An Argument Against Crying It Out

by Courtney Sirotin on August 12, 2013

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The premier controversial post I wrote on medicating kids garnered a nice discussion in the comments, so I’m going to try it again with an explanation on why I chose not to use the Cry It Out method for getting Dylan to sleep by himself through the night.

I went to dinner with some friends for Jay’s birthday in July and we were talking about how Jay thinks I should be more controversial, so I asked the table if they had any ideas for controversial posts. One of our friends said, “You could write about why you don’t believe in Cry It Out.” Well that’s true, I thought, I could write about that. Without some prompting, I probably never would have touched on this touchy subject, but in the spirit of kicking things up a notch around here…here we go.

As I’m sure you all know, Cry It Out (CIO) is an approach some parents take to help train their babies or toddlers to go…the “F”…to sleep. It is sometimes also referred to as “sleep training” based on the assumption that little ones do not inherently know how to put themselves to sleep and therefore must undergo some tough love instructional sessions to figure it out.

As the name Cry It Out implies, parents looking to employ this method typically put their kids to bed, usually in a crib, and leave the room. The kids will cry in protest but the parents will not intervene or step back into the room to comfort the baby right away. After a predetermined number of minutes, if the baby is still crying, the parents will enter the room to offer brief reassurance that they are still around and then they’ll leave the room again. Over a period of time, and varying amounts of crying, the baby will eventually give up crying, because it doesn’t achieve anything, or because he or she is too exhausted, and fall asleep. This process is then repeated for naps and bedtimes until the baby no longer protests to fall asleep and just sleeps when put into to bed alone. From that point on, parents reap the benefits of easy bedtimes and their kids seem to get plenty of uninterrupted sleep. The process is fast and efficient and I have known many parents who have used the CIO method and are really pleased with the results.

I’m not one of those parents and let me tell you why. First of all, I’m not fast or efficient when it comes to anything baby related, so there’s that. Given the choice, I always do things the long and hard way. This isn’t something I set out to do, but its my natural mode of operation so at some point I just accepted this and expected this of myself.

Beyond that, however, I also have a strong personal belief that babies need their parents and belong with their parents when it is time to fall asleep. I fear that babies who don’t get the reassurance or comfort that comes from knowing their cries are heard and responded to with tenderness and an unwavering presence from their parents could, somewhere deep in their developing psyche, feel abandoned. Mostly, though, I just think its unnatural to leave them alone to cry.

Almost all of my parenting philosophies have developed from asking myself how I would parent in a forest. Maybe I’m a Paleo Parent? Is that such a thing? What I mean is, as a species we come from a place where our kids could not survive without the ever-present tending to of their parents. If I left my child to CIO in one cave while I slept in another, my kid would get eaten by a bear. Even though time has passed and we now have safe cribs and relatively stable societies, the instincts in our babies to be vocal about their need for protection are still very real and primal. When they cry at night because they don’t feel the reassuring warmth or breath of their mother, they don’t know that they are truly safe. Their little bodies just know that something is not right and they are in danger. Can you imagine how stressful that must feel to them when they are already tired and need to sleep? Eventually they do give up, they’ve cried it out, but the deep rooted abandonment could be pretty traumatic. Also, I don’t think mothers feel so hot being away from their crying babies because all of their instincts are firing and they want to comfort their babies. Basically, if the CIO method is hard on parents, and on babies, perhaps its not the most natural method.

Eventually, all babies will learn to sleep on their own. The CIO method is fast and efficient with the tradeoff of possibly being traumatic. The method I used to get Dylan to fall asleep on his own took a lot longer and involved a lot of patience but now he goes to sleep like a champ and never, not once, had to cry as he figured it out. The method we employed was a long one, but I’m so happy with the results and proud that it was never traumatic. I’ll explain.

Starting from the very beginning, Dylan and I co-slept. When he needed a nap or was ready for bed at night, he would nurse in bed and then eventually dose off. I stayed with him until he was asleep then left the room and went about my business. If/when he woke, I popped back in bed with him and nursed him back to sleep. When he was a baby, I was popping in and out of his room quite a bit, but over time he slept for longer and longer stretches. He also became more aware of his surroundings and level of safety over time, and as he got older he didn’t always need me when he woke up and would be happy to play in bed for awhile or fall back asleep. Anytime he did need me, however, I was there, even before he had to cry out for me (thanks to diligently watching his video monitor). I wanted him to feel safe and enveloped in motherly love at all times, and he was. Eventually we also stopped nursing, when he was very ready, and there were no tears or fears in the weaning process either. In both cases, avoiding tears and fears meant putting in the time until he was very ready for the next stage in development, and then it came easily.

Now, as Dylan is turning three, his bedtime routine probably looks the same as any other kid his age. He gets ready for bed (jammies, teeth, potty, etc.), then we climb into his bed together with a flashlight. We read 4-5 books together and then I give him a big hug and kiss, tell him “good night…sweet dreams…” and leave him in his dark room with his flashlight, books and a small toy or stuffed animal. He stays in bed rolling around and talking to himself for awhile, maybe 5 minutes, and then falls asleep. Later, I sneak in and remove the flashlight and books and he stays asleep until morning. When he wakes up, I pop in bed with him as quick as I can, not because he is crying for me, but to get my morning snuggles.

Often, getting to the place we are at now involved a great leap of faith. I didn’t know if it would work because I had never done it before, but I just kept trusting that if I did what felt right and natural at every turn it would eventually sort itself out. Sometimes it was inconvenient and I had to leave something I was doing to go back to bed with him. I ate a lot of cold dinners when he would wake up just as I would sit down to eat. Many of my nights with Jay were interrupted too. But in the end, especially now that I see how it all turned out, I wouldn’t do anything differently because, conversely, my most cherished parenting moments – life moments – have also taken place in those hours of lying with Dylan in his bed as he nursed himself to sleep.

Its been a very slow process of Dylan needing me a lot to fall asleep, then not so much, and eventually he won’t need me at all. Rather than rush any of these moments away, I really want to be fully present to cherish and enjoy them, because these are the moments that make life special. In the decades to come, I will treasure all of them deeply in my heart. Also in the decades to come, Dylan may not remember any of what we went through together during his first three years of life, but I believe in his heart he will exist on this earth with a deep reassurance of his importance and how much he is loved because I never cut corners on him.

The point is, we got there, to the place all parents want to get with their kids, and it was very gentle on both of us. I know many people along the way told me I would eventually have to let him cry it out, but I didn’t and this is the message I want to put out into the world. In my limited experience, with my one kid, I found that listening to my own maternal instincts was the way to go, even when society had other suggestions. Also, following my child’s readiness cues has saved me a lot of headaches and heartaches. I wish I had done this better when it comes to feeding him solids, as I started them before he was ready, and now eating is a struggle for us.

I want to end this post by pointing out that every parent and child is different and I have very limited experience parenting, as I have only done it with Dylan. Other children may be ready to sleep though the night much earlier than Dylan was, so I’m not ever going to judge what my friends are doing if they found a system that works for their family. I think we all just figure it out for ourselves, and there are certainly days and times I question every last thing about what I have done/am doing as a parent, but I also think its meaningful to tell our stories because something we share might help another parent have confidence in their decisions along the way. I certainly appreciated reading success stories from moms who nursed their babies to sleep and those babies eventually learned how to sleep on their own, and that’s why I’m offering this one.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

JASON SIROTIN August 13, 2013 at 11:38 am

It was indeed challenging but I am also very pleased that he never felt abandoned. As much as I hated our night being completely interrupted I see the value now. Great post! In sure it will help a ton of mothers feel comfortable not being forced into the cry it out method.

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MISTY August 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm

THANK YOU!!! I have received so much drama because I don’t let my kids cry it out! I always thought “I don’t like to fall asleep so why would I want my kid to?” I was talking about this with some ladies at work and a customer overheard and said “oh that bad you can’t coddle them. They new to self sooth.” I said “they absolutely do not. My son is 2 and my daughter is 1. It my job to feed, bathe and sooth them. Since my kids never ha to scream their lungs out for attention my son started sleeping through the night at 1 month old and my daughter at 2 months”. I know you’re not suppose to argue with customers but I had satisfactions seeing her shut her face. Lol. My son co sleeps with us most if the time, sometimes he’ll want yogi sleep with my mom and sometimes go tucks himself into his room by himself and fades to sleep. I’m okay with that because he’s always happy and well rested. We tried to co sleep with my daughter and she wouldn’t have it! At two months ok we moved her up to her room because she wanted her own space. Occasionally if he’s being a diva and a little bit bratty hen we put we down we’ll let her fuss a little bit. If she doesn’t go to sleep we wear her out more. And now he’s getting to a point where she does want to sleep with us sometimes.

Thank you so much for posting this! I feel like I’m not the only but who disagrees with CIO!

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COURTNEY SIROTIN August 14, 2013 at 1:19 am

One thing you said really stands out…that everyone is happy and well-rested. That’s the end goal for all of us and I definitely started sleeping better once I brought Dylan to bed with me. I felt more at peace knowing he was safe and he felt at peace because he had everything he needed to relax. Good sleep, however you get it, is the most important thing.

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NANCY CHARLOW August 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I myself would not have done it that way. Everyone finds what works for them. I believe personally that a baby should conform to a parents schedule than the other way around. Lisa is a wonderful mother, but some of her methods drive me crazy. I am learning to keep my mouth shut, as much as a Sirotin or Mandell can do. It’s hard. In the end, it is whatever works!

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COURTNEY SIROTIN August 14, 2013 at 1:11 am

Haha…yep, its probably a good idea to let Lisa figure it out on her own. Rest assured, she will ask you when she wants your opinion! I can only imagine how hard that is for you 😉

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LESLY GREGORY August 13, 2013 at 7:14 pm

I totally took a different approach to nighttime in my own home and ended up with a mix of the two methods. I found a happy medium between what worked best for me and generated results for my daughter. I do find it a little offensive that this piece insinuates there’s some kind of trauma involved in letting children figure out and work through their own emotions which I believe is what lies behind the CIO method. I have a well-adjusted, independent child that’s a product of my ability to parent by being present but also by knowing when to step back and let her figure it out on her own. Granted, it is very hard for a Mom to step back and I’m very thankful I have such a great husband who’s braver in that respect than I am. We did what was right for us, weighing all options and taking extreme comments like CIO is traumatic and co-parenting spoils the child into account. Those comments are for extremist parents who are trying to guilt-trip you into adopting their style of parenting when there is no right/wrong answer.

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COURTNEY SIROTIN August 14, 2013 at 1:07 am

I totally agree, parents should do what’s right for them and there is no right or wrong answer. When you find what works for you and your child, I guess that’s the right answer. I’m simply sharing my story because its a point of view that doesn’t get expressed too often and I want it to exist as a resource for parents who need some reassurance that what they’re doing has worked at least one time for one person. Whatever you did in your home clearly resulted in a bright and happy child and I appreciate that you shared your success story too.

The part about trauma…I was just extrapolating to worse case scenarios. I think it can happen under extreme CIO circumstances, but I don’t think its even close to a given, especially under more gentle approaches like the one you described. Its all about being tuned into your kid and his/her threshold. Anyway, I have such limited parenting experience I still feel super awkward about sharing my perspective, but I guess its good if only to get these discussions going.

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DAVINA August 14, 2013 at 1:33 am

Courtney, great job with the last couple of more controversial posts– I’ve really enjoyed reading them. And I can’t help myself… I have to comment on this one. We were very fortunate in that our daughter slept through the night from the time we came home from the hospital (seriously, we had to wake her up for feedings). We never let her cry it out as an infant and she became a great sleeper. She would actually get excited about bed–kicking her little baby feet and smiling the minute we started the bedtime routine. When she started crying at bedtime, we didn’t have a strategy in mind. We came to CIO after trying everything else and realizing we were exacerbating the problem. Jase reminded me tonight that there’s absolutely nothing easy about CIO– it goes against all your insincts. But by the time this happened, we knew our daughter was capable of falling asleep on her own and sleeping throught the night. A few weeks of CIO for very short stretches, and with lots of reassurance in between, coaxed her back into her healthy sleep habits. I believe parents know their child best and can determine what will work for him/her. I am so glad to hear how well your method worked with Dylan. I have several friends/family members whose children couldn’t sleep on their own until well into gradeschool. Call me selfish, but I know I could never handle what that would do to me or my marriage, so I happily chose CIO!

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COURTNEY SIROTIN August 14, 2013 at 11:27 am

I remember watching Zara sleep in her car seat when you arrived places and thinking your baby (or mine) was an alien because it was such a foreign sight to me. Dylan was very much the opposite and needed a different kind of parenting. Goes to what you say about knowing your own child. I’m glad you chimed in since you’re the one who suggested this topic!

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DONNA CUSHING August 14, 2013 at 2:58 am

It is like parenting with your heart vs. parenting with your head. I guess we all do some combination of both. I would just say that what works for one child may not for another because every child and family circumstance is unique. You have certainly developed a beautiful bedtime routine with Dylan and you have done it without breaking his spirit so Kudos to you and Way to go, Dylan! It is super easy for me to put him to bed when you are not here!

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COURTNEY SIROTIN August 14, 2013 at 11:31 am

Yeah, I wonder how I would parent this way if I had a second child. It would be difficult to drop everything all the time. I think I would have to practice some serious baby wearing to get as close to this style as I could. From what I can tell, its all about what feels right in the moment. Anywho…good luck putting Dylan to sleep this weekend. Give him lots of snuggles for me!

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TREY GREGORY August 14, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Courtney! What a provocative article! I love the more controversial stuff! It was very interesting to hear your point of view on the subject, I definitely have not thought of it from that point of view before.

I do have to comment on one thing you implied that i disagree with. You implied that allowing a child to cry it out, a method that Lesly and i sort-of used, is the easy route. I disagree with that; letting your child cry and not going to comfort them immediately is literally the hardest, most painful thing I have experienced in the past three years (and that includes having appendicitis). In my opinion, it’s easier to give in to the child’s cries than it is to listen to them and not act. At least, for Lesly and I it was, we are both very empathetic parents, so for us the hardest part was trying to stay OUT of the room.

Other than that point, I find the insight into your method very enlightening, and interesting to read. Also it wasn’t preachy, parenting(mommy) blogs can come off holier-than-thou and preachy, so kudos to you for staying out of that realm. Thanks for sharing and keep the controversial posts coming!

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COURTNEY SIROTIN August 14, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Thanks for chiming in! The only thing is, you are making my argument for me! I agree that it is very hard to stay out of the room and that’s why I think its unnatural. If something is right, it shouldn’t be hard/feel wrong/go against your instincts. According to my argument, choosing to comfort makes the parents and baby feel better because it is what we are meant to be doing.

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TREY GREGORY August 14, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I challenge the statement that what feels right is ALWAYS the right move, I believe it is not.

For example, if a toddler takes a stumble while learning to walk, my instinct is to react immediately and inquire: are you okay, are you hurt? But I quickly learned that reaction caused the toddler to become worried. But if I overcome my instinctual reaction and laugh while standing the toddler up, I get a much better reaction.

Perhaps it’s different for women, I truly believe they have much better instincts when it comes to kids, in my experience at least.

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COURTNEY SIROTIN August 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Yes, but a toddler has much more self-awareness than an infant. You can whisper, “You’re safe. Daddy is right outside the room” to a three month old a thousand time but he still won’t understand what you are saying. In the dark, all alone, he has the instinct to cry out because he really is vulnerable. You know that he is safe…but he can’t comprehend that. As he gets older and becomes more aware of his surroundings, his room, his routine then he might go to bed and believe you when you say he is safe and you’re right outside the room. And by then, he won’t need to cry.

To me, its all about readiness and not rushing through the stages. I don’t understand the need to rush kids along so much. I find it so special that for those brief moments in a baby’s life, his parents are enough to bring him complete comfort. Now that I have had a kid I see how fleeting those days are and I’m so glad I didn’t rush them. As they say, the days are long but the years are short. I believe the joy is in the journey and that a lot depends on your perspective. If you see bedtime and inconsistent sleeping patterns as a nuisance, then you want to rush things along and get your baby to sleep through the night using whatever means that works, but if you see it as a special gift that you only get for a brief moment in time, you savor it a little more and make more allowances. That said, some babies will be ready faster than others so one size doesn’t fit all. Also, in the end, different people will cherish different things about parenting. I kinda zero in on a lot of the intimate, physical stuff where as you might get excited about the other stuff that I glaze over.

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NINITHA August 18, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Reading your post was like looking at what I did and continues to do. I am not a believer in crying it put either cause more than anything I do not possess the strength or determination to ignore my crying child. I did the whole nurse did he fell asleep routine too and he learnt to sleep on his own well. The two issues I still am facing problems are getting him to move to his own bed, we still co-sleep and lately more than ever, he seems to sense my presence or lack of it in bed during sleep and wake up asking for me. Also, no matter how many pee and potty before bed sessions we have, he still pees a ton at night making it impossible to remove his nighttime diapers. He is completely potty trained during the day and does not even pee in sleep during nap times but night times are a whole different game. Any pointers?

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COURTNEY SIROTIN August 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Thanks for commenting! I have absolutely no advice regarding potty training because we are very much struggling with that, but I have an idea for getting him into his own bed eventually. Could you co-sleep with him in HIS bed and then, little by little, over time, try to extend the periods of time that you don’t go back until he actually wakes up and needs you? Eventually, you could leave him to fall asleep alone in his bed and tell him you will be back once he’s asleep. When he wakes up, you will be there. After that goes well for awhile, try not to go in to sleep with him unless he needs you but make sure you snuggle with him in the morning so that he still gets that reassurance. That’s what works for us anyway, so its worth a shot. As soon as Dylan starts sitting up in bed in the morning I go in to greet him and snuggle with him for a bit while he wakes up slowly. I think those moments of familiar closeness in bed make sleeping by himself more reassuring.

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