Are you still rocking your six-month-old baby to sleep every night? Maybe they are still waking through the night, demanding your attention. Are you wondering whether it’s time to try sleep training, like the cry it out method?
It can be tough as your baby gets older, trudging to the nursery all evening and through the night to settle a crying baby. I thought I was one of the lucky ones. My first baby slept through the night from about four months old. Along came the second one, and boy, was it different.
I think my husband and I wore out the floorboards, going back and forth to the nursery all night for months. After eight months of this, we decided it was time to try sleep training. I spent many hours studying the research behind the method, learning from sleep experts, and listening to what experienced parents had to say.
I’ll share what I learned about the cry it out method to help you decide if it will work for your family and if you can finally get some much-needed sleep.
What Is Sleep Training?
Sleep training encompasses various methods you can employ to get an older baby to sleep through the night. It also helps them learn to soothe themselves to sleep without needing intervention from you.
Most sleep training methods involve laying the child down to go to sleep on their own and implementing various methods of comfort that don’t involve picking them up. You’ll watch the clock and allow them time to settle themselves before you intervene. Some methods allow for comforting by touching the baby but not lifting them out of bed or singing or talking to them without touching them.
Sound like a good idea? Be warned, it will probably be harder for you than for your child.
There will undoubtedly be lots of tears from both your baby and you. But perseverance can pay off if you’re prepared for some sleepless nights.
How Does the Cry It Out Method Work?
The theory of the cry it out method is that if you allow your little one to cry for set periods before you offer some reassurance and comfort, they’ll learn to self-soothe and go to sleep or back to sleep on their own. The intervals for which you let your baby cry increase gradually.
If this sounds like something you could be comfortable with, then there are a couple of things you need to know. It doesn’t mean you leave your baby to cry and fret all night without any attention or comfort from you or your partner. Also, you will probably suffer more than your baby throughout the process.
One of the popular methods for cry it out is the Ferber method. This tells you to wait until your baby is ready to sleep through the night, both emotionally and physically. This will generally start when your baby is about 6 months old, but for some babies, it may be sooner (1).
Every child is different, and if you’re unsure whether your baby is ready, speak to your health care provider.
This is how it works.
- When your baby is sleepy but still awake, settle them in their crib.
- Kiss your child, say goodnight, and leave the room. If the crying starts when you have left, wait for a set time. We will detail Ferber’s suggested times in a moment, but you can set the time yourself.
- If the crying continues for the set time, go back into your baby’s room for a minute or two, no longer. Gently reassure them in a soothing, quiet voice but do not pick them up. Leave the room again while your baby is still awake, even if they’re still crying.
- Stay out of the room, this time for a little longer. Follow the same routine of comforting and leaving, extending the periods outside the room until you reach a maximum. Continue with this until your baby falls asleep when you aren’t in the room.
- Should your baby wake again, follow the same steps, starting with the minimum interval and increasing them as you did before.
- Each night, increase the amount of time you set between visits to the nursery. You should find this will mean your baby will be soothing themselves to sleep after the third or fourth night. Carry on for up to a week, but if your baby is not getting it, wait a week or so and try again.
These are the set times Ferber suggests waiting between nursery visits:
- Night one: Three minutes for the first interval, five minutes for the second one, and 10 minutes as a maximum for the third interval. Each following interval that night should be at the 10-minute maximum.
- Night two: Five minutes for the first interval, 10 minutes for the second, then 12 minutes as a maximum for the rest.
Each subsequent night should then have longer intervals between your nursery visits. These times are not set in stone, and you can choose how long you wait before comforting your child. If you’re comfortable starting with a lesser or greater amount of time, it’s your choice.
When I recommend this sleep training method, I inform the parents that the first night is always the worst. It may take an hour and a half before the child falls asleep. With each subsequent night, the amount of time it takes until sleep onset should decrease.
I find that infants learn to self-soothe much faster than toddlers, usually only requiring five to seven nights of using the Ferber method. It can take two to four weeks for toddlers because some will have tantrums at bedtime.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
You can also adjust the method to work for older children who won’t stay in their rooms and sleep.
Here are some additional tips from the AAP.
Tips for Using the Cry It Out Sleep Method
There are some things you can try to help make this method more likely to succeed. Just remember, though, every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Here are some of the things you can try (2):
1. Bedtime Routine
Setting a bedtime routine will let your baby know that it’s almost sleep time. You might decide to bathe your baby, feed them, read them a book, sing them a lullaby, and then put them to bed. Do this at the same time every night, and don’t veer from the routine.
Your baby will learn to expect what is going to happen. This can make the process easier for them. A consistent daytime schedule with naps included can also help establish a routine your baby will recognize.
2. Plan Ahead
Agree on a plan between you and your partner as to when you want to start sleep training. Set the times for your intervals out of the nursery and stick to them. Make sure you both fully understand how it works and what roles you’re going to play.
You could alternate visits to the nursery, or maybe mom does the first ones and dad does the latter ones. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you’re both on the same page. This will also help you support each other better when the going gets tough.
Being “on the same page” is the only way this will be successful. I have had many families where one parent wants to do sleep training, and the other is perfectly happy to have the infant or toddler sleep in the family bed (which, for infants, is dangerous). This inconsistency also creates confusion for the child, making sleep training much more difficult.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Make sure your schedules are compatible with starting this process. It will not help if you have family visiting or your partner is working late or is out of town.
It’s also a good idea to ensure you’re both physically and emotionally ready. If other worries are playing on your mind, wait until you’re ready.
3. Don’t Deviate From Your Plan
Once you begin the cry it out method, you need to stick to it. As tempting as it might sometimes be to pick your baby up and soothe them, you need to be consistent. If you give in, you will need to start all over again.
You and your partner might decide the time is just not right for your little one. If they appear not to be ready, put it on hold.
4. Be Prepared to Lose Some Sleep
It’s likely your sleep will be interrupted when you begin this method of sleep training. Try to start on a night when you won’t be affected as much by sleep deprivation the next day. I typically recommend that parents start sleep training if they have a week with a reduced work schedule or even some time off. They are more likely to be successful if they don’t have to worry about going to work while sleep-deprived.
These nights could be difficult for you. You might end up in tears hearing your baby crying. It’s a good idea to set a timer for your periods out of the nursery and move somewhere else in the house.
You could try listening to some music or doing something you and your partner enjoy. Maybe you have a hobby you can concentrate on until it’s time for the next soothing session.
If it all gets too much, make sure to tag team. You or your partner could go for a walk while the other takes over. Maybe take a nice hot shower or bath, and come back refreshed and ready to start again.
5. Alternate Nights
We mentioned how long the intervals you create aren’t set in stone; well, neither is the process. You can adapt it to suit you if you think it will be harsh for your baby.
You might find that increasing your intervals every other night works better for you. It might mean you extend the program over two weeks rather than one.
6. Relapses Are Possible
Everything could be running smoothly once you have finished this method of sleep training. Your baby may go down with no problem, fall asleep, and stay asleep. You might be thinking you’ve finally cracked it.
Be warned; if a little one is not well, or there is a change in routine like holidays or visitors staying, they may relapse and start wanting you to comfort them to sleep again. Once things are back to normal, the sleep patterns should resume. If not, you know how to get them back on track.
7. Will This Work for My Baby?
You might be among many moms and dads who find this process works exactly as planned. Three or four nights of perseverance, and all is happy and peaceful in your home — no more crying baby in the middle of the night.
However, all babies are different, and it does not work for every baby. It could work for your first and maybe your second child. Along comes the third, and they just aren’t playing ball.
If that’s the case, it’s back to the drawing board to try something else.
Some believe the cry it out theory is not good for babies. Each baby is an individual; some will be ready and have the right temperament for it, while others won’t. It’s your decision as to what will be best.