The crying starts moments after you lay your baby down to sleep. Then the wails grow louder … and LOUDER … and then somehow even LOUDER.
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So, what’s your next move?
You may want to run in immediately and scoop up your little one for a comforting hug to make everything better. On the other hand, you’ve also heard about the potential benefit of letting your baby just cry until they fall asleep.
Deciding what to do can be difficult — especially given that you’re probably exhausted and barely functioning from your own lack of sleep. (It can be difficult living with an infant, after all.)
Let’s look at some options with pediatrician Heidi Szugye, DO, IBCLC.
What is the ‘cry it out’ method?
No parent wants to idly stand by and listen to their baby fuss, but that’s the game plan with the full cry it out (CIO) method. That means you DO NOT just answer their crying call as soon as it goes out. Instead, you give them an opportunity to independently work it out and nod off.
For many, however, this rigid approach with no response comes off as mean and even hurtful. “I don’t think this is a good idea for baby or parent,” says Dr. Szugye.
So, respond to every cry?
Jumping into action for every single outburst establishes a pattern that could eventually be hard to break. You don’t want your baby becoming reliant on your response in order to drift off to dreamland.
Constantly going in and out of the room at every peep won’t help your baby learn to sleep. Worse yet, it’ll probably cost you some ZZZs — and odds are, you need to catch every wink you can.
Preferred: The graduated extinction method
A gentler sleep training method endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is called the graduated extinction method.
With this approach, you slowly increase how long you wait to respond to your crying baby. The concept fosters comforting and bonding as your child learns how to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own.
“Gradually let them cry a little longer,” says Dr. Szugye. “If you wait two minutes that first night, maybe make it three or four minutes a few nights later and keep extending it from there.”
Eventually, your baby will learn to fall asleep on their own without a visit.
A 2016 study showed that infants who learned to self-soothe eventually fell asleep 15 minutes faster than children using no sleep training methods. The researchers also found that the extinction method brought no adverse stress responses or long-term effects on children.
How to handle your response
When you do crack that door open, aim to move in a tippy-toe stealth mode. That means:
- Leaving the lights off. Keeping the room a bit darker side sends a message that it’s still time for sleep (which is the ultimate goal).
- Staying quiet. Talk in a soft, soothing voice to avoid stimulating your baby.
Try not to linger in the room, but use the time to determine whether there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. “Look to see if something worrisome is going on, such as a fever, if they seem hungry, or need a diaper change,” advises Dr. Szugye.
Offer some controlled comfort, such as gently stroking your baby or talking in soothing tones, until they calm down and begin drifting back to sleep. Then, make a quick (and of course, quiet) exit.
Setting the tone for sleeping
Crying isn’t how you want your baby to go to sleep, of course — and there are ways to minimize the potential for tears. That starts with setting a consistent nap or bedtime routine, which could include:
Pay attention to your little one’s sleepy cues, too. Look for yawns or when your baby starts rubbing their eyes or pulling at their ears. They also may get a little clingy and stop interacting.
“When you start noticing these things, you’ll want to get them into their sleep environment,” notes Dr. Szugye. “You want to put them down when they’re starting to get tired rather than when they’re overtired.”
What if your baby just won’t go to sleep?
Bedtime can really be a struggle with babies, as any sleep-deprived parent knows all too well. Talk to your pediatrician or a pediatric sleep specialist if sleeping issues grow to the point where they’re interfering with you or your baby’s ability to be fully awake during the day.
In general, it’s suggested that sleep training can begin around 4 to 6 months of age.
“Your child will eventually get past any troubles and learn to sleep,” says Dr. Szugye. “And that means you’ll be able to sleep again, too.”
To hear more from Dr. Szugye on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode “Babies and Bedtime.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast are available every Wednesday.