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:

[box type=”1″ class=”rounded-5 shadow” width=”480″]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!
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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}