The ‘cry it out’ method explained

Sleep Consultant, Katie Bartley, explains the hotly debated sleep training method called ‘cry it out’


“I hate cry it out.” “I don’t believe in any crying.” “What is your stance on cry it out?” As a sleep consultant to children ranging in ages from 8-weeks to 6-year-olds, I can tell you that this is how virtually every conversation starts with a potential client. And as a parent to three young children myself, I get it. What parent wants to stand by and listen to their child crying?

So that is usually the best place to start. Let us be clear: no one, including myself, is seeking to make your child cry. Even the most supposedly hard-core ‘cry-it-outers’ are hoping their child doesn’t cry.  But babies do cry. I think that this is a really important thing to remember. Crying is their only means of communication and while it can indeed mean that they are sad or hungry, it can also very much mean that they are excited, confused, bored, jolted, stimulated, etc. It does not necessarily signify an overwhelming sense of abandonment that so many parents presume. This is especially true if you, like almost every parent I encounter, love your child and provide them with a safe and secure environment and relationship.

But back to how all of this relates to sleep. For most little ones, sleep does not come naturally but they can absolutely be taught how to. So if you and your partner choose (and it’s important to recognize that this is a choice) to change the sleep course, there are many things you can do to create good sleep habits. And initially when you do this, a natural byproduct is an increase in crying. This is usually because you are changing what they have become accustomed to in terms of their feeding habits and where they sleep. And who likes that, right? No matter what age you are, change is always hard. I often tell people that I would be shocked if they didn’t cry because crying is a very normal response to those changes. However, this does not mean that you have to leave your child to cry for hours on end. Ever. And this is exactly why I ask every single potential client what their definition of ‘cry it out’ actually is to them. This is because I have heard such a wide variety of answers. Most people seem to have this image of a baby screaming hysterically for hours while they remain chained outside the room not allowed to enter. That is simply not the case, so let’s discuss what ‘cry it out’ can actually look like.

The most common version of ‘cry it out’ is Richard Ferber’s ‘build up’ method where you wait 5 minutes, then 8 minutes, then 10 and so on. Some even start with a 3, 5, 10 interval. This works for a lot of families but tends to be best for more docile babies. This is because for many, the frequent and short intervals actually rile them up even more and seem to disrupt their own little processes of getting comfortable. So I tend to recommend the longer interval to begin with in the hope that that’s all you will ever have to do. Depending on age and weight, this is usually somewhere between 10-20 minutes. Many never even need that long but certainly some seem to need a little longer to settle themselves and stop focusing on when you’re coming back into the room. If given the opportunity they really are incredibly capable of soothing themselves from very early on. This is most evidenced by thumb sucking as early as 6-8 weeks. But other ways are finger sucking, pacifier’s, holding or chewing on a lovey when age appropriate, movement around the crib or in some rhythmic fashion and so on. Another method of ‘cry it out’, and probably the most vilified, is the full-blown ‘extinction method’. This is probably the version most people think of when they hear the term ‘cry it out’. It’s important to note that, in my experience, this is the least commonly practiced method. This is essentially leaving the child to cry for as long as necessary. In theory, the crying is at its worst the first night and then gradually decreases over a short period of time. This is clearly not for the faint of heart but the advantage of this method is it usually only takes 3-5 nights so it might actually result in less crying overall. Most pediatricians do not recommend doing this until 6 months but that ideology certainly varies as well.

As you can tell there are many ways people go about crying it out and I really encourage families to find the method that works best for them. Listening to your baby cry will always be uncomfortable. The trick is to realize that you and baby will, after a little pain, reap sleeping dividends. It is also important to be united as parents in your decision making. If one parent is really against a method it’s really an uphill battle for everyone. Finally, I implore all of you to be respectful of every family’s personal choice. While this may not work for your family, it really is a great solution for many. Happy sleeping!