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.
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.
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.