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.

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

  1. Genevieve

    Hi Suchada,

    thank you for sharing your experience with us. I really enjoyed it and have really enjoyed the responses. Dr Aletha Solter has been mentioned and links to her articles. I’m one of Dr Solter’s certified Instructors (among other things), so this thread really jumped out at me as very interesting. I read her first book when pregnant with my first 14 years ago and have used this philosophy all along. Here’s an article I’ve written on the same subject of lovingly supporting your child’s releasing cries;

    Like others have mentioned, it has a lot to do with working through our body memory feelings that our children’s cries (in all situations) can trigger, so addressing that leads to the parent having a much better capacity to stay calm, present and loving when their baby or child experiences big emotions (what a challenge!) and that gives the child the space to work through and release those feelings much more easily.

    With both my babies I fed on demand, co-slept till they were between 2.5 and 3 and have always been sensitized to lovingly supporting their needs to have releasing cries. Because of this, we’ve largely had such a smooth run with sleep, toilet training, food, friends, school, especially the transitions have gone really well because when they have difficult feelings, they process them really fully (with me actively listening) and can move on without carrying fears. They don’t have that build up of stress and it’s not that we haven’t had our challenges.

    As a parent coach I’ve helped lots of parents like yourself Suchada make those transitions. Every family, child and parent is different and for parents who need to make the transition to their child sleeping in a bed, this method is I believe a million times better than using CIO. Your experience of deepening the bond and becoming more attuned to your children’s feelings that they need to express is what most parents find when they start practicing being with their child’s upsets.

    Supporting a child when they cry during the day, for whatever reason, will help and speed up this process. A child who gets their upsets out as they’re lovingly listened to and held during the day tend to carry less stress in their body and hence be more settled and sleep better at night.

    I have another great article on the subject by Marion Badenoch posted on my facebook page The Way of the Peaceful Parent this last week.

  2. Izzys mommma

    With both of my girls, i started putting them to bed away at around 3 months. they got very comfortable just being in bed, then when they reached an age i was comfortable trying CIO i would do our nightly routine and but them in bed, they would cry after a few mins. but i would go in and comfort them ( while they where still in thier bed) and when i left the room i stayed at their door. i didnt go off of the amount of time that had past. i when off of thier crys, if thier cry went from “im just upset” to ‘Im scared ” then i would comfort them. i dont think the amount of time is good b/c every child is different. i personally believe if you are going to do CIO that you need to LISTEN to your child not Watch the clock.

  3. Rebekah C  

    *applause* Excellent and thanks so much for sharing. I heartily agree with everything you’ve said here.

  4. Meaghan Jackson

    Thank you for this post. I have been letting my younger son cry a little because he is having such a difficult time settling to sleep. At first I felt so guilty letting him cry, but I do go in often to comfort him and meet his needs. I am glad that other’s do the same thing.

  5. Emma Cunningham  

    This makes me feel SO MUCH BETTER. I’ve been letting my 7.5 month old daughter cry while she adjusts to falling asleep in her crib. But I’m there with her the whole time, talking, patting, snuggling, singing, whatever to let her know she’s not alone. I still feel awful, but we both need the rest. I am looking forward to coming out on the other side.

  6. Luckylauraq

    I cannot stress how strongly I agree or how much I love this post. You have managed to articulate the difference between being cruel and teaching them to cope. You have lessened my guilt in how I taught my girls to sleep well and given me the ability to share it if anyone were to ask. Thank you!!

  7. Liz

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s given me the courage to try this with my almost 24 month old. However, I’m a little unclear about when you chose to go in & comfort and when you decided to wait a bit. I am standing in the hall listening to a very sad cry. I’m unsure where the line is between suffer & struggle. Wish it wasn’t so tough for the lil ones…and the mommas.

  8. Joy  

    Your article is just what I needed to read today. I am struggling with what to do with my 7 month old, who has never slept, but is struggling with sleep more and more. I am hitting the wall of sleep deprivation, and feeling hopeless. This gives me hope, thank you!

  9. Ali

    I think in our efforts to differentiate ourselves from mainstream we sometimes lose sight of the fact we are all in this together. Parenting is extremely hard. I know women who let their babies cry it out and all have expressed distress similar to this article. A mother is always listening. She always worries. For most parents, this is what crying it out is. As alternative parents we want to believe we are more sensitive, more loving but how can we compare the intangible, invisible lives of others? I believe the degree of separation between us and mainstream is less than we think.