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


Suchada is a blogger, former Army officer and aerospace engineer, and stay at home mama to two energetic and hilarious boys. At 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.

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