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Should you try cry it out?

Marli Klaus | Feb 16, 2023

Today I’m going to be digging into a super controversial topic in the world of sleep training so I hope you’re ready for it! We are going to be talking all about the cry it out or extinction sleep training method, why it is not a method I recommend and why I find it to be less effective overall than other methods that are more gradual.

Alright, let’s go ahead and jump in to this weeks’ topic.


Myths and misconceptions about sleep training


As I’ve shared before, I’m a mom of three and I have gone through various struggles with sleep with each of them. I can very clearly remember being in a position that you are likely in currently. You’re exhausted and desperate for sleep so you keep googling or asking your favorite mom group on Facebook about how to improve your baby’s sleep. You get answers ranging from one extreme to the other, like “this is normal, don’t expect to sleep until they’re four or five” to “just cry it out, that’s the fastest/best way to improve sleep”.

Either way, cry it out or extinction is likely something you’ve heard about multiple times, and if it’s anything like what I’ve seen, it’s either being shared in a very negative way or in a very positive way, depending on who is talking about it.

My goal today is to help you walk away with information about cry it out without it being laden with strong opinions so that you can filter through it more easily and take what makes sense for you and leave the rest.


What is cry it out actually?


So let’s start with the basic definition of cry it out. At it’s most straight forward definition, cry it out means making crying “extinct”. You put your baby in their crib awake, walk away and don’t come back to get them until it’s time for their next feeding or wake time. This means that in the strictest case, while the parents may be checking on a camera monitor to ensure their baby or toddler is physically okay, they’re not physically going into the room to check or console.


For some reason, cry it out seems to be the most well-known method for sleep training out there. It has almost gotten to the point where sleep training is synonymous with cry it out, and while cry it out IS a sleep training method, it’s by no means the only one.


Here is a summary of my opinion on cry it out as both a sleep consultant and a mom: Based on the research I’ve read, I do not believe that cry it out is harmful to a child. While I do not believe that it is harmful, I also do not believe that it is a necessary approach to use or that it is as effective overall as other more gradual sleep training methods.

Let’s break that down further.


I’m not going to go too far into the research on cry it out and whether it is physically or emotionally harmful to a baby, but here is an article you can check out yourself if interested. As a quick summary, there have been a lot of studies that explore cry it out and other sleep training methods and to my knowledge, none have been found to show evidence of causing harm. If anything, they have shown an increased mood for both child and parent.


Why I believe cry it out isn’t necessary


So now let’s dig into why I say that I don’t believe cry it out is necessary or as effective as other methods. If you’ve followed me for long, you’ve heard me say that I’m not a fan of blanket approaches to sleep training. Every family is different and every baby is different, so we shouldn’t be approaching sleep training as if they’re all the same. While cry it out may be the right choice for some families, it isn’t the right choice for all, and that’s totally okay.


The truth is, some babies do not do well with cry it out and while it would likely eventually work, it’s not something to go into believing that if you just hold out long enough it’s going to click. It might, but after how long, and how much stress? After working with dozens of moms and babies and sleep training my own three, I’ve found that babies and toddlers respond differently to the same approach. It helps to be educated on other approaches so you can figure out what works best for your child.


Cry it out isn’t as effective overall as other methods


The primary reason that I’m not a fan of cry it out is because when implemented as true extinction, it doesn’t allow us to learn your baby’s cues and cries. I much prefer a parent-present, responsive sleep training approach that allows the parents to pay close attention to how their baby or toddler is responding to the sleep plan we have put into place so we can determine if it’s working well or we need to tweak. Babies and toddlers have different cries for different needs and if we are training ourselves to “ignore” any crying, it’s going to be difficult for us to distinguish between their different cries and their potential needs.


I also believe that there’s no reason to just cut everything off all at once. If no sleep training has been implemented yet and a baby is currently waking up five times at night to eat I would never try to night wean and sleep train all at once. Using cry it out with the intent to night wean and sleep train at the same time is a major change for your baby. I want to ensure that we have the other pieces to the sleep puzzle in place before deciding if it’s the right time to night wean, which includes a solid daytime feeding and sleep plan.


When cry it out is used, we have no reason to learn other ways of helping our child learn how to sleep independently. Babies grow and change frequently and with most developmental changes comes sleep challenges. When cry it out is the only method a parent is familiar with, it can be challenging to know how to work through those future sleep challenges.


Cry it out can be stressful


Another reason that I do not prefer the cry it out method is because it can be super stressful for parents to implement. There are often conflicted feelings involved for parents who decide to try cry it out and when something is stressful, it’s hard for us to stick with it. Consistency is key with any method of sleep training and if we are unable to be consistent, it’s unlikely that we are going to see positive results.


If we start a sleep training method and end up reverting back to the way our babies previously fell asleep, it can be really confusing for them. It can also make it more challenging when we decide to try again, even if we are using a completely different method.


Lastly, when there are so many other methods that are more comfortable to implement, I don’t really see a good reason for using cry it out. Babies under 12 months tend to pick up sleeping independently super quickly, even when we use a more gradual approach. While cry it out may seem easier and faster, it isn’t necessarily.


Choosing a sleep training method is only part of the puzzle. Improving sleep can require changes to the daytime sleep routine and schedule, feeding schedule, bedtime routine and more. When you have all of the puzzle pieces put together, they work together to help set your baby or toddler up for better sleep with less of a struggle.


So, at the end of the day, while cry it out will likely work for sleep training most children, there are a lot of reasons it isn’t the right choice for many families, and there are a lot of reasons I don’t personally recommend using it.


Setting your baby or toddler up for healthy sleep habits is a long game, not a short game. While cry it out may give you results quickly, it doesn’t prepare you for handling future sleep challenges you inevitably will face.


So what should you do instead?


That is why I created the Responsive Sleep technique where we use my proprietary process for developing a highly customized sleep plan that takes your individual child’s and family needs into account and combines it with ALL the components of successful sleep to create a plan that not only helps get your child to sleep and stay asleep, but shows you how to identify exactly what your child truly needs from you at any given time.


This allows you to support your child confidently and effectively WITHOUT using outdated cry it out methods while they learn independent sleep.


Children like to keep us on our toes, and with every growth spurt, new daycare, teething, and all of the craziness that can come in the first few years of your baby’s life, it can feel like you’re constantly facing new sleep challenges.


That's why it's so important to have a solid understanding of what your child needs from you so that as they grow you can adjust your approach as needed to help them sleep well for the long term.


This makes it so that you are able to handle any future sleep challenges you face from illness and teething all the way to transitioning from a crib to a toddler bed.