanent.

10. Finally, remember that a little fussing at bedtime is perfectly normal even for relatively old toddlers with good sleep habits. Particularly for high energy children and children who are easily overstimulated, 2-5 minutes of relatively gentle fussing is a common self-soothing device used to prepare themselves for sleep. If the crying becomes more intense or frantic at any time, or lasts longer than five minutes, then repeat step 5 until the child calms down again.

Important

Remember, the cry it out method does NOT mean leaving a hysterical baby alone to cry themselves to exhaustion, or ignoring a baby who wakes up obviously upset.

Always check to make sure that all your baby's needs are met before leaving him or her to cry it out, and return frequently to comfort him or her as outlined in step five above.

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Comments 14 comments

Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

You're right Kerry, for me personally, the cry-it out method really is tantamount to child abuse, and I could never bring myself to use it. I'm one of six children, and I know for a fact that we were routinely wheeled to the bottom of the garden on warm days so that our 'exercising lungs' would not trouble the rest of the family when we were put down for a nap. It's my belief that babies cry because they are needy and vulnerable. They have no other resource at this stage in their development, and they need to feel safe, secure, and loved. By ignoring their cries we are teaching them not to ask. What's the point in asking if you know you will be ignored? I believe that this is a lesson well-absorbed by a tiny infant, and it's a sad little nugget of knowledge that they carry with them into later life.

I only have two children, and I put their needs above my own when they were tiny, and I'm very glad I did. They are both way more confident than I was as a child, and neither is in any way pushy or obnoxious. So, okay, bed-times were often drawn out affairs when they were small, but I believe we all benefitted from the extended cuddles and bed-time conversations. Even now that they are older (10 and 14) I will often chat with them in their rooms for half an hour or so before they go to sleep.

Sorry to be such a strong voice of dissent on your first posting, Kerry!


Georgiakevin profile image

Georgiakevin 7 years ago from Central Georgia

Your Hub is well written and well thought out.I think it depends on the child. It was hard for me to listen to a child cry without wanting to comfort/help the child but there are times when a child has a full blown temper tantrum or when the child has gotten so tired the child needs to cry her/his self to sleep. Fortunately small child/ babies crying is but a memory to me but I remember 1 or 2 times..............


kerryg profile image

kerryg 7 years ago from USA Author

No problem, Amanda. As I said, it's a very controversial topic and there are plenty of people who support the method that I wish would get off my side. :)

Just to make one thing very clear, though, I don't advocate ignoring a child who has a genuine need, nor do I support dumping a kid in bed with no warning and expecting her to put herself to sleep. Our bedtime routine for my 2 1/2 year old lasts about 30-45 minutes on an average night and includes plenty of cuddling and one-on-one attention. But she knows that when we kiss her goodnight and turn off the light that it's her job to put herself the rest of the way down. Some nights she fusses a little, especially if there are visitors who are staying late, but generally we hear her in there for a few minutes talking or singing to herself and then it goes quiet.


Bloggify profile image

Bloggify 7 years ago

For me the answer is no - I can't imagine where this peculiar practice arose from.

Just a thought - why not put up a poll, see what people think ?


Plants and Oils profile image

Plants and Oils 7 years ago from England

An interesting hub. I agree that you shouldn't rush to a baby or young child if he just wimpers, often it's just a 10 second whinge and he'll settle down again.

But I am absolutely opposed to crying-it-out or crying-to-sleep. I think it teaches that affection and love isn't coming when needed.


nasus loops profile image

nasus loops 6 years ago from Fenland

This is a great hub. I personally tried the cry it out method but my son didn't even believe in cyring just trashing his room. My sister in law however did use and it worked well for her. I think, as you say it comes down to the individual family and works for them.


6 years ago

I think you're right. Do what works for you and your child. Crying out does not mean, or shouldn't mean, just tossing them into bed. My sister is able to put her son to bed at 15mths and he doesn't cry, just goes to sleep. She used the method you mentioned. He is a happy baby and is very easygoing. My son is used to being put to bed half-sleeping then being moved to his crib. I wish it was as easy as my nephew but he's only a year. putting him in the crib awake does not work. we haven't tried the crying out. what is a good age for them to learn to put themselves to sleep?

we tried it one night and i guess because he was really tired he fell asleep after only 2 minutes of complaining, not serious crying.

i think it's only controversial because people still have issues with their own childhood. how can it be controversial to comfort your baby while they learn to put themselves to sleep?

back in the day it was the child that had to fit into the parent's plans and needs.

what i think is ACTUALLY dangerous is putting your little baby in a crib in a different room. at least til they can sit up and roll over they should sleep in the same room as you, not necessarily the same bed...


TroyM profile image

TroyM 6 years ago

Yep, I see both sides. SOme crying is OK, but not a lot.


summeraine profile image

summeraine 5 years ago

cry it out worked for all 3 of my children


Jen F 5 years ago

I am now training my 3 month old baby to self sooth when going to sleep. We have established a routine. I am searching what people are saying about the CIO method and I see both sides. I am realizing that yes, I understand that babies need to feel love and affection, however, they do not cry just for that reason. You should get to know your baby and their crys. I never let her get to hysterics but I do let her "fuss" versus "cry" it out. I say "fuss" because that is just what it is, fussing. She has just discovered her hands and loves to suck on them and her thumbs. I now know her cries and tend to her when needed. and no babies do not need to be in the same room with you, that is why they invented baby monitors. Mine (monitor) is right by my bed and she has been sleeping through the night in her crib for a month and a half now (she is 3 months old), I was just having issues getting her to sleep. :)


Rani 5 years ago

at what age should one start to do CIO?

Regarding step 5, to keep repeating that method until they fall asleep. what if you go in and because your there your baby cries even more because they want to be soothed by you, do you still leave the room with them crying hysterically? what if the step 5 doesn't calm them down at all? would you still just keep going in and out every few minutes/


mom 4 years ago

yes, what if step 5 doesn't calm them down? sometimes even when I pick my son up he will cry for 30 min (in my arms).


krystal 4 years ago

I have an 8 1/2 month old daughter and we started doing the "cry it out" method at about 3 months old. Never more than for a minute or so to begin with. But i believe you should never ignore a newborn, but she had been sleeping the the night (6 hours) at two weeks old, and by two months old she was sleeping between 8-10 hours a night. but i was having to nurse her over an hour before bedtime and having to transition to the binkey and get her down without waking her up. So at this point she started waking up when i would set her down, so we decided to start letting her learn self soothing skills. We started with only a minute at a time and we would constantly go back and put our hand on her and tell her we love her. but we just kept slowly increasing the time to no more than 3 or 4 minutes before she would put herself to sleep. and now i put her down after nursing her and she fusses no more than a few minutes, if at all. Sometimes she'll gaga mama dada at herself for a few minutes or just let out a long sound and go to sleep. So i actually never have to go into her room at all anymore. except to check on her after she's asleep of course. She sleeps from about 9pm to about 10:30am. However there are days when she doesn't want to sleep, teething, sick, she was a little fussy when she was first learning how to crawl because she would wake herself up and practice it, and since there wasn't anything in her crib there was nothing but space. How ever consistency is key with method. So again wait it out. I usually wait with her now about 4 or 5 minutes if she is just whining. Of course, I would never her leave her to cry hysterically. and i'll go in and give her, her binky and rub her little belly say "shhh" sometimes i dont say anything at all but just smile at her. and just extend the time by a minute every time or few times. But by now being fully committed to this method she is great at soothing herself to sleep. Like i said i almost never have to go into her room she usually goes right to sleep on her own.

but i also agree that this is not for everyone, it takes a lot of commitment and patience. And not only that, its not for every baby either. Some babies cannot be soothed this way and may need a little extra love to go to sleep and it may be a lot easier for some babies, and parents. But its worth a try and as far as when to start its really up to you (no newborns of course) but my daughter was always a really good sleeper night time was always pretty easy for us. So letting her start to self soothe at night wasn't so bad for her. However, if you have a baby whos already having a rough time getting to bed and staying in bed then it might not be time to start yet. Get a good bedtime routine and get sleeping a little easier first.

My daughter at 7pm is in her bouncer jumping away and we watch about 15 minutes of sprout channel while i eat dinner and then at 7:30 she takes a bath. at 7:45 she is a naked baby in her diaper and we cuddle or play or read a book for about 30 minutes then she gets an 8oz bottle and i nurse her for 30 minutes. I put her to bed and she usually talks to herself for about a minute and goes to sleep. She has this monkey that she just adores and i keep it on the foot end of the crib in the corner and she sometimes gets up to go cuddle with him and then go back to sleep. its so cute. but she is great at self soothing she she is not traumatized. She is a normal healthy 20lb baby who laughs and gives me hugs all day long. and even gives kisses in the morning. Its worth trying i love our bedtime routine. and of course if it doesn't work for you or your baby then you'll have to try other means of comfort.

I just want people to understand that there is a proper way to executing this method, and it needs to be done consistently. But by using this method you aren't being evil. You are teaching your child to self soothe which is a life skill everyone hopefully develops at some point. As long as you listen to your babys cries and make sure you are quick to soothe them if they ever start to sound pver distressed. This is not only a learning experience for your baby, but also yourself. It gives you the opportunity to really study your babies cries. You will see that those cries that you thought were bad are really just complaining and whining. I know what all of my daughters cries mean. And honestly since we have such and set schedule she really doesn't cry much at all. she gets fussy at times of course but her eating schedule and nap schedule is always the same so usually i get to her before it hits her that shes hungry or tired.

Again i know that this is not possible for everyone. I encourage all to try it, and if its not for you then please do what does work best for you. This is just a suggestion to help any like me which is has worked wonders for. Good luck to everyone :)


DIYmommy profile image

DIYmommy 3 years ago

This hub was extremely helpful. I have a 2 month old son and I was hoping to start this in about a month. We are currently establishing a bedtime routine. Right now I am putting him to bed after he falls asleep in my arms but I think he is almost at the point where I can put him in his crib when he is very sleepy and on the verge of sleep. Thank you for all the tips, this really helped a new Mom out!

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