Dr. Sarah Mitchell
About Author
April 10, 2022
Sleep Teaching

What is Cry It Out Sleep Training Method: Does It Work?

Today we're going to talk about Cry It Out sleep training: what is it, anyway?

Well, let's start with the definition of what is sleep training. And if you've been following me at all, you know that I hate that term because we train our pets, but we teach our children. Learning to fall asleep is a skill that we need to be taught.  

What is Sleep Training and Why Do Some Babies Need It?

It's true that the drive to sleep is instinctual and biological and we really can't live without sleep. However, the way we sleep is actually a learned habit that starts as early as four to eight weeks of age, when we're imprinting what sleep looks like. 

What happens with many parents is, they fall down this kind of sleep rabbit hole. This happens to all of us to some extend. I definitely did it. I had to rock or nurse my son to sleep for him to be able to fall asleep and connect sleep cycles. He woke up multiple times in the night and I had to repeat the rocking or feeding for him to fall asleep. This happened because I inadvertently taught him that’s what sleep looked like: being at my breast or in my arms to fall asleep. So when he woke up in the night, which all humans do, he looked for that same conditioning to help him fall back asleep. Sleep really is a learned habit. 

My son had sleep crutches. External things that he used to help him fall asleep and that he associated with sleep. Your baby’s sleep crutch could be nursing, drinking from a bottle, sucking on a pacifier, being rocked, being held, just even being next to somebody. These are all external things that a kiddo might use  to help them relax into sleep. 

So what is the purpose of sleep training, or sleep teaching? It's to make your baby an independent sleeper. A baby or toddler that can be put down completely awake, not drowsy, and relax themselves into sleep. For most people that's not possible until after four months of age because your child needs to develop hand control, they need to get over the startle reflex, and most people feel better about doing sleep teaching after they hit the four-month sleep regression. 

What is the “Cry it Out” Method?

One thing I've noticed after doing this for years and years and years, is that people have  wildly different definitions about what cry it out means to them. For some people, cry it out means tears of any kind. But the true definition of cry it out,  means extinction. It means to close the door and not go back in, and basically let your child cry until they figure out a way of self-soothing. 

Personally, I think it works for many people but that exact method is not my style. It's just not in my toolbox at this time because I find that that's often too much of a leap for a kiddo. Especially for those kiddos who've been held for sleep, or who have been co-sleeping.  There are methods that you can use where you are in the room the entire time offering physical and verbal reassurance.  I prefer to start with those approaches since they aren't as a dramatic of a change.

In addition, I practice respectful parenting, which is all about acknowledging. Saying, “I heard you, I might not give you the same way you've known to fall  asleep, but I hear you. You have been heard, kiddo.” And then I respond in the same consistent manner, which helps my child learn, because sleep is a learned habit. Babies and toddlers learn with repetition.  The same response to the same situation over and over again.

Is there a way to do any kind of sleep teaching without tears? That's really the question you should be asking. And for some of my clients, we have had no tears. Because here's the thing, you think that sleep teaching is all about closing the door and letting them cry. But in the  Helping Baby Sleep method there are four pillars to teaching your baby to sleep before you get to the fifth pillar, which is the responding pillar.  Pillar 1 is understanding that sleep is a learned habit.  Pillar 2 is using timing to make sure you're setting your little one up for success with the timing of feeding and of sleeping.  Putting kids down too early or too late can make it harder for them. Pillar 3 is being an intentional feeder. Are you using food for fuel rather than to make them drowsy?  The 4th pillar is messaging and being consistent. If sometimes they wake up and you feed them back to sleep and sometimes you try to not pick them up, that's confusing for your little person as you're giving them 2 different messages. Finally, the 5th pillar is responding. If I take away the known way of falling asleep, how will I offer comfort to the tears of frustration that will likely come.

Most likely there will be tears because your little one is tired and this is frustrating for them to have to learn a new way to fall asleep. It's like you trying to sleep one night without a pillow and without blankets and not in your favorite position. You're going  to toss and turn and be frustrated, and your child is going to go through that same thing.  

It does not mean, though, that they have to be left alone in a room and never checked on. The most gentle method that we teach is where you're sitting in the room next to them offering physical and verbal reassurance until they fall asleep. And how well that goes can depend on your child's age, how long the existing habits have been around, your ability to be consistent, and temperament. And some kids are just more flexible to change than others. 

Cry It Out Sleep Training: Is It For Everyone?

To close the door and not return isn't a method I'm personally comfortable with.  But if we're talking about any tears I think it's fair to say that it can be very difficult to change habits without any tear.  You can use more gentle methods that we teach in the Helping Babies Sleep method. 

If you have more sleep questions, we have a very simple six question sleep quiz that'll ask you about your child's age and their sleep habits and give you one simple thing that you can do tonight that does not involve tears.

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