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Is the Cry it Out Method Bad?

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Cry It Out (CIO) is a loaded acronym because it puts the focus on crying instead of teaching a baby the necessary self-soothing skills to sleep independently. But should the focus be on crying? As you may know, some parents have very strong opinions about this sleep training method, especially since the method’s loose definition includes the word crying. Are these opinions based on facts, though? No matter what you believe, we invite you to read what we know about successfully teaching babies how to sleep independently. If nothing else, it could at least help reframe your thoughts about sleep training, including the whole concept of Cry It Out.


What is the Cry It Out Method?

The cry it out (CIO) sleep training method – also known as controlled crying or extinction – is a popular method for sleep training originating from books written by pediatricians Dr. Marc Weissbluth, Dr. Richard Ferber, and Dr. Michel Cohen, founder of Tribeca Pediatrics, and Gina Ford, a British nanny / Newborn Care Specialist. Sidenote: Gina Ford is the only one of them who has personal experience sleep training babies, which is clear if you try following any of their sleep training methods.

Cry It Out falls into a few different categories. The first is that parents who employ Cry It Out put their baby in the crib, let them cry all night, come back 12 hours later, and repeat for three nights. Loosely, that’s Dr. Weissbluth and Dr. Michel Cohen’s advice without much guidance about what to do when something doesn’t seem right. The controlled crying or “graduated” approach promoted by Dr. Ferber instructs parents to let their baby cry for increasingly longer intervals (3 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 10, etc.), go in and out of the room to reassure, repeat for every waking until your baby is sleep trained, no matter how many weeks or months it takes. And then there’s the so-called “gentle” sleep training methods which are also versions of CIO but with parents in the room shushing and soothing crying babies (and or picking them up or shuffling in and out) while they learn how to sleep independently. 

Now, none of these Cry It Out methods take into account WHY babies are crying, when to respond to their genuine NEEDS, how to work with different developmental stages and feeding challenges, or what to do when the Cry It Out sleep training plan doesn’t go as planned. What we see on the back end is total confusion and parents feeling blamed for “not doing it right!”

When we at Mommywise help babies learn how to sleep independently, we always start with establishing a nighttime routine, and changing up whatever needs to change to help the baby learn quickly and easily. Dimming the lights in your home is always a good start, as is reading a bedtime story after a feed.

From there sleep training is about changing sleep associations. If your baby is used to falling asleep in your arms, the goal is to help them learn to feel comfortable falling asleep in their crib (and fall back to sleep throughout the night whenever they wake!). 

When we help parents sleep train, babies do cry. But are they crying because they’re hungry or sick or have a dirty diaper? You can’t just leave a baby crying if they actually need something. But if they’re merely being fussy, could you hold back and let them begin to figure it out on their own without jumping in to fix something out of habit or fear?


Is Cry It Out Damaging?

It depends on what your definition of CIO is. If your definition of CIO is that you leave your baby crying hysterically for up to 12 hours without attending to their needs, yes, that could be harmful, and I don’t recommend that at all. But if your definition of CIO includes letting your baby voice their objections to change and cry on and off while they’re learning how to sleep, that’s quite different. Studies show that there are no risks involved in leaving babies to cry for intermittent periods while they’re learning to self-soothe. The sleep training work we do with our clients is 100% not damaging. On the contrary, babies are so much less cranky when they’re finally rested!


How Long Does the Cry It Out Method Take?

If you’re following Taking Cara Babies, the “chair” method, the “shuffle”, the “Ferber” method – or any CIO sleep training method including intermittent checks, you’re in for lots of crying over several weeks or months. Though I’m sure there must be some limited success in these methods, most of our clients have tried some or all of these and saw little to no progress for many weeks. By the time they come to us they already feel extremely defeated. But, if CIO sleep training is done correctly, with consistency, the way we work with our clients (ensuring all of the baby’s needs are met vs just letting them cry for hours on end), sleep training will only take three nights. That’s right, only three nights. At least with us, that’s what you’ll see.


Rethinking the Cry It Out Method

About four months after her son was born, a friend reached out and asked, “Do you think CIO is the best sleep training method?”

She said my response was “so amazingly helpful,” I decided to share it. I hope it helps you too!

I believe that babies should be allowed to speak, and to express their objection to change. Their only language for feeling frustrated, tired, or uncomfortable (because they can’t find a comfortable position) – is crying.

Do I think babies with genuine needs should cry for hours and hours without responding? Or cry and cry until they vomit (some people think this is what CIO is)? No. Of course not! 

We watch babies. We observe and hear them. We study their body language and listen to their voices. It can be hard for parents to see the difference between ingrained habits and adjust to different needs as your baby gets older. That’s where an experienced sleep coach can bring an objective outside perspective to walk with the family as their baby is ready to gain sleep independence. 

Does your baby NEED a pacifier to fall asleep? No, that’s just a habit. If their arm gets stuck in the crib, that is a real need and requires a response. If your baby wakes 45 minutes after falling asleep, do they NEED anything besides sleep? What is their body language and voice telling you? Are they doing that thing they always do when they’re tired and trying to fall asleep?

For sleep training, we wouldn’t go in and out of the room randomly just because a book said to do so. We carefully observe their behavior and ask ourselves, what is their body language telling us? Do they look like they want to go back to sleep? Should we go in and “help” them, or give them more time and space to find a comfortable position?

So, to answer your question – much depends on your definition of Cry It Out. I believe in a “less is more” approach, and I’ll try to hold parents back a little bit further to see what their baby is capable of, before reacting to every sound or following some generic sleep training method that supposedly works for all babies!

Sleep training is really hard – one of the hardest things you may ever do – but it can be done quickly and easily with the right support! 

When Mommywise Coaches work with your baby, they often discover that not all cries are a bad thing. Instead, crying is a baby’s chosen method of communication. They might cry because they’re frustrated or trying to get comfortable, for instance.

The difference is that we are trained to look for these things. If you would like to find out more, and have our guidance so that you can avoid unnecessary tears, please contact us today to find out how we can help! 


If you’re exhausted and need more sleep, let us help.
You don’t have to do this alone!

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Natalie Nevares

As Mommywise Founder, my mission is to help families grow and thrive, provide sustainable income for women and mothers, raise awareness about postpartum mood disorders, and make treatment more accessible. As a mentor and parent, my mission is to role-model a strong woman, parent, and leader who endeavors to leave a legacy of positive change through service and humility.

Picture of Natalie Nevares

Natalie Nevares

As Mommywise Founder, my mission is to help families grow and thrive, provide sustainable income for women and mothers, raise awareness about postpartum mood disorders, and make treatment more accessible. As a mentor and parent, my mission is to role-model a strong woman, parent, and leader who endeavors to leave a legacy of positive change through service and humility.

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