Is Cry it Out the Answer?

December 13, 2011 |  by  |  3-6 Months, cry it out, new mom, Q&A
Is Cry it Out the Answer?

I get tons of baby sleep email, mostly because people don’t like to air their dirty baby sleep laundry in the comment section. I get it. The web is where we share parenting triumphs: baby’s first steps, first time on the potty, first Christmas. But email is where the real work of parenting happens: cry it out, sleep desperation, meddling in-laws, etc. But what you see when you get 10 emails a week is that almost everybody is getting stuck on the same sleep challenges. So on that note I would like to share a recent email:

My 4 month old baby (George) takes about 5 short (40 min) naps during the day. I put him to bed around 7:30 p.m and he’s awake, wanting to nurse at 11ish, 2ish, 5ish and then up for the day at 7:30ish.

I could use some advice about “cry it out.” He’s 4 months and a healthy 16 pounds. I’m torn whether or not to try it with him.

I have everyone telling me to let him “cry all night” but it’s just not in my nature to do so and I’m convinced there must be another way!

There are three major issues with her question. (Bonus points if you can you guess what they are without peeking below!)

1. Is there a problem?

What she is describing (45 minute naps throughout the day and 3 nursing sessions at night) is pretty typical sleep for a 4 month old. Nothing here screams “sleep problem” to me. Certainly by 4 months you might be keen to see your baby drop a night feeding or two, and there are techniques to solve that problem. And 45 minute naps aren’t ideal, but some babies consolidate naps (ie. take longer naps) later than others. It’s a developmental milestone. You can wish desperately for it to happen but you can’t make it happen.

2. Is Cry it Out the right tool for the job?

I think there is some confusion about when CIO is the answer. Cry it out solves a very specific sleep problem – your baby is unable to fall asleep without you. (Sometimes cry it out is also used when you are ready to stop co-sleeping and can’t get baby out of your bed but really this is just another variety of “can’t fall asleep without you”.)

As your baby get’s older (6+ months generally) the techniques you’ve been using to put your baby to sleep (nursing, rocking, cuddling, etc.) will stop working for you. Full stop. So between 3-6 months of age you have a major piece of parenting homework. You need to figure out how to help your baby fall to sleep on their own.

If you weren’t able to do this. If you weren’t aware that you needed to do this. If you tried everything possible and absolutely nothing worked, you now have an older baby (6-8 months+) or even a toddler who is likely waking up routinely all night long and fighting naps. In this case, cry it out may be the solution.

Cry it out isn’t likely to accomplish anything positive for little George because falling asleep on his own is not (yet) his problem.

Baby sleep help or peer pressure?

Unlike diaper rash or introducing solids, baby sleep is a very personal topic for parents because a) sleep deprivation makes you emotionally vulnerable and b) helping your baby sleep is really important. So when people make comments or suggestions that even hint at being a criticism it really cuts to the quick. Also because most parents of babies are desperately exhausted they’ll grab any life-preserver thrown their way (and it’s not always the right life-preserver).

I get the sense that this new Mom is almost getting peer-pressured into doing something that doesn’t feel right to her. Giving advice is hard (and frankly I’m bad at it – I’m the queen of giving advice nobody asked for). But knowing how touchy sleep is for tired parents it’s extraordinarily hard. Let’s check out some examples:

“Your baby seems really tired, almost lethargic really. Maybe you aren’t doing enough to help him sleep! You should let him cry all night. It worked wonders for my cousin Celia.”

Advice fail.

Or you could try:
“I see you are really working diligently to help baby George get the sleep he needs. I know sometimes cry it out can make things better. Do you think it might work for you?”

Back to baby George. This Mom did the right thing – she started doing some research, asking questions, and ultimately listened to her gut which was telling her that cry it out doesn’t feel right. I agree. Right now, under these circumstances, cry it out is not the answer.

So best wishes to baby George’s Mom. She’s going to be working on gently weaning George off 1-2 of those night feedings. She’s going to make a concerted effort to start putting him down awake to sleep. And if she takes my advice, she’ll be telling everybody to bugger off while she figures out how to parent baby George in the way that feels right to her.
{photo credit: OwlPacino}


18 Comments


  1. I just wanted to say for any of the parents who got here due to the 45 minute nap problem – its totally true what this page says about it being a developmental milestone. My son was a 45 minute napped until he was 6 months old and latched onto a transitional object (blanket). Now he naps 1.5-2 hours, twice a day.

  2. We have been doing your CIO ATM and going to sleep great only a few min of cry after a few time of doing. But my problem is that he wakes after 20min screaming, he normally sleeps 1-2hours. Do I jut let hom cry again?
    Ashley recently posted..Great Holiday Books for KidsMy Profile

    • I am having the same problem. My baby puts herself to sleep great (fusses maybe 10-15 minutes) but often wakes up after only 30-45 minutes of sleeping. And then she screams and screams for up to 1.5 hours. Any advice? (She is 6 moths old, breastfed, 19 lbs, and naps well – about 4 hours over 3 naps)

      • I am having the same issue. What ended up happening/working for you?

        • my son is 7 months old and slept beautifully well until around 4.5 months and since wakes at least 3 times a night. again he goes down well at around 7pm and will generally sleep well until around 1am but after that we are up and down until around 6am when he feeds and then he is up! does the CIO method work in the early hours generally we do anything we can to soothe him quietly at that time e.g. pacifier, patt, cuddle, mobile music and most nights by 4 or 5am i just give in and put him in my bed! any advice would be great

  3. My baby is 5months old . Im 15 & I live in a group home I find it easy to lay him down fully asleep on his tummy . He’ll sleep for a ling time . But that’s not allowed here . So I have to lay him on his side or back until he’s six months which is only about a month . But not laying him o. His stomach causes him to wake up a lot more during the night & it sucks when you have to get up at 7;00a for school each morning

  4. My beautiful baby girl is 4.5 months old. Our old nights would consist of me going to her room with her at 8:30 where i would be trying to put her down for hours. There would be lots of feeding and screaming and rocking and loving but the screams would just keep coming despite all the soothing. No one was happy because i was spending hours with a fussy baby upstairs and daddy was helpless downstairs from 8pm on. My husband and I decided to start CIO at bedtime about two weeks ago per the pediatrician recommendation and after I did a lot of research. We put her to bed after a routine between 8 and 8:30 depending on her last nap and her sleep signs. Some nights she falls right to sleep without any fussing and sometimes she will scream for 30-40 minutes. She then falls asleep until her first feeding around 12:45am. I would feed her then bring her into a bed in her room with me because we both love it. She would then sleep soundly till 5:30 for a feeding then up for good around 8. I was so happy with this! Her naps and my happiness and alertness were great! Everything went this well for about 10 days and i didn’t mind the night feedings because i was getting mommy and daddy time at night after 8:30 and she would go right back to sleep after MOTN feedings.But now she is waking up at 12:45 for a feeding (after CIO at 8 then sleeping in crib) then only sleeping (with me) until 3 and staying up till 6 then sleeping till 8. It’s getting very exhausting. So my questions are, do I need to be putting her back in crib after that first 12:45am feeding and letting her CIO again? What do you think is going on at that 3am where she won’t sleep?

  5. Hi Alexis!

    We had great success with your CIO techniques at 6 months and enjoyed 1.5 months of sleeping through the night bliss, from 8pm-6ish am.
    At around 7.5 months he had the flu and the only way to settle him during the night was to breastfeed. When better, he went back to sleeping through for one week. Since then, he’s waking 2/3 times each night and it feels like it’s not CIO crying. Vomits if we go in once to try to quickly settle then leave. His 2 day naps are the same – major crying unless we’re rocking him.
    Totally lost as whether or not we should hope this is a phase (it’s been going on for nearly 2 weeks)or to incorporate CIO again?

    Thanks so much for ALL of your advice.

    Leanne

  6. I have a premature baby boy , he was born at 28 weeks and is now 6months old , when he came home he sleeped beautifully . Now its getting really hard for me to help him sleep , he almost drifts to sleep then he spits his dummy out and wakes right up and it takes about 2hours to get him back to sleep , he doesn’t take his bottle and thinks its a game . It’s even hard for him to napand when he does nap its for like an hour .any suggestions for me HELP .

  7. I really like this article. I live in France and the approach of women here is not to say anything but to ask if he sleeps through the night – then when you say, well no (ie he’s a baby why would he)..you get the look. The look meaning “clearly doesn’t know what she is doing”

    Its enough to make me want to scream! :)

    But I don’t. Now I say – oh yes he does. He is totally perfect and we couldn’t be happier.

  8. Hi! my son just turned 9 months, so we are a little late due to some reflux, etc. But I am determined now to do some sleep training! He goes to daycare during the day and naps well. But within the last month, he fights sleep horribly…we have to do a dog and pony show to get him to sleep! He normally sleeps 2-4 hours a day, together or a few naps. He goes to bed around 8 and wakes 2-3 times until 7am. I nursed and he shared a bed with us, moved him to a bottle at 4 months, but we are still sharing a bed! He is eating some solid foods now so that helps sleep. But I am wondering the steps I should take. We have tried a few times lately to nap or sleep in his bed, but only after he falls asleep. He doesnt stay in there very long before he knows I will get him and bring him to my bed. I am afraid that he wont nap well in his bed, and I know how important naps are! so do you have any advice on getting him in his bed first? I know I have to do this before we start to sleep train, because its not going to do much good in our bed! my concerns are falling asleep with bottle, sleeping in or bed, and not sleeping thru the night…..just not sure where to start!

    • Hey Sara,
      I’m a little fuzzy on what you are asking but my sense is that your issue is this:
      – you are co-sleeping and no longer want to
      – your baby has a big eat=sleep association which leads him to eating all night long

      Here’s the dirty little secret that nobody ever talks about – co-sleeping is great until you don’t want to do it anymore because there isn’t a good gentle exit strategy. His whole life he’s slept with you and so when you try to change things up he’s like, “Hey! What’s with this? What am I doing here? This isn’t where I sleep! MOOOOM!”

      You may not be ABLE to get him into his crib prior to sleep training. Sleep training – a la him sleeping in his crib and falling asleep sans bottle – may in fact be one and the same. I will warn you that this is often rougher than “vanilla” sleep training – babies who have only ever slept with Mom don’t easily transition to their own bed. Typically night #1 involves more than average # of tears. I don’t say this to make you feel guilty – you had a refluxing kid and you simply had to survive – but to give you fair warning so you aren’t surprised when he wakes up multiple times each night and cries simply because he doesn’t enjoy his new digs (aka the crib).

      But honestly the answer might be like pulling off a bandaid – all at once is better than trying to get him into the crib first.

      Thoughts?
      Alexis Dubief recently posted..The Best Christmas Book of 2013My Profile

      • Hi Sara & Alexis. My wife & I are in the same boat. Our 10 month old daughter still sleeps with us, wakes 2-3 times each night, and wont fall back asleep unless she’s fed. We too are behind schedule because of acid reflux for the first 4 months. Something needs to change but we’re not sure what to do. I’d be willing to stick to CIO, but so far every time we try it, she just gets more worked up. She’ll cry for hours complete with coughing, gagging, etc.

  9. What to do?
    10 months breastfeeding. He was waking up almost every two hours for the majority of his life. Until recently we were SO exhausted that we tried CIO. It worked! I did notice that when either my husband or I went to check in on him, the crying got worse unless picked up or nursed. So the first nights we did not go in. It only took 2 evenings and he was falling asleep on his own without much fuss and only waking twice. It was like a miracle! But now that its been a week, he is gradually waking up more at night again and I don’t know what to do.
    Do I try to continue nursing just those 2 times instead of getting sucked into more feedings?
    Do I rock him or CIO in the middle of the night? If we pick him up and rock him are we totally screwing up the sleep training we already did? p.s. he doesn’t always respond better to my husband, sometimes he is hysterical until he sees me….
    Then eventually how do I get him to wean to maybe 1 waking?
    I feel so tired, i just want some sleep back!!! :(

  10. Help!
    We have been doing CIO for the past 9 nights for bedtime. The reason we started CIO was because out little boy would only sleep if we rocked him (no nursing to sleep). Now that he is almost 10 kilos at 6 months, we prefer not to rock him as he is very heavy and sometimes resists sleep by playing around in our arms. We have a bed time routine which works and our son seems to enjoy and anticipate. It involves nappy-free time, a short bath and then a feed before being put down to bed. Since starting CIO he has been crying consistently for 40 minutes each night before falling asleep, but only wakes up once during the night (if at all) and in the morning always wakes up happy. We are not doing the Ferber method, preferring not go to his room at intervals. We have also started CIO for his naps and he usually falls asleep on his own within 10 minutes of whimpering, although he is still only having 30 minute naps.
    We are very confused as to how long we should continue using CIO if the length of his crying has not decreased. We’ve recently read that it takes a baby 10 days to change habits and that this may be an extinction burst. The crying is torture but we’re mostly afraid that giving in at this point will undermine and undo the sleep training we’re trying to follow. Any and all advice is welcome!
    Two first-time parents

  11. My 9 month old has recently started crawling, pulling himself up to stand, and sitting all within a few weeks period. This alas means he is practicing all of it during his sleep which is disrupting ALL of our sleep because he cries to be repositioned during the night. He can get around during the day so I think he is just freaking out at night because suddenly he is not in the same position he feel asleep in.

    This is an acceptable reason to CIO right? I was planning on doing it this weekend because I can’t handle getting up every hour or two to change his position, but I want to make sure this is an acceptable solution since you said making sure CIO is the right tool for the job.

  12. I am ready to try cry it out with my 6 month old, but I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to do.
    He was a terrible sleeper the first few months and woke up frequently. He would not sleep for longer than 30 minutes to an hour if he was in his crib or bassinet, so we started putting him in bed with us. Over time he only woke up once a night to eat, but still had to be in bed with us. We began putting him in the crib until he woke up and then put him in our bed. We tried putting him down while drowsy, but awake and that would ultimately result in tears. At about 5 months he slept through the night without waking up to eat in his crib. We took this as a sign that he was ready to give up the night feeding. He started waking up every hour or so, but didn’t seem to be hungry. We would have to help him fall back asleep with the pacifier. We tried to keep him in the crib as long as possible, but once we were exhausted we would give in and put him in our bed where he would sleep soundly until about 5 or 6am. At that time he would wake up every 15-20 minutes and go back to sleep. Should we try anything else before cry it out?

    • Not an expert but I’ll take a stab:) I think you might consider CIO. But first I would read all the how to’s on this sight related to sleep training, and make sure that you are not using the pacifier, as this doesn’t totally count as putting down baby awake, because they’ll wake and the pacifier will be gone and you’ll have to replace it (as you’ve seen). Waking every hour but not hungry is a very typical pattern for babies who have unsustainable sleep associations. Since we know he is capable of sleeping thru, I’d give CIO a go, make sure you put him down with no surprises, and if you are still feeding at all at night, I’d continue with one or two feeds, and night wean AFTER he is sleep trained.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge