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Why Consistency in Cry it Out is Critical: A Case Study

If you read many of the posts here you’ll find that the term “consistency” comes up approximately 1,203,468 times. Consistency is a really powerful component of helping your child sleep. Where does your child sleep? Who cares, just be consistent! What does your bedtime routine look like? Who cares, just be consistent! I use the phrase “consistent” as many times each day as I say, “Stop hitting your brother.”

Consistency is doubly important when it comes to cry it out. Because when it comes to sleep training, even small well-intended inconsistencies can blow up on you.

Almost immediately.

Here’s a great illustration of how that can happen, taken directly from a comment:

Consistency and Cry it Out

I am on day 6 of cry it out method. And I desperately need your help to make this a success. I have been very consistent with my schedule. 7PM feed+bath+lullaby+bedtime at 7:30 PM. One feeding at 11 PM and a second between 3:00 -3:30 AM.

Day 1: Cried for 16 minutes. Woke up 2-3 times but fell back to sleep on her own after fussing. On One waking session at 12:45 AM she cried for 1.5 hrs and fell back to sleep.

Day 2: Cried for 7 minutes. Woke up 4-5 times but fell back asleep on her own after crying/fussing for some time.

Day 3: Cried for 7-8 minutes. Woke up 3 times but fell back asleep on her own 2 times. On one waking session at around 1 AM and cried for 1 hr before falling asleep.

Day 4: Cried for around 15 minutes. Woke up 2-3 times but fell back asleep on her own after fussing for a bit. One waking session she cried for 7 minutes at around 10pm.

Day 5: Cried for 22 minutes. When I went in the 2nd time I Shshed her for 30 seconds of patting her and she fell asleep. Did not wake up till 3:15am. But after feed she was completely awake at 3:45am. Unfortunately, had to rock her to sleep for 45 minutes after 10 minutes of crying.

Day 6: Cried for 30 minutes. When I went in the 3rd time I again Shshed her for 30-45 seconds while patting her and she fell asleep.

Her crying during bedtime has NOT reduced but is increasing each passing day and we are on the verge of giving up. My husband is concerned about increasing amount of crying. We’re not sure how to proceed. Please help!

Sleep Training Gone South

Please note this is not somebody I know, nor do I have any information beyond what is presented in the comment. I don’t know how old this baby is, what they’re trying to wean out of, if baby has medical complications, if they’re co-sleeping, etc. But even without that background some things jump out from here:

Sleep training on night #1 went fantastic. At bedtime anyway. Only 16 minutes of crying at bedtime for a baby who presumably was previously (insert: patted, rocked, fed) to sleep? This definitely qualifies as amazeballs! Then there’s a big crying jag at 12:45 AM. Why? I’m not sure. However the fact that it didn’t reoccur on subsequent nights makes me inclined to write it off as “one of those things.”

Night #2 is fantastic – some grumbles at bedtime, a few other minor grumbles during the night. But overall, simply fantastic.

Night #3 is less fantastic, another hour of crying at 1 AM. Again without more history I can’t say why for sure. My gut says this may be a baby who was eating a ton at night prior to this and is seeking more food than the 2X scheduled feedings provides.

Night #4 – fantastic again. If she was starving at 1 AM (and this is debatable) she’s doing amazing now and clearly doesn’t need to eat then. Phew, the hard part is over. Tally ho!

Night #5 – Aaaand the wheels come off the bus.

CIO Analysis

With the exception of the 2 long sessions of night crying (again, a bit of a mystery but I’ll assume it was a food issue and temporary) things were going extremely well. Some people get hung up on the brief crying at bedtime or during the night but they shouldn’t because…
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  1. 10 Minutes at Bedtime

    5-15 minutes of crying at bedtime is nothing. Sadly there is lots of unnecessary self-flagellation among parents out there who are feeling terrible about a few minutes of grousing at bedtime. If you are one of these, please stop and repeat after me, “This is nothing.” Some kids simply need to vent a little steam before they fall asleep. Others are complaining because they don’t want to separate from you nor do they want to sleep. Because they’re not verbal they express this through crying. When they’re three years old they’ll spend 10 minutes yelling, “Mom! I don’t want to sleep! I’M NOT TIRED!” before nodding off for a solid 11 hours of sleep.

  2. Brief Night Grumbles

    Little bouts of fussing/crying periodically are normal, especially for a kiddo who is just learning to sleep without you. Babies cycle through sleep every 45-90 minutes so they’re literally waking up all night long. Usually they fart (I mean jellybeans, babies fart jellybeans), roll over, and go back to sleep so that you’re not aware that this is happening. This baby is “new” to falling asleep on her own so a few times at night, when she cycles through light sleep, she’s grumbling about it. But she’s fine; if she really needed Mom/Dad it wouldn’t just be a few minutes.


So anyhoo, in general things were going well.

But then night #5 threw them a curve ball in the form of an extinction burst. I bet you $1,000 that’s what happened. I don’t even have $1,000 but it’s fine because I’m totally winning that bet. It was an extinction burst.

So Mom, who is a loving and concerned parent, got nervous and went in to do what she felt was meeting her child’s needs. And this happened,
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Shshed her for 30 seconds while patting her and she fell asleep

30 seconds.

A child who is in pain, or has a serious “need” doesn’t fall asleep after 30 seconds of patting. Although entirely well-intended, that 30 seconds meant that after 5 days, baby didn’t fall asleep on her own. And this small 30-second bout of being INconsistent has just blown up this families sleep training journey.

Because the Goddess of Consistency is an unforgiving wench.

Because now after 4 days of solid progress we have a baby who has just been patted to sleep. She sleeps through till 3:45 AM but is upset, crying, and needs to be rocked for 45 minutes until she’s fully asleep and can be put back down in the crib. She’s crying because she fell asleep with Mom there patting her and woke up later with Mom missing. So from her perspective something disorienting and mysterious had occurred. Now she’s upset and WIDE AWAKE.

On the next night she’s crying for 30 minutes because the 30 seconds of patting on night #5 put us squarely back into “I can only fall asleep with help from Mom” territory. And clearly that’s what’s going on because again, if the child had a real need (hunger, gas, pain, etc.) it would take more than another scant 30 seconds of patting from Mom to fall asleep. We don’t know what happened after that but I’m confident there were more tears and rocking required in the middle of the night.

So Now What?

Now Dad is questioning this whole strategy. Mom’s feeling guilty. And baby is crying way more than when they first started down this path. It would be easy to give up and maybe they will. If they decide to double-down on sleep training and re-commit to being consistent it will work. But there will be more crying before things get better because that is the unfortunate and unintended result of being inconsistent.

My advice would be to decide on a plan and commit. If they’re going to pat her to sleep at bedtime then do it AT bedtime. Don’t let her cry 20-30 minutes and then rush in to pat, just do it as soon as she goes into the crib.

It’s OK to say, “This is where we are and what we feel comfortable doing right now.” Yes she will wake up during the night, possibly upset and disoriented, and need your help to fall back to sleep. Potentially (depending on history and age) they could be facing developing bedtime battles as baby recognizes that Mom disappears after she falls asleep so she fights sleep to keep Mom on the scene. Night wakings could become more frequent or difficult. Or maybe they’ll level out at 2 feedings + 1 waking to be rocked.

It’s hard to say, my predictive abilities when it comes to babies night time behavior is roughly equal to my ability to predict the outcome of World Cup games.

It’s that or back to cryitoutsville with full commitment to baby consistently falling asleep on her own. No patting. Full stop. However there will be more crying on this road, far more than the 16 minutes they started out with.

So if you’re considering sleep training, you have to commit fully to being consistent at bedtime. Because the Goddess of Consistency will not forgive you even the slightest betrayal. Seriously, she’s the worst.

Does anybody else have any experiences with being consistent (or not) that they’re willing to share?