Does the "cry it out" sleep method refer to the parents or the child?

Over at the Attachment Parenting blog, I found an article about getting babies to sleep that reminded me of my experience. We talked about sleep waaaaay back in Episodes 2 & 3 of The Family Anatomy Show, but I think it’s worth revisiting. Historically there have been two major schools of thought about getting babies to sleep – let them cry it out, or comfort them. The first is based on conditioning, or the idea that picking up a child who is crying rewards them and increases the frequency of the behaviour. The “cry it out” method also proposes that allowing kids to calm themselves will improve their ability to self-soothe. On the other hand, listening to your child cry without helping him or her can be a traumatic experience for the parents! The alternative method recommends that parents respond to their child, and that by soothing them when they are upset, the child feels secure and develops a trusting relationship with the parent. Interestingly, the major proponents of both approaches recently began to acknowledge that there are elements of the other approach that may be valid. The fact is, every child and family is different, and no single approach will work for everyone.

I tried the “cry it out” method with my children, because I believed in the importance of developing self-soothing strategies. My effort did not last beyond the first 30 minutes, however. Neither of my sons were able to calm themselves – they just became increasingly upset. After some sleep-deprived nights trying to figure out what to do (keep in mind that this was occurring as the kids were stopping their nightly breastfeeding routines), we finally came to a solution. I set up a small mattress and a sleeping bag in the baby’s room, and I slept on the floor. When my son woke up, I was there instantly to hug him, rub his back, and hold his hand. Both of my kids eventually learned in this way that their room was a safe place. They still woke up multiple times, and came to visit us in the night once they were out of a crib, but we rarely heard crying.

How did you get your kids to go to sleep? Were you able to get the “cry it out” method to work?

You can read the Attachment Parenting post here.

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6 Responses to Does the "cry it out" sleep method refer to the parents or the child?
  1. phdinparenting
    February 27, 2009 | 4:01 pm

    Since you read my blog, you probably already know my answer to this question. We do not believe in using the cry it out approach. I outline our reasons here:

    I do not thing it is right for our family and I do not think there is enough evidence that it is safe and I think there is enough evidence that excessive crying can be harmful (and cry it out does sometimes involve excessive crying).

    Like many other less than ideal parenting practices, I think some children will escape from cry it out unscathed and others will not. Based on your professional experience, I’m sure you know much more about brains and how they work than I do, but what experience and observation has shown me is that some people seem more resilient than others. What makes one person that goes through something traumatic end up depressed or distraught while another person that goes through the same thing can brush themselves off and move on? I really don’t know. So I err on the side of caution when it comes to my kids brains and tread lightly.

    Beyond the potential damage, to me it is a matter of treating my children with respect and I don’t think it is respectful to leave them to cry alone in another room. I wouldn’t treat my partner that way and I’m certainly not going to treat my child that way.

    Each parent has to make their own decision and ours was that we will parent our children to sleep until they are ready to sleep on their own and as we recognize signs of readiness we will use gently strategies to help them along (e.g. working at a laptop in my son’s room while he goes to sleep instead of lying down with him).

    Lots more on cry it out on my blog:

  2. Barb Desmarais
    March 3, 2009 | 8:07 pm

    Hi Brian ~

    Although I coach parents, I’m not familiar with all the research around getting babies to sleep. The majority of my clients are parents of toddlers to pre-teens. If they have issues around sleep, I will refer them elsewhere or share my own experience not claiming to be an expert in the area.

    My children are now 19 and 21. I had a lot of difficulties with my first, trying to get her to sleep through the night. I nursed on demand and was often up three or four times a night even as she approached her first birthday. At that time the Ferber method was being promoted by most everyone and several of my friends had used it so we gave it a try. I had two other children at the time as my husband’s twin sons lived with us. They were 8 years old when our daughter was born. One thing I knew for certain was that in order for me to be at my best during the day, I needed my sleep and it wasn’t in anyone’s best interest that I be constantly tired during the day. Although it was very, very difficult listening to our daughter “cry it out” for the 3 nights, it worked. By the third night she only cried for five to ten minutes and from then on, she slept through the night. I followed the method to the letter. We were all better off, having a full night’s sleep. My three kids got a more attentive, rested mother and my daughter was better rested. She’s now an intelligent, very secure and well-adjusted 21 year old young woman. Do I recommend it for everyone? No. I usually tell parents to do what feels most comfortable to them.

    When our son came along two years later, we again used the Ferber method and within three nights he was sleeping through the night. I remember having to do it a couple of times because our routine was broken by a vacation. He’s also a happy, well-adjusted, secure 19 year old young man.

  3. The Mother
    March 3, 2009 | 8:46 pm

    I will beg to differ.

    I had one child (out of four) who would simply never have slept through the night without Ferber’s method. Yes, it took an iron constitution (for the parents), but he figured it out.

    He is now a perfectly happy, well adjusted 21.

    I have three others who managed quite well without any hysterics.

    My point is that all children are different. Blanket statements don’t solve anything, and tend to make parents feel inadequate.

    I may be naive, having only a medical degree and a lot of parenting practice with my four, almost grown boys, but I really don’t think that crying oneself to sleep at the age of 6 months is a real deal-breaker.

  4. brianmacdonald
    March 3, 2009 | 8:59 pm

    Kids and families are so different that there’s no one clearly superior method of getting them to sleep through the night. Ferber’s method (aka “graduated extinction”) has been found to be superior in the short-term, and many pediatricians and neuropsychiatrists used to prescribe antihistamines or herbal teas (new warnings about the effects of cold medicines on young children may have altered this practice). As I said in the article, my kids were unable to benefit from extinction, as they panicked so much they were unable to sleep.

  5. JustAskBaby
    June 9, 2009 | 3:26 pm

    The Cry It Out method has often been misunderstood as involving simply letting the baby cry until he or she goes to sleep. Although this progressive method may work for some infants there are other things to consider. You can read more about this on Professor Elkind’s blog:

  6. sandra742
    September 9, 2009 | 8:27 am

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.