As a parent, you’re probably all too familiar with the challenges of getting your little ones to fall asleep and stay asleep. The bedtime routine can often turn into a bedtime battle, leaving both parents and children exhausted and frustrated. One of the most common sleep problems I see in young children is needing a parent present to fall (or stay) asleep. One regularly suggested solution to this issue is the “cry it out” method (you might also know this as the “Ferber method”). Often this method is synonymous with sleep training. But if you’ve been putting off sleep training because you are worried about having to deal with your child “crying it out,” never fear because there are better ways! In this post, we will explore why the “cry it out” method might not be the best approach and I’ll offer some alternative, gentler strategies that prioritize a more supportive and calm sleep experience for your child.

What is the “Cry It Out” Method?

The “cry it out” method involves putting your child to bed, leaving the room, and allowing them to cry for a designated period without parental intervention, with the hope that they will learn to self-soothe and eventually fall asleep on their own.child crying at bedtime Proponents of this method argue that it helps children develop independence and better sleep habits. The “cry it out” method actually dates all the way back to the late 1800s when it was explained in a book by Emmett Holt, but it gained traction in the 1980s with popular sleep books by Dr. Ferber. There’s actually quite a bit of research supporting the cry-it-out method. When used correctly it can work very well and work very quickly.

Extinction: The Science Behind the “Cry It Out” Method

The underlying principle behind the effectiveness of “cry it out” is based on a behavioral phenomenon known as extinction. Extinction basically just means withholding the reinforcer when some behavior occurs, and if you can manage to do that long enough, the behavior will go away. For example, if you put a quarter into a vending machine and pressed the button but no snack came out, you might repeat the behavior a few more times, but eventually if no snack ever came you’d stop trying. The idea behind crying it out is that parental attention serves as the reinforcer for challenging behavior like crying at bedtime, so if you withhold parental attention long enough, the challenging behavior will go away.

Why Does the “Cry It Out” Method Often Fail?

While the “cry it out” method may work for some families, it is not without its drawbacks and potential pitfalls. One major challenge is the occurrence of extinction bursts. Extinction bursts are an expected part of the extinction process- typically when you withhold a reinforcer the behavior briefly gets worse or increases before it starts to go away. Back to our vending machine example- if you put a quarter in and pressed the button and nothing happened you probably wouldn’t just walk away immediately, right? You’d probably press the button a few more times, maybe press it harder, and maybe even bang on or kick the machine. Extinction bursts often come with emotional responding as well, like anger or frustration. When using the cry-it-out method an extinction burst often comes in the form of intensified crying and protest that can occur when a child realizes that their usual cries are not yielding the expected response. These bursts of distress can be emotionally taxing for both parents and children, and they often lead parents to give in and provide the attention the child is seeking.

When parents eventually crack and go give the child attention they can inadvertently reinforce even worse behavior. When a child’s crying becomes too intense, too loud, or even dangerous, parents may feel compelled to intervene, inadvertently teaching the child that escalating their cries will eventually result in parental attention. I always tell parents, if they aren’t 100% sure they can follow through with letting their child cry it out, don’t bother using this procedure because it’s too much of a risk that you might make the problem worse.

Negative Impacts on Parents and Children

Beyond the potential challenges of implementing the “cry it out” method, it’s important to recognize its emotional impact on everyone involved. Many parents find it difficult to listen to their child cry without offering comfort and reassurance. This emotional strain can lead to increased stress and guilt, making the entire process harder on parents.

For children, the “cry it out” method can evoke feelings of fear, abandonment, and anxiety. The lack of parental presence during times of distress may undermine their sense of security, potentially leading to more sleep-related difficulties in the long run.

Alternative Approaches to Sleep Training

Fortunately, there are alternative sleep training approaches that prioritize a more gradual and supportive transition to independent sleep. These methods acknowledge the importance of keeping bedtime calm, relaxed, and easy for everyone while also promoting healthy sleep habits. Here are some alternatives to consider:


  1. Time-Based Visiting: Put your child to bed and leave the room, then do brief check-ins on a time-based schedule, regardless of what your child is doing. Gradually increase the time intervals between check-ins, providing comfort and reassurance to your child without letting them become overly distressed.


  1. Quiet-Based Visiting: This is the same idea as time-based visiting, except visits happen contingent on your child staying quietly in bed. This one works better with older children that can understand the rule “If you stay in your bed and stay quiet, I will keep coming back in to make sure you are ok.”


  1. Distance Fading: Slowly increase the distance between you and your child, allowing them to become accustomed to falling asleep with increasing independence. You might start by sitting in a chair right next to their bed, then the next night move the chair a few inches away, move further the next night, and so on.


  1. Bedtime Pass: Introduce a bedtime pass that allows your child to get out of bed and make a reasonable request a limited number of times each night, giving them a sense of control while still maintaining boundaries. This one generally works best for children ages 4 and up who can understand how the pass works.


Stay tuned for future blog posts where I will break each of the above strategies down in detail and explain how and why they work!

Summary: A Kinder Path to Peaceful Sleep

While the “cry it out” method might be a tempting quick fix for sleep challenges, it’s crucial to consider the potential emotional and psychological impact on both parents and children. Instead of resorting to a potentially distressing and difficult approach for all involved, consider exploring alternative methods that prioritize a gentle transition to independent sleep. Start by trying the aforementioned techniques and remember, it’s okay to ask for help.

If you find yourself struggling to navigate your child’s sleep difficulties, don’t hesitate to consult a qualified professional. They can provide personalized guidance and support tailored to your family’s needs, helping you achieve a peaceful and restful sleep routine for both you and your child. Remember, your child’s physical and emotional well-being should always be at the forefront of your approach to sleep training!

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