Allowing Crying Without Practicing Cry-it-Out

crying baby

I practice attachment parenting and I co-slept with both my boys, now aged 2 and 8 months. I loved the closeness of it, the ease with breastfeeding it gave me, and the restfulness that came with it.

So I was shocked when it wasn’t working anymore.

I was waking in the morning grumpy, groggy, and frustrated, and it lasted all day. I couldn’t give my children the attention they needed in normal waking hours because I was up with them all night. The strain was showing in all of us. We needed a change.

I am adamantly against Cry-it-Out (CIO). I can’t think of a less sensitive way to parent than to tune out a crying baby (or toddler, or child), and I wasn’t willing to try it.

I was scared though. I’ve seen episodes of Supernanny, and after a couple of those it’s hard to believe any child will go to sleep on their own without iron-fisted discipline – no matter how many Dr. Sears books you’ve read.

We’d already snapped up the low-hanging fruit – daily routines, bath, bedtime stories. We just couldn’t get to the next step of sleep. Exhausted from 10PM bedtimes and 4AM wake-ups (with a few feedings thrown in for good measure), I was desperate. I stumbled across Janet Lansbury’s RIE website, and started reading about sleep.

I don’t agree with a few aspects of RIE founder Magda Gerber’s advice, but I appreciate that the underlying foundation for the RIE belief is respect.

This was the first place I’d read about crying, and allowing children to cry, in a context other than CIO.

The premise is that transitions are difficult, and children will struggle with them. Struggling may lead to crying, but struggling is OK. We don’t need to protect our children from struggling – we need to protect them from suffering.

So it’s OK to allow them to struggle. It’s OK to put them in situations where they’re uncomfortable. It’s OK for them to cry.

The key is how we react when they cry. Are we listening intently, or are we tuning out? Do we know if they’re panicked, or just uncomfortable? Do we know when the struggle becomes suffering?

I decided we were all going to get a better night’s sleep together, so I laid out my plan. My older son (27 months old) would sleep in his room, in his own bed (newly covered with a fire-engine quilt that he was very excited about). My younger son (8 months old) would sleep in our spare bedroom, in a play yard. I would sleep in my bedroom, in my bed, with my husband (who was previously on the couch).

The bedtime routine would be what it always had been, but I lowered the times to 6 and 7 instead of 7:30 and 8 to avoid over-tiredness (this advice came from Janet’s guest author, Eileen Henry). For my older son, that means bath and brushing teeth, pajamas on, and three short bedtime stories. For my younger son, it means breastfeeding and a lullaby. But instead of laying there with them, I left the room.

The first few nights were rough. They cried. I was up a lot, soothing them, and I felt even more tired because I had to get up from another room. I wasn’t sure if it would work. But I needed it to, so we persevered.

I talked to both of them. I told them I understood how difficult the change felt. I told them it was OK to be upset about it. I held them, I stroked their hair, and I sang to them. I picked them up when they needed it, and calmed them down. I told them why we were making the change, and how important it was for us all to be well rested. And the change came.

Falling asleep is quicker. On some nights there isn’t a noise at all, and on others a fuss or two. There are still occasional night wake-ups, but far fewer than there were before, and the return to sleep is much easier. Morning wake-ups have returned to a civilized hour (6AM). We’re all more rested, and happier to see each other and spend our days together.

I thought by letting my children cry, I would become less sensitized to them, but in fact I’m more sensitive to their needs. We’ve come through a struggle together, and are closer, and have a stronger bond. I learned to listen more closely, and have been rewarded by watching us all grow.

I didn’t realize there was any way to be sensitive to the needs of a child while allowing them to cry. I thought leaving them alone to sleep meant either completely ignoring them or waiting for a clock to tell me it was OK to check on them, and those are methods I just couldn’t live with.

I was so relieved to find that I could let my children struggle, but still support them. I could listen to my instincts and know when they needed me, and comfort them through the transition. I could let them cry but still listen to them, and to my heart.

Photo Credit: sad isaac by surlygirl, on Flickr

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Suchada is a blogger, former Army officer and aerospace engineer, and stay at home mama to two energetic and hilarious boys. At MamaEve.com she writes about natural birth, breastfeeding, and green living, among other natural parenting topics, and she is an advocate for the same in her community. Her views on raising children are strongly influenced by growing up in Southeast Asia and observing parents around the world.

39 Responses to Allowing Crying Without Practicing Cry-it-Out

  1. Amy  

    I really appreciate this article of your experience, Suchada. Thank you for sharing it.

    “I thought by letting my children cry, I would become less sensitized to them, but in fact I’m more sensitive to their needs. We’ve come through a struggle together, and are closer, and have a stronger bond. I learned to listen more closely, and have been rewarded by watching us all grow.”

    Crying has been a crux of the journey for me as well. With my first I wanted to end all of it – I felt so bad with her. I tried to help, help, help. I also influenced a child to feel unsafe with her emotions, because I felt unsafe with mine.

    Three children later I can actually sit with my 5 month old and be with her as she cries, not trying to stop-fade-fix it, but to allow her to emote. I always make sure she’s taken care of – nursed, dry, etc. and I allow her to be human and experience emotion. It is quite the shift and it can bring up bunches of stuff for mommas (dads, too).

    I really appreciate the work of Aletha Solter in this area…
    Crying for comfort http://www.awareparenting.com/comfort.htm
    How can we respond to babies’ emotions
    http://www.awareparenting.com/respondingtoemotions.htm
    What to do when your baby cries
    http://www.awareparenting.com/article1.htm

    I admit I read her book, Tears and Tantrums, in 2001 and it took me a few years to actually be able to be with crying. For me, it was all about being able to touch and be with my own pain from childhood as well :)

  2. Suchada @ Mama Eve  

    Can’t wait to check out all those resources, Amy. I’m glad to know I’m not the only mother who’s struggled with this.

  3. Nadine  

    I have read about RIE and all that comes with it before my son was born but I still struggled to let him struggle….

    But yeah – once you realise what it does to you and your child it’s all worth the struggles on both sides.

    I also had problems to find the right words. So I would sit there and talk and say “I know you’re upset and I understand you. I know this is hard…” over and over and more and more until I thought “hang on, how would I feel if I am upset and someone is constantly talking and telling me how I feel?” so I stopped that. I just use clear sentences when really needed (but not telling him how HE feels) and I stopped the whole bla bla bla and it seemed to help too.

    Well, it’s a long and tough journey. Not just for the little persons, for everyone involved too. But I love it!

  4. Jenn Collins @ Monkey Butt Junction  

    Thank you for this article! I would never describe what we do as CIO, but I do allow some crying, and I have been having some mommy guilt about it, I think mostly because so many anti-CIO people like myself strive for a no-cry night every night. I think what you describe illustrates that there can be a happy and sensitive middle ground.

    My son at 13 months is an excellent sleeper. On the rare rough nights we cosleep but most nights he sleeps well in his own bed for at least 8 hours. On most nights though he will sob a bit in the middle of the night, and I let him. I’ve become tuned in to his cries, and I know that those sobs are momentary – sometimes he doesn’t even wake up – and he addresses them on his own. If he has a real need, I know that cry as well and then I go to him immediately to comfort him and attend to his needs.
    I’ve questioned my approach again and again, but I think your points are well made and I feel reassured in doing what I’m doing.

    • pamela

      SOOO true! It’s about being more tuned in to your baby and knowing what they need. I too have had feelings of guilt and questioning but knowing that there are some rousals during the night that may include some crying but don’t necessarily mean distress (or even waking) as well as seeing the difference a good night’s sleep makes in their temperment is all I need to know I am doing the right thing. I have a 2 year old and a 7 month old and they both sleep well through the night (my 7 mth old has been known to sleep upwards of 14 hours after being put down) with out crying 95% of the time. Thank you for this article that respects gentle parenting while showing there is a middle ground!

  5. Emily @ Crunchy(ish) Mama  

    I really appreciate this also. My child’s crying (especially as it relates to sleep) has been the greatest struggle of my parenting. He’s 13 months now, and bedtimes are relatively cry-free, but there are night when he has been exhausted and falling asleep while nursing, but when put in his crib he freaks out. It only lasts a few minutes, and it’s apparently just what he needs to do before he goes to sleep some nights. I’m finally kind of OK with that. Our next battle will be stopping the night wakings, but I’m not ready for that fight yet. Thanks for sharing!

  6. janetlansbury  

    Suchada, thanks for this brave post! And do read about Aletha Solter’s discoveries. She explains why crying is so hard for us to hear, especially if we were discouraged from crying as babies ourselves. Our children need to know from the beginning that we can accept their less happy sides and are willing to make the effort to decipher each cry, rather than do anything just to quiet them.

    And healthy sleep is one of the most valuable gifts we can give a baby (and has the added benefit of providing a less grumpy, better functioning parent!).

    Also, thank you for linking to my site!

  7. Suchada @ Mama Eve  

    Jenn and Emily —

    I had to search all over my house to find my Dr. Sears books, and then look hard to find the quote I remembered reading:

    “After parenting you child to sleep, the first time he arouses, instead of rushing in, give him time to resettle on his own. Don’t put time limits on how long you wait. Instead, use your sensitivity as a barometer of your response.”

    This little gem (from The Discipline Book) is hidden among a lot of other nighttime parenting advice (I couldn’t find the same words on his website). Our responses to our children don’t have to be all or nothing. I’m glad you’ve found solutions that work for you and your families!

  8. Ashley  

    This — I’m so glad I’m not the only one for whom co-sleeping suddenly stopped working. And while I didn’t realize I was doing anything other CIO (which broke my heart), at 15 months something had to give.

    So I listened. When he was just crying because he was mad I let him cry within limits before comforting him; when he’s distressed or upset we make sure to snuggle and calm him and — if nothing else does it — bring him back to bed.

    It’s not easy, and I’m glad we’ve weathered through the worst of it. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Suchada @ Mama Eve  

      Ashley, as parents we can be so hard on ourselves (and other parents can be so hard on us too!) But we have to listen to ourselves and our children. If something isn’t working, we owe it to everyone in the family to find a solution. Sometimes those solutions are easy and sometimes they’re hard, but we know in our hearts whether or not we’re doing the right thing. I’m so glad you’ve found something that works for your family!

  9. Kristin  

    Yes! This is very much my experience too. With all three of my girls, we have done different versions of “crying with comfort”, which I took from Dr. Sears and the No-Cry Sleep Solution (in the back she does have a section about crying). Sometimes that means crying in arms of me or their dad, sometimes with my lying there next to them. Sometimes, us patting them or sitting with them.

    There were just times where what they were used to, and therefore understandably wanted, was not the best for getting quality sleep (sleeping with my nipple in their mouth, sleeping on top of me/in arms, or in too-crowded bed waking each other and me constantly). I also believe that allowing kids to let out their emotions, and work through them without us rushing to “fix” it, is important (at least with older babies and toddlers). I learned quickly how to read my girls cries, and know when it was time to intervene differently.

    That said, with twins and 3 kids under 3, I also had to let them cry alone more than I’d prefer. That was so hard, but sometimes I didn’t have other options. My family and our culture does not have the “village” or “tribe” support that some of us need, at times like that.

    • Suchada  

      Thanks so much for your comment, Kristin. Even with just two children I can relate to the pain of hearing one cry while attending to the other. My hope is that my parenting in every other area, and the strong bond I have with my children, will carry us through those times. We are extremely close, and from what I know of you and your children, you are too. I appreciate you sharing your experience!

  10. Eleia

    I also like this advice for changing night time habits. Basically, crying during the transition period can be accepted as long as you are there comforting them and their needs are met.

    http://drjaygordon.com/attachment/sleeppattern.html

  11. Kelly  

    This is such an inspiring post – I haven’t reached the transition point with my daughter to leave our bed yet, but I know that advice like this will help when I do – definitely bookmarking this one! :)

  12. Eileen Henry

    Dear Suchada,

    What a lovely description of supporting one’s child through struggle. I especially love the feelings of becoming “more sensitive” to your child’s emotional state and needs.

    The reason why CIO doesn’t work is because at some point the parent sits, white knuckling it, in the next room, while their child suffers. It goes against every instinctual drive of the loving parent. And most parents throw in the towel at some point. We are not prepared to fight with our own brain in such a way.

    If we can remember that struggle, disturbance, and even anxiety and fear are emotional states inherent in development, then we can have faith that our child is…at the very least…capable of handling his/her own development. And when we bestow these feelings of confidence and positivity upon our little people…its effects are powerful and lasting.

    Warmly,
    Eileen Henry, RIE™ Associate
    Compassionate Sleep Solutions™
    http://www.eileensclasses.com
    303.953.0203

    • Suchada  

      Eileen, thank you so much for stopping by and leaving some feedback! I have to admit, even listening sensitively is sometimes difficult, and I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. People have told me that leaving the room is still CIO, but I can hear almost instantly if my children will settle themselves or if they need me to come in and give them some comfort (sometimes a lullaby is enough, sometimes they need some holding). If I’m ever in doubt, I go to them, and trust that I can’t hurt them with love.

      I really appreciate your perspective.

  13. Kristy  

    I’ve actually done this from about 3 weeks old (my baby is 4 months) without realising what I was doing. There was a point where I just got so tired that I started giving him a moment to settle on his own, it lead to a startling surprise, that in that 30 seconds where I willed myself to wake up he would resettle. After that I started giving him a moment, not to a distress point it’s just a short grizzle to see if he works it out. If he can’t the cries change quickly, so it is easy to hear when to respond and when not to. I agree, it definitely makes me more sensitive to the cries, because I can physically feel when I need to respond, even when he is in another room being cuddled by my husband. It definitely hasn’t desensitized me to leave him a moment each time. I see it as giving him a brief opportunity to learn, the same as I allow a moment of grizzling while he tries to learn new skills.

    • Suchada  

      Hi Kristy —

      I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you so far.

      I have to say for the benefit of other readers that 3 weeks old is very young to not respond immediately, and I would recommend to most parents of young infants to go to them immediately. That being said, even young babies cry out in their sleep, or fuss when they’re put down, and then turn over and go into a deep sleep. With babies that small though, I would always err on the side of responding too quickly. There’s plenty of time to get to know their cries when they’re not so small and vulnerable.

      Also, now that you’re baby is almost 4 months old, be on the lookout for changes in their sleep patterns. It’s common to happen around this time, and it’s an opportunity for us to listen and get to know our children better.

  14. Leslie T  

    Thank you so much for this post. We have struggled with the transition from infant sleeping to toddler sleeping. I was at my breaking point and knew that I needed sleep for my own sanity in order to be a good mom. I felt like I had failed as a parent because I let my son cry. No longer was I a good parent, but an uncaring one. Everything you said is what we felt and what we did. I am amazed at how closely we naturally gravitated towards these gentle ideas, the whole time thinking we were no longer gentle parents. Your post made my day and I thank you for it

    • Suchada  

      Leslie, if you were an uncaring parent, you wouldn’t be concerned about this at all. Your sensitivity to your children is evident just by your consideration of their experience.

      Some people will consider any crying on the part of our children as using CIO, but there are so many variables — their age, their understanding of words, your proximity, the extent of their discomfort, their disposition, and so on, that should determine an appropriate response, and it sounds like you were able to find a balance.

      Thank you so much for your comment.

  15. Alicia C.  

    Thanks for this post. My 28-month-old (who’s still co-sleeping)recently began waking up about an hour after he went to sleep (10pm) and cried until 2am. I tried everything – crawling back into bed with him, nursing, reading books, even watching TV… and NOTHING worked. He kept crying.
    I didn’t read up on it but, instead, followed my natural instincts to just let him cry. I sat close enough to make sure he was OK and not freaking out but tried letting him deal with it himself. After an EXTREMELY nerve-wracking two weeks of 4-houe crying jags, he learned to put himself back to sleep. I think this was REI?
    Anyway, it was my natural response to this problem and it worked!

  16. Suchada  

    Hi Alicia,

    I have to be honest, I don’t quite know what to think about what you described. It must have been very difficult!

    I’m still learning about RIE, but the philosophy is based on treating children and babies as capable people worthy of respect. Some elements of how this is manifested doesn’t necessarily fit with traditional attachment parenting.

    I think being with our children, after making sure they are physically well and cared for, and allowing them to express their emotions, is sometimes all we can do as parents. With such a large, sustained disturbance, though, I would also look closely at what’s happening during the day to see if there are clues to what could be causing it. I’ve noticed my children sleep much better at night when we’ve had good days.

  17. Julian  

    Thank you for this post. I use a version of this during the day.

    Cosleeping still works for us at 18 months, but I can definitely understand why it may not for some. Cosleeping, in all aspects, looks different for everyone who practices it.

    But during the day I find it important to allow my child to experience emotion. I call in a time-in. While I have many other gentle parenting tools I use, I think it’s important to remember that strong emotions, or ‘struggles’ as you called them in this post, cannot and should not be diverted or distracted or ‘fixed’ all the time.

    I usually sit close by so that my son can easily access hugs or comfort nurse if he needs to and tell him that I love him and am here for him.

    I think many people get confused about what it means to be against CIO. It is not the crying I am against, it is crying that is ignored and emotional needs that go intentionally unmet. Our children are not defined by how much they cry as infants, but by how we respond to that crying.

    • Suchada @ Mama Eve  

      Julian, I love your perspective and analysis of why CIO is such a controversial subject. I’d always been conditioned to think that if a baby was crying, their needs were unmet, but I’ve changed my thinking to understand how strong emotions need to be expressed. Thank you!

  18. Andrea!!!  

    This post really encapsulates our experience too – we co-slept with our daughter until she was 8 months and it wasn’t working for any of us anymore – she woke 8-10 times every night and I was basically a zombie. We slowly transitioned her into her room and she seemed to do well, but still woke 2-4 times in the night. I was so used to responding to her immediately as I did while co-sleeping that it was really hard to hear her cry for any amount of time. She would make a peep and I would be right there! It took a few months of letting myself take a breath and really listening to see what type of cry it was. At 15 months, she wakes maybe once in the night if at all. Sometimes she will wake around 10pm and cry for 30 seconds to a minute, but I know now that she is crying through her sleep transition and is OK. It is a different cry than say, the cry of pain I went to last night as her teeth were hurting her.

    All this being said, I still felt a bit guilty whenever she cried, but reading your post and the other comments, it reaffirms what we came to on our own – that ground between CIO and no-crying at all. And really, it shouldn’t come as such a surprise, since I have yet to find many areas of parenting that are black-and-white, so why should crying be any different?!

  19. Stacy (Mama-Om)  

    I am glad someone mentioned Tears and Tantrums.

    I think of my parenting journey as one that has enabled me to be with my children while they are having their emotions… to have compassion and presence and to acknowledge them without trying to soothe, redirect or manage their experience. To be with them while also being with myself. It can be a wonderfully beautiful thing to connect in this way.

    I see that you and your boys are finding your way; thank you for sharing your experience. It has definitely touched a chord with many people!

    Blessings,
    Stacy

  20. Heather

    I think you hit it just right when you said “The key is how we react when they cry.”

    A children’s cry evokes emotions in us for a reason, so that it’s not something we can ignore. I think that’s a pretty amazing instinct to have.

    My daughter’s nap time is usually a really easy transition, but in the times when it’s not and she gets upset and would rather not take a nap (usually this means she’s over tired, too excited from days events, etc), so we simply lay down and start to read. If she’s upset that’s okay, but she quickly calms down and starts to enjoy the book. I don’t ignore her need to be upset or frustrated, I hold her and just keep going with our normal nap routine and then she settles into it too. Those are the times that I know she is over tired, and it doesn’t take long for her to fall asleep.

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