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Too Young to Cry it Out?

I originally wrote this post in 2011. Suffice it to say my thinking on the subject has changed radically. I know more today than I did then. One thing I know is that the term cry it out is terrible, pejorative, and vague. But I’m leaving it here because people find this article Googling the term so its a helpful marker for searching parents. 

At it’s most basic, cry it out is one approach to achieve independent sleep. Leaning to fall asleep independently is foundational to good sleep. You can put off independent sleep, or convince yourself that the root issue is teething or a growth spurt, but at the end of the day this is the bridge that all families need to cross. 

It is the tool of last resort. Nobody comes home from the hospital with their precious new baby thinking, “A year from now we’re going to let you cry and we’ll all feel terrible about it. Welcome home baby!” They try lots of other approaches and many will find success with those other approaches! And some won’t and they’ll eventually get ground down into a sleep-deprived pulp before settling on cry it out as a sleep strategy.

Which begs the question, is there such a thing as too young to cry it out?

Right Tool for the Job

Newborns are generally crappy sleepers for three primary reasons.

  1. They are highly disregulated which means they cry a lot, are noisy, grunty, and gassy when they do sleep. And they generally need immense amounts of soothing to successfully fall and stay asleep.
  2. Newborns do not have a fully developed circadian rhythm so they essentially nap around the clock. Thus it is normal and developmentally appropriate for your newborn to be awake for 2 hours during the middle of the night then take a 4 hour nap in the middle of the day.
  3. Newborns eat frequently and are often messy so feedings may entail pooping, spitting up, full pajama changes, etc. Thus middle of the night feedings can become a long and messy process leaving everybody wide awake and unhappy about it.

Independent sleep does not solve these issues.

Let me repeat that because you’re tired and probably scanning this on your phone at 4 am.

Independent sleep does not solve these issues.

Thus if you’re looking at your 2 month old thinking that sleep training is the solution to your non-sleeping woes the answer is generally, no. Time, soothing, and often taking turns with your partner at 2 am is your best path forward.

What Does Too Young Mean?

There is a pervasive belief that there is an age at which children are developmentally incapable of falling asleep without parental assistance. And anyone attempting independent sleep prior to this magical age is a parental monstrosity. But experience suggests some very young babies are capable of falling asleep entirely on their own. Those of you who spend hours a day nursing, rocking, feeding, bouncing, or shushing kiddos who resolutely will not sleep without this are likely giving me the digital side-eye right now.

The short answer is, there is no exact age at which we know for sure babies are capable of falling asleep independently. But overwhelming experience suggests that a) it’s fairly young and b) it’s generally much sooner than we think. Which begs the question…

When Should You Teach Your Child Independent Sleep?

But the answer to when is, “As soon as you reasonably can.” Ideally you establish independent sleep before it’s a problem – so around 3-4 months of age. There are multiple approaches to independent sleep that can work particularly well for younger babies (I wrote a whole book about them) and I highly recommend experimenting with some gradual tactics. It’s never easy but it definitely doesn’t get easier as they get older.

Whenever your child falls asleep a certain way you are teaching them this is how we sleep. The more you do it one way the deeper that groove becomes. Does this mean you need to make independent sleep a top priority the second you come home with your newborn infant? Of course not! But generally earlier is better. You have more tools, more tactics, and the flexibility to experiment with different approaches without courting the ire of the Goddess of Consistency.

But … Tears?

Possibly. Babies, especially younger babies, cry a lot and getting them to do anything (diaper change, into car seats, etc.) without any tears can be a challenge. They may cry while you are actively working to soothe them to sleep. They may need to blow off some steam in order to fall asleep at all. So it’s very likely that there will be some tears involved with helping your younger baby fall asleep no matter what you do.

The answer to when for tears as a committed approach to independent sleep at bedtime is highly variable. The real answer is, “I trust you to make the right decision for your family.” Generally this happens when all other attempts have failed and sleep is an utter disaster, so commonly around 6 months. I don’t say this as a hard line, however, but more of a general guideline for consideration. For some it might be closer to 4 months. For others, far later. And for some the answer is “it won’t matter because you’ll find success with a different path.”

All Roads Lead to Rome

Fostering healthy sleep for our children means establishing independent sleep. There are many paths to achieving independent sleep and it can happen when kids are younger or older. But, unlike the eating last hot dog at the mini mart, you can’t skip this.

If your child, at any age, is not sleeping check out the book, identify what’s working for you (schedule, positive sleep associations, etc.) and what isn’t. Formulate a plan to set your kiddo up for success. Consider joining the Facebook group for troubleshooting and support. Maybe cry it out is the answer and maybe it isn’t. But this is your best path to set yourself up for success. And know that whatever you decide to do, I’m rooting for you.

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