The single biggest issue I encounter as a child sleep consultant is the question of crying. Is it okay to let your child “cry it out?” If so, how much crying should you put up with? How long will a child cry before he falls asleep? Is it healthy? Won’t your baby resent you if you just let him cry all by himself?
Now, before you start to worry that I’m an advocate of the “cry it out” school of sleep training, please don’t panic! I would never advise you to leave your baby crying in his cot alone even for a minute if that’s something you’re not comfortable doing. (Believe me, that’s the way most of my clients feel.)
So please keep reading… In the chapters ahead, I’ll offer you a number of different solutions to try with your baby – and I’m confident you’ll find the one that works best for you and your family.
I remember when my husband and I finally decided that we’d had enough of the sleepless nights, and started the process of teaching our little twins to sleep through the night. The idea of listening to them crying alone – for who knows how long – was absolutely terrifying. In fact, it was this fear that had prevented us from taking this step on a number of previous occasions.
To combat our fear, we decided to take a good hard look at our situation. As a couple, we had begun to feel the strains of all our sleepless nights. We were staying up until midnight, only getting a few hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time, having very little time alone, and not connecting the same way we used to. We could see that if things continued this way much longer, we would begin to drift apart and our relationship would pay the price. And that was something we refused to let happen.
We also looked at how we were functioning as parents. I was tired, worried, and depressed about my nursing skills, and feeling resentment toward my husband – and even worse, my babies! And since neither my husband nor I had enjoyed a decent night’s sleep in months, we were both grouchy a lot of the time.
We decided to make a list of the pros and cons involved in teaching our son to sleep through the night. On the “pro” side, we would no longer have any of the problems I just described, and – much more important – our son would be happier and healthier because sleep is so important to the emotional and physical wellbeing of infants and toddlers.
We also knew that our friends, parents, and family would be greatly relieved to know that we would finally be getting some sleep and would have the energy to spend some quality time with them, instead of turning down their invitations to dinners, parties, and all the other get-togethers that we were always too tired or too grouchy to attend.
The list was getting pretty long on the “pros” side, so we decided to move on to the “cons.” Try as we might, we were only able to come up with one reason why we didn’t want to go ahead with teaching our twins how to sleep through the night. And that one reason was that he might cry.
The keyword there is “might.” We had no idea if they actually would cry, but the very idea had been enough to hold us back from even trying to teach them to sleep through the night. As we sat there and looked at our long list of “pros,” and then looked at the only thing we were able to identify as a con, we knew that we had made our decision.
Looking back, there wasn’t really much to be afraid of. We did have to put up with a bit of crying for the first little while, but it certainly wasn’t very much. And the end result was that everyone – especially our twins – was actually much happier now that we were all getting some sleep.
So I’m going to recommend that you now take a moment to make your own list of the pros and cons of teaching your little one to sleep through the night. But before you get started on that list, I want to provide you with some straight talk about crying and what it means for infants and toddlers.
As hard as it is to listen to your child cry, it is important to remember that infants and toddlers only have a couple of ways to communicate with us. When they are pleased, they smile, coo, giggle, and laugh. When they are angry, upset, hungry, uncomfortable, irritated, frustrated, tired, or grouchy, they cry.
Now, just as the smallest things can cause your little one to start laughing hysterically, so too can any minor annoyance launch her into a fit of crying. Have you ever let your eight-month-old play with a set of your keys, and then had to take them away because you needed to get the car started and drive somewhere? Many children will cry their lungs out if we take something away from them! But if you happen to need whatever it is they’re playing with, or if they’re playing with something dangerous, you have no choice in the matter. You’ve got to act in their best interest, even if it results in tears.
Just the other day, my son had his own juice cup and the juice cup of another toddler in his hands, and was happily running around with both of them. It wasn’t until the owner of the second juice cup toddled over to ask for his drink back that the problem began. Anthony absolutely did not want to give the other boy his juice. Of course, I tried to reason with him, explaining that he really didn’t need two juice cups and that one did, in fact, belong to the other child, but nothing would convince him.
When I finally had to take the cup from Anthony, he had a complete meltdown. He cried, kicked, and threw himself around on the floor for at least 15 minutes. Finally, I scooped him up, struggled to get him into the car, and took him home.
He cried madly for most of the ride home as well. Needless to say, it was a terrible ordeal for both of us. I was almost in tears just watching him, but I realised there was truly nothing I could do to help him. I could make sure he was safe and be there waiting with open arms when he stopped crying, but for as long as the tantrum lasted, I knew there was nothing I could do.
Now, if my son was a bit older and knew how to talk, I would have been able to reason with him, and he would have been able to explain to me why he was so upset and what he would like to do in order to make it better.
Unfortunately, infants and toddlers can’t hold rational conversations with us, so they communicate with us the only way they know-how. They laugh and smile when they are happy, and they cry when they are upset.
It doesn’t get easier as they get older
I often meet with parents of two-and three-year-olds who are still having to wake up with their children a couple of times every night and help them fall back asleep (either by getting them a drink of water, reading them a story, taking their child to bed with them, etc.).When I ask these parents why on earth they have waited so long to call me, they almost always give me the same answer: “We thought he would grow out of it.”
The bad news is, children usually don’t grow out of it. Current research shows that infants who are having sleep difficulties continue to do so for three to five years. I can certainly vouch for this. At least half of the clients I have worked with over the years have had children over the age of two, so the idea that babies will grow out of it as they get older simply isn’t usually true. And unfortunately, as your child gets older, it gets harder, not easier, to see her cry
As a daughter, I can tell you that it still breaks my mother’s heart to see me cry. It’s something that never gets easier to bear. All parents hold their child’s happiness foremost in their minds. It doesn’t matter how old your child is, you are simply never going to enjoy seeing her upset.
The one thing that is critical for parents to remember is that crying isn’t going to cause any serious damage to your child. Children cry a lot. They cry for any reason. They cry for no reason. Sometimes they cry just to get our attention.
Crying at bedtime isn’t any different than crying during the day, but for some reason, it’s much harder for most parents to take.
You can’t please your child all the time
Sometimes the hardest thing to face when you are a parent is the fact that in some circumstances, the best thing you can do for your child is nothing at all. Remember the story I told you about my son throwing a tantrum because he couldn’t have two cups of juice? Well, I couldn’t give him back the cup, since that would be rewarding the tantrum, which would no doubt result in the same sort of situation happening over and over again. I couldn’t comfort him because he didn’t want me near him. And he was far too young to reason with. The only thing I could do was simply to let him be. He had to work out his distress all on his own. I could be there for him when he was finished his tantrum, and I could reassure him with my voice that everything was okay, but in the end it was up to him to calm himself down.
It’s important to remember this lesson if you find that your child cries during the first few nights she is learning to fall asleep on her own. The best thing you can do for your child allows her the chance to work it out on her own. Children need to realize that they have control over their own bodies. They need to learn how to recognize what “tired” feels like, and how to alleviate those tired feelings without anyone’s help.
It is important for them to understand that sleep is not a scary place, or a bad thing, or a punishment, or a battle that has to be fought, but a nice, warm comfortable place to put tired feelings to rest so they can wake up in the morning feeling happy, refreshed, and ready for a new day.
Once my clients have finished my program, they often tell me that their children have actually started to ask to go to bed. Or they will ask for a bath and start walking to the bathroom, knowing that a bath is the first step of their bedtime routine. They will even point to their cribs and say “night-night” when they are feeling sleepy.
The first time your child exhibits this kind of behaviour will almost certainly be a very rewarding experience for you because it will be clear to you that your child understands the reason for sleeping. He will recognize what “tired” feels like and will be happy to go to bed to make those tired feelings go away. He will look forward to his “alone time” in his room when he can have a chat with his favorite stuffed animal and tell him all about his day before finally falling asleep.
Is crying a necessary step?
Do you absolutely have to let your child cry to teach him to sleep through the night?
I’m being honest with you. I’d love to tell you that I have discovered a way to teach infants and toddlers to sleep through the night that involves no protest on their part, but I haven’t. And despite the claims of people who will try to sell you a magic blanket or CD that’s supposed to put your child instantly to sleep, I don’t think that such a method exists. However, as I hope you understand by now, a little crying isn’t going to do any damage to you or your child.
The important thing to remember is that it’s not the crying that will help your little one fall asleep – it’s the self-soothing strategies that he will have an opportunity to develop in order to stop himself from crying. His crying comes from a change to the old routine. Putting your baby in his crib at night awake might be a completely new experience for him. He will be confused and upset by this new change, and yes, he’ll probably cry to express his displeasure.
But remember that your child wants to stop crying as much – if not more – than you want him to. He’ll cry for a while because he knows that this is the strategy that has worked for him in the past, but once he figures out that it’s up to him to get himself to sleep, he’ll likely figure out how to make that happen faster than you’d think!
The bottom line is, change of any kind is a difficult thing for everyone. How many times have you vowed to eat healthier, quit smoking, or exercise more? Making change happen is tough for us adults, so it is only fair to expect our children to find it difficult as well.
The good news is that infants and toddlers learn much more quickly than we do. And as you’ll soon discover for yourself, they figure out how to soothe themselves into a deep and restful sleep sooner than you’d imagine.
How much crying?
So just how much crying should you expect? It depends. Some children will cry for an hour or more for the first few nights before they fall asleep. Others will doze off after just a few minutes. Some children will get the hang of things in a couple of days; others will take a couple of weeks.
Here’s an example for you, drawn from an experience with a family I worked with:
Melissa and Steve were at their wits’ end by the time they gave me a call. Their little six-month-old boy, Michael, had never slept for more than two hours at a time. When Michael was two weeks old, his weight gain began to slow down. On the instruction of her doctor, Melissa began to wake Michael up every two hours through the night to increase her milk supply and to ensure that Michael was getting the calories he needed. This started a terrible cycle for both Melissa and Michael because Michael became used to waking up every two hours for a feed and Melissa had to get up with him each time and nurse him back to sleep.
When Melissa called me, she was in an awful state of mind. Michael’s weight gain was back on track, so he didn’t really need to be nursing every two hours, but it had become a habit. As a result, Melissa was so sleep-deprived that her marriage was starting to suffer. She felt no resentment toward her baby over her lack of sleep. Instead, she had been taking out all her frustrations on her husband.
When I met Steve, he was convinced that Michael was going to be their only child if things continued the way they were going. He also felt that his relationship with Melissa was going to be in serious trouble if things didn’t change soon.
After I met with Melissa and Steve and gave them all the same information I’m giving you here, they decided to give my plan a try. Melissa was positive that Michael would cry hysterically all night long if she didn’t nurse him, but she decided that she would at least see how long she could hold out before caving into his cries.
When I spoke to Melissa the next morning, she was ecstatic! She said that they had followed their plan and had Michael in bed by 7:15 pm. He was definitely confused by the change of events in his bedtime routine, but Melissa followed her plan and after 40 minutes, Michael was asleep. Melissa, who was utterly exhausted from months of sleep deprivation, soon went to bed herself, not sure what the rest of the night had in store for her.
You can imagine her surprise when she woke with a start at 3:00 a.m. and realized that she had been asleep for almost seven straight hours! She was convinced that something must have happened to Michael’s, and ran into his bedroom – only to find the little guy happily snoozing away. A few minutes later, Michael woke up and started to cry, but Melissa decided to leave him for a few minutes to see if he would go back to sleep on his own. And to her surprise, he was asleep again in 10 minutes – and slept until 6:00 a.m.!!
Melissa could not believe how well the night went. Though she knew every night might not go so well, she had the motivation she needed to keep going with her sleep plan. Well, it’s now nine months later and I’m happy to report that Michael is still doing very well. He goes to bed happily at 7:00 p.m. and sleeps until six or seven the next morning. He is also having two solid naps a day, and everyone is happier and healthier now that they are all sleeping through the night!
Admittedly, this is a best-case scenario. Michael learned self-soothing strategies very quickly and continued to do well night after night. Melissa and Steve were thrilled by the results. Steve later confided in me that the changes they had made to Michael’s sleep schedule had improved the quality of their relationship and also their happiness as parents. He was no longer against having more children, and was happy to have his wife back! When people ask me how long it usually takes for a child to learn how to sleep through the night, I hate to give them an answer, as it can be discouraging for them if their child takes longer than average.
That said, you have every right to ask this question, so here’s the answer: It takes an average of five nights, and the average child will cry for 45 – 90 minutes before falling asleep on her own. These numbers are based on my work with hundreds of families, but they are still just averages. It will happen more quickly for some children, more slowly for others.
Is this harmful?
I am sometimes asked by concerned parents whether I think that letting their infant or toddler cry at bedtime will lead to some kind of permanent psychological damage. The answer is most definitely NOT! I’m unaware of any credible evidence from a published medical study that mentions any link between letting a child cry at bedtime for a few nights and psychological problems later in life.
Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that you ignore the cries of your child – especially if they sound serious. If there is any possibility that your child might be crying because she is in danger, or because she is in pain, then, of course, you need to go and help her! What kind of a parent would you be otherwise? Even if you’re uncertain whether the cries of your child are serious or not, you still go in and check on her. Simply entering the room of your child and checking to see that she’s all right isn’t going to prevent her from learning how to sleep through the night.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Some parents will find that their child will seem “needier” or “clingy” during the first week or two that they start implementing a sleep schedule. This is normal for many children, and it almost always resolves itself within a week or two.
Don’t feel guilty
Personally, I feel that one of the biggest dangers in any relationship – including the one you have with your children – is letting guilt get the best of you. Guilt is a funny thing. Like my grandmother used to say, “Guilt is like sitting in a rocking chair; it’ll give you something to do, but it will never get you anywhere!” Before you give in to those feelings of guilt, take a minute to think about what you are feeling guilty about. All you are doing is teaching your child an important and healthy lesson. The ability to sleep peacefully is a gift that you are giving to your child, a gift that she will be able to use for the rest of her life.
Now, I know that I feel a little guilty when my son cries because I won’t give him a second – or third or fourth – piece of my chocolate bar. Of course, not filling him with chocolate is the right thing to do, and not giving in to his whining actually makes me a better parent than if I did give him an entire chocolate bar to eat. Still, I can’t help but feel a bit sad for the little guy!
So why do we find it so easy to give in to guilt?
The answer is simple: We want to please other people.
We especially want to please the people we love. And we really aren’t used to people crying in order to get what they want – especially if we’re first-time parents. (Can you imagine what you would do if your friends, co-workers, or family members started crying whenever they didn’t get what they wanted from you?)
When our children start to cry – our children who we love more than anyone else on the whole planet – then we naturally want to do whatever it takes to stop them from crying and make them happy. The problem is, giving in to that crying often means exchanging your child’s wellbeing for your own peace of mind. (“This chocolate bar may not be a healthy snack for my baby, but at least he’s happy now that I’ve given him some and I don’t have to feel like a monster for making him cry with all these people around us listening to him!”)
I know that everyone gives in to their child from time to time. If you’ve ever been stuck on a crowded airplane with a crying baby, you know that you’d do anything to get him or her to stop crying.
However, if you make a habit of always doing whatever it takes to stop your child from crying, then you’ll wind up with a real problem. Children – especially infants and toddlers – learn by observing what happens when they perform certain behaviours. When they get what they want as a result of a certain behaviour (getting to breastfeed whenever they cry, for example) then you can bet they’ll keep repeating that behaviour for as long as it is effective!
Putting it all together
So what are my feelings and recommendations about crying?
I think that it is tremendously important that children learn to sleep well. It is important for children to understand that they have the power to resolve their own sleep needs. It is important that children learn to understand what “tired” feels like and connect the fact that sleep is the only way to make those tired feelings go away. It is important for your child not to have anxiety or fear around going to bed. In order for your child to learn all these important things, some crying will usually be involved.
Like I said before, change is hard work. Changing your child’s sleep habits will most likely be met with some protest. The best, quickest, and most effective way to teach her how to sleep through the night is to let her figure it out on her own, and yes, this will probably involve some crying.
However, I also know firsthand (and through the stories of the hundreds of families I have helped) that letting a child cry alone in her room is more than some parents can bear. And I know that if you are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and sadness – emotions that are often caused by letting a child cry alone in her room – you won’t be successful in teaching your child to sleep through the night. So here is my advice to those of you who are overwhelmed by the idea of leaving your child alone to cry in her cot:
Feel free to stay in your child’s room with her.
Of course, your child will probably still cry even though you are in the room with him. He will still want you to pick him up, play with him, feed him, nurse him, read him a story, and so on, but it is important that you not give in to these requests. The only reason you are there is to give occasional reassurance and comfort to your child.
Here’s an example of a strategy that Jim and Mary – clients of mine who were uncomfortable with the idea of leaving their daughter, Melissa, alone – successfully implemented:
First, Jim and Mary would give Melissa a bath, brush her teeth and hair, put her into her pajamas, and read a story with her. They then sang to her for a few minutes, gave her a bottle of milk, and then laid her down in her cot once she had finished her drink. After putting Melissa in her crib, they would turn the light off, and then sit in a chair near her bed. As she fussed, they would reassure her, frequently repeating in a soft, soothing voice, “It’s okay baby, Mommy and Daddy are here. Don’t worry. But now it’s time for night-night. Go to sleep, honey.”
The first couple of nights they would also give their daughter a brief stroke on the face now and then to let her know they were still there. It took about 30 minutes of crying the first night for her to fall asleep, about 20 the following night, and about 10 the third. After the third night, they would leave the room after five minutes (while she was still crying). It took another few nights for her to get used to this system, but after a week or so, she was sleeping better and everyone was much happier at bedtime.
(Previously, she had taken about an hour to nurse herself to sleep. She would suckle for five minutes, doze for five minutes, then wake and suckle for five more minutes. This would continue for up to an hour and a half until the mother was convinced that her daughter was in a deep enough sleep that she could lay her down in her cot without waking her.)
My goal for this chapter is that, after reading it, you will understand that a little crying is not the end of the world. In fact, by letting your child cry a bit and teaching him how to soothe himself to sleep, you are giving him an important gift that he will carry with him throughout his entire life.
By this point in the book, I also hope that you share my appreciation for how incredibly important sleep is, especially for infants and children. They desperately need their sleep in order for their minds to develop properly and so that they can start each day rested, refreshed, and ready to learn. Refusing to give the tools they need to develop healthy sleep habits will be far more harmful to your children than a few minutes of crying.
Finally, I want you to understand the difference between the strategies I am recommending and the idea of letting a baby “cry it out.” Letting a baby “cry it out” implies that you have done nothing to prepare your child for bedtime and are just going to put him into his crib, close the bedroom door, and walk away!
To me, this kind of treatment is totally unfair to your child. You need to prepare him for sleep by teaching him predictable cues that tell him bedtime is approaching, and you need to make sure he knows you are there to help him if he really needs you. What I recommend to my clients is a complete sleep time strategy that will probably involve some crying. Where many parents go wrong is that they decide to try the so-called “cry it out” approach – and then, without learning the importance of creating a bedtime routine, they just put their children into their cribs and abandon them!
That’s why it is so important for you to take the time to read through this book and educate yourself about how sleep works and why it is so critical to your child’s development. By understanding how sleep happens, and by giving your child the tools she needs to soothe herself to sleep, you can rest assured that you are doing the right thing.
Sound good? Then let’s get started!
For more information on sleep training, please check out my Happy Sleepers program. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did it!
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I’m Christine, the founder of Happy Sleepers. I am an ICU nurse, Midwife, Qualified Sleep Consultant and I’m a mum of twins. I’ve helped 100’s of babies and parents in the past and now I’m here to help YOU! 🙂