*IMPORTANT NOTE: For the purpose of this conversation, the babies I’m talking about are healthy, growing appropriately, and 8 weeks and older. NOT NEWBORNS or babies with feeding or health issues. That’s a whole different ball game with an entirely different set of rules.
CIO. “Crying It Out”. Sleep Training. “Gentle”. “Traumatic”.
“I don’t believe in cry it out” “Is this just CIO?” “We offer a non-CIO approach” “Sleep training is cruel” “Letting your baby cry is traumatic/abuse/just plain mean!”
These are phrases I hear all the time, and I’m here to tell you that I do not know what this means. Which is not to say I’ve never heard it before, but that it’s so broad there is literally NO DEFINITION.
To many, CIO means doing what your pediatrician and grandma suggest and putting your baby in his room, closing the door, suddenly eliminating all night feeds, and letting him scream his head off until he’s blue in the face and throwing up, and pretending you don’t have a baby until the morning, night after night, as he gives up hope and loses trust in you and humanity (This scenario sounds awful).
But what if we take the same scenario – you put your baby down awake in his crib at bedtime and leave the room – and he goes to sleep WITHOUT CRYING AT ALL? And then he sleeps through the night and doesn’t wake to ask for a feed? Is *that* CIO? Would you tell a parent in that situation that they should be waking their baby* up to feed at night? Would you tell them their baby is traumatized? I wouldn’t think so. (This scenario is rare but does happen)
We have two ends of a possibility spectrum here, with a broad range in between. The options are infinite.
- What if we put the baby down awake and he just fusses for a while before falling asleep?
- What if we put the baby down and he cries, but only for 5 minutes, before falling asleep? What about 10 minutes? 20 minutes? An hour, but he’s not crying very hard?
- What if you’re rocking your baby to sleep but he’s crying hysterically the whole time?
- What if you put him down awake, and he cries, but you pick him up after 5 minutes and calm him down and start over? And keep doing that until he falls asleep, but it takes 3 hours?
- What if you leave him alone and he cries for a minute, then stops, then cries again, then stops, and keeps doing THAT until he falls asleep, but it takes 30 minutes?
Which one of these is CIO? Which one isn’t? WHO THE HELL KNOWS. There is no definition.
Most parents are ok with “some crying”, but they (understandably) want to measure it in length of time. Is 5 minutes of hard crying better or worse than 30 minutes of mild crying or fussing? What if they’re yelling, but without tears? If you walk in and your baby immediately stops and gives you a huge smile, are they really that upset?
Whenever someone tells me they “don’t want to do cry-it-out”, I ask what that means to them. Usually, it’s some version of the first scenario, and I explain that I never, EVER let that happen. I don’t think anyone would suggest that. The problem is, how do you know how much is too much? How do you know when to intervene?
Crying is how babies COMMUNICATE. They experience and express a broad range of emotions – happiness, frustration, confusion, etc – and also physical needs like hunger, thirst aaaaaaand… TIREDNESS. Yes, that’s right, babies cry A LOT when they’re tired and want to fall asleep. If we can catch them well before this stage, crying is mitigated greatly.
How do you know what your baby is trying to say? How do you know what they need in this moment (vs what’s familiar and they’re habituated to)? It’s not easy! (This is why, as sleep coaches, we offer individualized plans that we work through with you IN REAL TIME, in person or remotely. /endshamlessplug). But if you go into the process without a solid plan and nothing but a fear of crying, you’re going to be inconsistent and make things much harder on them.
If your main goal, above and beyond getting your baby into a better sleep routine, is avoiding discomfort completely, you’re going to have a rough go of it – and to be honest, your baby will probably cry MORE in the aggregate than if you just ripped off the band-aid.
Why don’t we let our babies feel their feelings? Why can’t we respect and honor their emotions instead of trying to shut them up? “I know this is hard for you and you’re feeling frustrated because things are changing. You can do hard things, though! I believe in you!” vs. “You can’t handle this and you need me to do it for you.”
What if we set the stage for our kiddos to FIGURE it out? To determine what works best for them, and to use their natural problem solving abilities to find their own way, with our support? Crying might happen, as it does with any challenge in life, but it’s all part of a natural process. We only intervene if it’s TRULY needed, and not just because we’re worried or have set some arbitrary time limit that doesn’t take into account what’s actually happening. Let’s focus on the learning, the skill-building, the figuring out, and not the crying. What would that change?
(If you want my help, hit me up! firstname.lastname@example.org)