Why I Was Wrong About “Cry It Out”

First, I have to acknowledge the positive: Liam is such a good baby. We’ve been blessed with a son who smiles all day long, has such a calm temperament, is sociable, loves to giggle and have fun… Everyone who meets him is instantly charmed by his adorable personality. He’s such a sweetheart. We truly couldn’t have asked for a sweeter little boy.

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Until Liam was about 4 months old, and especially during the 4 month sleep regression (if you haven’t experienced it yet, good luck to you), Liam woke up multiple times per night. He sometimes decided to start his day at 2 am. At times, this 2-3 hour awake time would happen at 11pm, as we were headed to bed. We would take turns soothing him until he finally fell asleep, and as you can imagine, we were both beyond exhausted.

Our main concern (and biggest source of frustration and exhaustion), however, were not the night wakings. The issue was that for every nap, bedtime, and wakings, Liam needed to be rocked to sleep on a yoga ball. He had no idea how to put himself to sleep on his own. Needing his pacifier to fall asleep didn’t help, either. We were glued to our baby monitor at all times, in constant fear that he’d wake up or lose his pacifier, and that we’d have to rush in there to bounce him back to sleep… Sometimes for hours.

Our sleep story may seem terrible to parents who never experienced any sleep issues. To other parents with much bigger problems, this may seem like nothing at all (there are some babies who wake up after every sleep cycle, meaning every 40-45 minutes, and cannot go back to sleep without being nursed… Sometimes, you just need to count your blessings!)

To us, it just became too much after 6 months with no progress. When all of our crutches started not working for Liam anymore, we needed to get our lives (and sleep) back. We were physically and emotionally drained. Although we weren’t ready for sleep training before Liam turned 6 months, we both knew it was time to do something once we got back from our winter trip to Saint Martin. We knew that Liam would be more than ready to learn this skill by then.

We decided to contact a sleep consultant, Alison Bevan (Sleepy Time Coach), and together we settled on a sleep coaching method for Liam.

Sleep coaching methods range from aggressive (straight out “cry it out”: letting your baby cry until he falls asleep on his own) to the well known Ferber Method (involving gradually decreasing timed checks). No matter the chosen approach, most babies (even the toughest one) start to show significant improvements in about a week.

Side note: Joe wanted to let Liam “cry it out” and I was horrified by the idea of it. How could I possibly let my baby cry for hours on end without rushing by his side to comfort him? I also truly didn’t think that Liam would be able to fall asleep on his own, without the bouncing. I was wrong.

The night before we met with Alison, we let Liam cry for about 20 minutes and shocker: he fell asleep. All. By. Himself.

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We were amazed.

After our conversation with Allison, we decided to do timed checks every 7, 9, and 12 minutes. The plan was for these increments to gradually increase with time.  It turns out that we didn’t need to. From the very first night, Liam proved to us that he didn’t need to be checked on. Sometimes he fussed and cried, yes, but never without pauses. Sometimes he had an off day, but the next was better. I never felt anxious about letting him “cry it out” (and this is coming from a very hands on, overprotective mama, so it means a lot), and every night, he is becoming better and better at it.

Now with almost three weeks of sleep training behind us, I have to admit that I didn’t give Liam enough credit. All he needed was an opportunity to show us that he was capable of putting himself to sleep on his own. Although at first it took him between 35 minutes and an hour to fall asleep at bedtime (tears included), he now needs between 5 and 15, depending on the night. The best part is that there are almost no tears involved. Same goes for naps.

I know that there are some mixed feelings out there about CIO techniques. I was one of those people who didn’t want to even go there. I was afraid that letting Liam cry it out would have negative consequences on his overall well being. I was afraid he’d feel abandoned. Sleep training has done the complete opposite. He’s now a happier, more independent baby. I thought it would make me feel miserable, and that I’d feel powerless. I actually feel better than ever and know that if I need to, I can go into his bedroom and comfort him for a minute or two. “Cry it out” doesn’t have to be as harsh as it may at first seem.

I know some parents aren’t able to do what we did. Believe me, I get it. It was difficult to hear him cry, fuss, and toss and turn in his crib. It was hard on all of us, like any new skill you have to learn. But if you are hesitating whether or not cry it out is right for you, trust me: if your baby is 6+ months and overly dependent on you to fall asleep, it is so worth a few days of tears. In under a week, our world changed.

Everything started becoming easier once Liam was able to put himself to sleep: he sleeps so much better at night (we’re working on his one night feed — right now he goes from a 10pm dream feed to a 5:30am feed) and I even need to wake him up in the mornings so he gets up by 7:30am to start his day. He is happier and less impatient, and is able to entertain himself for longer periods of time without fussing. He has become more routine-oriented. Liam has even become a better communicator: it is a lot clearer for us to know when he is really tired and not just bored.

If sleep training is on your mind, here are a few techniques we used to help Liam sleep through the night:

  • dream feeds – Allison suggested dream feeds at night instead of waiting for Liam to cry. The psychology behind dream feeds is that by feeding Liam before he has a chance to realize he’s hungry, he doesn’t associate crying and feedings. I do a dream feed at 10pm and one around 5:30am (which we are working on gradually eliminating.)
  • decreased feed time – To get rid of the early morning feed, I am slowly starting to feed him less and less at that time. Liam usually nurses for 10 minutes, so I reduced the feed by one minute every night. We are currently down to 4 minutes, which gives him enough calories to make it until 7:30/8am (I actually wake him up to start the day at that time.) I don’t like the idea of depriving him of this feed if he needs this feed, and he has shown us night after night that he does: cries at the same time ever night, can’t settle down even though he’s tired, stomach growls… He’ll drop it when he’s ready to.
  • a change in sleep routine – When we were truly desperate, I would nurse Liam to sleep in his dark room, then transfer him to his crib and pray for the best. If he had a partial arousal during the night, he would instantly wake up crying because I wasn’t there. Allison suggested feeding him 10 minutes earlier, in a well-lit room, to avoid this sleep association. We now have a very quick bedtime routine for all naps and bedtime: A bath, a song (or two, or three, depending on how he is), a kiss, and done.
  • lovey in crib – Liam used to sleep with his pacifier. The issue was that the minute it fell out, it became an issue. We would have to run to his room to pop it back in. Instead, we switched to a “lovey” (similar to this one), which he grabs instantly when he tries to go to sleep: he rubs it against his eyes, sleeps on it as a pillow, or simply strokes the fabric.
  • no more bouncing- We eliminated the yoga ball at the same time as the pacifier. It just seemed like to right time to stop all of our bad habits. Turns out that after the first day or two, he never missed either one of them. It’s crazy how quickly babies truly do adapt.

I can’t praise Allison enough for all of her help. She is so knowledgable about babies, sleep, and is exceptionally compassionate. She guided us through the entire process via phone, e-mail, and texts. She gave me the confidence to try “Cry It Out”, which I don’t think I would’ve ever agreed to without her reassurance. She introduced us to many methods of CIO, not just the harsh, painful way we imagined.

If you have any questions on “Cry It Out” methods or how we went about sleep coaching Liam for naps and night sleep, please leave a comment or e-mail me directly. I would be glad to share our experience.


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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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