Cry it Out? Screw That. Or, "Sleep Training for Dummies"

by doodaddy on July 14, 2008


“I’m not sleeeeeping!”

Boobaby is almost 2 and a half and she won’t go to sleep by herself more than once or twice a week. At best, she’ll let me or Working Mom lay her down and rub her back until she drifts off.

In very rare circumstances involving a level of precision that would make Swiss Olympic timers proud Boo will let us leave the room with her still awake. But she can’t be too awake, or too tired, or not tired enough, or too hungry, or … well, you get the idea.

Sleep is depressing.

* * *

I am a younger brother, so back in the day I suffered the dishonor of the “earlier bed time.” I knew for certain that everything cool in the living room happened after I went to bed.

“Good night, Doo!” they would call as I slumped down the hall, and within five minutes I heard the big people laughing riotously at all the jokes they’d been saving. The good jokes, too, I was sure, the slightly profane (or even sexy!) kind that would have made my 11-year old self the star of the schoolyard. My cool friends told such jokes, having heard them from their dads, dads who had no scruples about bedtime for younger brothers.

So I would keep myself from falling asleep, straining to hear the family laughter from the next room, and while it was silent I would read endlessly with a flashlight under my blanket.

And so, I became a crappy sleeper. Add to that early experience the massive coffee addiction I acquired in my 20s and you get the sleep habits of a nervous bat. Even after I force myself into bed by 2 in the morning, I read or work crossword puzzles for another hour. (I tell myself I’m waiting for the sheets to get warm. It’s a ploy.)

With all that, it’s no wonder that Boo is a crappy sleeper, too.

* * *

So we’ve finally arrived at the the “cry it out” system. For those of you not familiar with this particular version of assuring your child’s future need for therapy, it basically runs like this: after your bedtime ritual, you put the child into her crib and leave, no matter what her protests, screams, or cries.

The first time we tried “cry it out,” Boo cried out at us for an hour without a breakdown — well, we broke down eventually. I picked her up and let our floret of a 40-pound toddler drift to sleep on my lap as if she were a helpless newborn again.

The books all tell you to give it a few days, that the crying will go away when she teaches herself to fall asleep. Well, bull pockey. If anything, it got worse. Maybe “cry it out” works with a little baby, but with a toddler, with this toddler, not a chance.

So last night I went in to see Boo after just 20 minutes of crying to have a chat. Here’s what I said, best as I can remember:

“Hi, Boo. Can you think of something for me? Think about going to the playground tomorrow. Imagine that you’re riding in the saucer swing with Joey. Think about the swing in your head, and think how you go up so you can see the ground, and then down and you can see the sky. And all your friends are there riding on the saucer swing together. You ride so high that I can’t see you, and you close your eyes, and go back, and forth, and back and forth…”

I kept going like that for about five minutes. I used to do this kind of thing in my job as a naturalist all the time — it’s a kind of guided imagery technique that was really useful for describing, say, the life of a turtle without sounding all scientific.

“Now the swing is starting to slow down. You’ve kept your eyes closed and you can hear the jays and the hawks, and you can hear the other kids finding roly-polies. But you just stay there as the swing goes lower and lower and lower.”

Damn me, but it was actually working. She’d stopped crying, took a sip of water, and was actually closing her eyes. The little muscles of her face were relaxing and she was breathing deeply.

“Now I’m going to go out of the room. Try to close your eyes and sleep now, but if you need me to, I’ll come back in 20 minutes. OK?”

Boo usually protests that she needs food or a diaper change or “just one more ballet dance,” restarting the cycle of challenging and cajoling and crying. But last night, she just replied “OK” in the tiniest of voices and closed her eyes.

Maybe it was a fluke, but it worked, and we avoided the dreaded “cry it out” method for something a little more subtle. If it keeps working, then my soon-to-be-released sleep advice book will be called this:

“Cry a bit, and know your cries will be answered, maybe not in quite the way you’d hoped because there’s no way we’re going out for pizza right now, but at least I came in and talked you down in a supportive, meaningful way that will with any luck help you learn to sleep at least as well as your dad does, no let’s hope better than that” Sleep Training Method

It’s a bit wordy for the cover, I suppose. Isn’t it funny how real parenting is always more involved than the too-clever titles of parenting books imply?

* * *

It’s past 3 a.m. and Boobaby is asleep now, mostly under her own power. For two days now, at least, the system has worked. And if indeed we’ve finally set Boo on a course to good sleep habits — well, then, I suppose, it’ll be time to work on mine, too.

Maybe she can teach me.

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tagged as in crying,exhaustion,failure,sleep ·

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Veronica July 14, 2008 at 4:53 am

My blog is called Sleepless Nights for a reason. And CIO? Never ever worked for us. It still doesn’t.

Luckily Amy is okay about falling asleep alone (at the moment, we regress occasionally) she is just really terrible about sleeping for more than 2 hours without needing to see my (or daddy’s) face.

Sleep. UGH.


Rattling the Kettle July 14, 2008 at 6:02 am

Cry-it-out is cruel for infants, and, as you know, not the most effective method for toddlers. I think it’s mostly designed for lazy parents. You know, the ones who put their kids on leashes in the mall. That book title really ought to be “Self-Parented Children: Go Ahead and Have That Fourth Glass of Wine, Your Kids Don’t Really Need You Anyway.”

Most nights, Ronen goes to bed OK, but it was a nightly hour-long struggle until a bit past his second birthday. It got easier once we really started enforcing the bath-brush-stories-bed routine on a consistent basis. We’ll let him cry a bit, but only for a few minutes before we go in and calm him down.


Dondi Tiples July 14, 2008 at 6:16 am

We tried Ferberizing. Didn’t work. Now we have a toddler who won’t go to sleep unless you sing him nonsense songs or play Enya/Jim Chapelle/Jim Brickman while patting his butt. And then in the middle of the night he climbs up into our bed and nudges us both towards the sides while he takes up center stage.

It was the same with our older son, too. But he grew out of it, and we hope this one will…before he becomes a teenager.


PJ July 14, 2008 at 6:26 am

Yes, Ferberization (the sleep what people somewhat misleadingly call the ‘cry it out’ method) is controversial, but it also espouses exactly what you did here: let them cry a little, then go in and reassure them that you haven’t left them forever, then let them cry a little more, etc etc. You work up from periods as short as 2 to 5 minutes to an eventual 20 minutes. The wikipedia article is reasonable, though I recommend finding Dr. Ferber’s actual book if you can.

My son @ 4 months went from waking up once a night (@ 1am of course) demanding to be rocked back to sleep to sleeping a full 12 hours solid via this method. (And has continued that ability for the last 7 months)

All that said, a toddler is of course a different beast than a 4 month old, and your approach seems to be consistent with Dr. Ferber’s recommendations, and, even better, to work! I wish I had your instincts!


Michele Shores July 14, 2008 at 10:15 am

We let Hannah cry it out. She will be two next month. Sarah did the I’m hungry etc right after Hannah was born. We nipped it in the bud one night we let her cry. She was 4 1/2. She cried for almost 2 hours then she fell asleep. Every now and then she will ask for another snack just because she does not want to go to bed and I say sorry you already had one. Because she knows we will not give in she stops asking and goes on to bed. It is a test. Just be consistent. It is hard to hear them cry but sometimes you have to let them know this is how it is or they will try to run you over on everything. Just my thoughts. She is your baby and you know her best.


Michele Shores July 14, 2008 at 10:29 am

Hannah goes to bed fairly well but sometimes she does fuss because she wants to play. We do let her cry it out if you will. It is more of a fuss. I don’t agree with the comment above about crying it is lazy parenting. I do agree that consistency is key. We have a bath-brush teeth-lotion and story time routine then is in the bed and lights out. I will go check on her for a continuous hard cry, but I give it some time because children know those buttons to push and I know she has just been changed and fed etc. Most likely she is crying because she is not ready to go to bed. Sorry to keep writing just had to respond to the comment the mom wrote. I do think I am a lazy parent b/c I let my child cry. She is almost two. I do agree that infants should not be left to cry b/c they have needs and that is cruel but an older child I see nothing wrong with.


doodaddy July 14, 2008 at 11:05 am

I seem to have struck a nerve. I hope we’re not being lazy, but it seems like Boo would be better off learning to sleep on her own. I suspect we’ve missed the window for that, though, by fully two years, probably…

We’ve read the book — every book, I think.


Susan July 14, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Oh, that is rough! I think if you have found something that works for you, go for it! Keilani slept with us in our bed until she was 13 months old, then we slooooowly transitioned her to her crib in her own room (took about a month– some small tears but never alone) and she slept great for the next year. We moved her to a toddler bed around 20 months (3 months before baby sister was born) and she slept great and didn’t mind the transition, but then started night-waking recently because she realized that Mommy & Daddy & Baby Sister were all sleeping in one room together and she was all alone in another!

We tried letting her sleep with us one night (didn’t work, nobody got any sleep), in her sister’s crib in our room one night (didn’t work, it wasn’t close enough; she wanted to be IN our bed), and then had Daddy sleep in her room with her for a week to prove that it wasn’t “scary” (and she still woke up all night each night wanting to hold Daddy’s hand, sleep RIGHT next to Daddy, etc.).

Finally, we just decided that of all of the “issues” we needed to resolve, sleep was of paramount importance to us. I do not function well on minimal sleep, and I’m just not a very good Mommy when I haven’t had enough sleep! And ditto for Daddy, and Keilani herself is much more prone to accidents when she is tired.

So, we finally put up a gate at the door to her room, mainly at my husband’s urging– I was so worried and didn’t want to, but it WORKED! She cried for less than 5 minutes (I was watching the clock as it seemed like HOURS to me) and then went to sleep and slept all night! Next night, 3 minutes, and the following night, not at all. We also of course explained to her the importance of sleep, that she would sleep best in her own bed, and that it was our job to keep her safe and to make sure that she didn’t get hurt and in order to do that, we needed to get a good night’s sleep and she did, too. It seemed to work…

That is just our experience though and every child is different, but I can’t tell you what a huge difference having enough sleep has made in my life! I hope you get lots of good rest soon!!!


Erica at Mom's Journal July 14, 2008 at 7:41 pm

Yikes – I guess I’m a lazy parent. The child leash didn’t come with my lazy parent kit though. I’m going to have to ask for my money back. *goes to pour herself another glass of wine since her child is fast asleep in her own bed and without fussing nor requiring anyone to juggle kittens for her*

I didn’t know it was called the The Ferber method or Ferberization, but that’s what we did with Sophia at four months and it worked for us. I later learned another method that I may try the next time around (if there is a next time) – “The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night” By Elizabeth Pantly. I heard it takes longer than the method I used, but you don’t have to deal with the crying. I have no idea how effective it is on toddlers, but sounds like doodaddy has found something that works for boo. 😉 By the way that is an incredibly cute picture.


katkin July 15, 2008 at 5:41 am

Supernanny is the goddess of sleep training and there is some great info and advice on her website… here’s a link. This really helped me…


Dawn July 16, 2008 at 9:31 am

I think some people sleep well and some people don’t. Alex and I are in the DON’T camp.


Chris July 26, 2008 at 8:28 pm

i am currently in this Cry it out method with my stubborn 7 month old daughter, I have always held her to sleep, rocked her, fed her etc.. its so bad that My wife and I are on 24 hour shifts, I work 10hrs a day and take care of my daughter as soon as I get in the door so my wife can sleep, she gets up around 1130 so i can go to bed to get up at 5 and repeat
it has been this way for 7 months, finally I said $$%^# it!!! im tryint this cry it out method, not because I am a lazy parent, I am a sleep deprived, grumpy parent of a whiny whiny 7 month old..

my daughter is my world as any parent I love her more that anything. I hate to see her in stress or pain, but I will tell you what, this is my second night of doing this cry it out method,

I have her on infrared camera so I can see what is going on in addidion to the baby monitor, so it helps, I know and can see she is safe, and guess what, it seems to be working,

I dont follow the method exactly, I need to pick her up to comfort her, because she wont calm down, but it works,

the first night was 2 hrs of terror, 3 5 and 10 minutes at a time,

the second night was 1 hour, 3 5 and 10 minutes at a time,

I hope tomorrow is 30 minutes. and less each time,

I am a VERY overprotective worrywart parent, this is VERY hard, but the live see in the dark camera from sams club REALLY helps,


Annie July 30, 2008 at 2:10 pm

A friend of mine went from laying down with her child, to sitting next to the bed, to sitting near the door, to sitting outside the door, to actually going downstairs but checking back every few minutes, to then eventually just being able to leave her little one to go to sleep on her own. Gradual progressions like this work best for all people involved.

My husband is in the process of using this technique with our son, but hasn’t progressed mostly because he’s too lazy to change the routine I think! At the moment, he either lays down with our son (if he is tired too!) or he sits next to the bed and reads a book as he drifts off to sleep.

We have decided NEVER to do cry it out. I outlined our reasons here:


Coach Cathleen January 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Very interesting and well written article for me and my little guy. He is now 18 mo and has not had a pacifier now for 3 months and his sleep has gone out the window along with the pacci. We’ve tried the cry method 2 nights…its rough on all of us so I’m glad to hear that we aren’t the only ones. I don’t want to “ignore” his needs but at the same time I don’t want to be “breast feeding” him when he’s in high school either. Its a fine line and I appreciate all the insight.

Sweet Dreams!


Elle May 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I’ve discovered a snappy title, for all real parents : Suck It Up.

Honestly, 2 and a half? She’s still a baby (or was, at the time of writing) If you full expect that she’ll need your help at 18, maybe then you can “talk her down” and reason with her. She won’t need you forever and you’d be a selfish fool to waste the only time she really does, under the misguided belief that you need to teach her anything that she won’t just learn for herself in time.

Don’t buy in to the bullshit, not least because you’re published and are at risk of becoming as bad.


MichelleA August 2, 2011 at 1:43 am

Firstly, this is the only article I’ve read from your blog and it is well written. Or maybe most people in Oregon have terrible grammar..

Second, I want to say I am actually kind of proud to see someone attempting sleep training in the toddler years vs infancy. I am a pre-med student with an interest in infant health, and over the course of years I’ve been convinced by people who study these things for a living that infants (6 months and younger) are not physically capable to sleep longer than 6-8 hours between feedings. Sure, having your 5 month old sleep 12 per night via cry-it-out sounds WONDERFUL, but it really isn’t. I can do into detail, but that’s a little more than I want to type at 1:30 in the middle of the night. Also, I would like to add that crying is not bad for toddlers. It is a form of pressure release that babies and children do from 6 months and beyond. Hell, when I am overwhelmed I cry, and I am 21. Babies are usually physiologically meant to be held when they cry up until emotional self-awareness around the age of 20-30 months. At that point, their brain is capable of releasing calming hormones when fussing or crying instead of flooding the brain with stress chemicals and shutting down.

With our daughter, I was convinced to try Babywise. At the time, she was sleeping in her crib fine for 6 hours at a time. Babywise told me she needed to sleep 8 and to walk away right when she showed the first signs of being tired. 2 20-minute crying fits later and I literally burned the book. She was 9 weeks old at the time. From then until 3 months she cried a solid 12 hours straight through the night. I was exhausted and would have killed someone if they looked at me funny. Then came glorious co-sleeping. Fast forward 7 months of blissful, almost completely uninterrupted 12 hour nights of sleep and we have arrived at our current stage of crib training. Our room is big enough to comfortably have her crib and our bed fairly close ( less than 3 feet away). My daughter knows it’s bed time. She knows that I’m not going to hop in bed with her. She also knows that I will always be there for her. She fusses a little when I don’t pick her up but then she just gives up after I offer my hand where she usually lays her head, and we cuddle until she’s half asleep then I hop in my bed and lay awake for hours and hours. Long story short, I hate sleeping without her, but she actually sleeps better in her crib, there are almost no tears involved, and most importantly she knows she is constantly loved and cared for no matter the time.

As toddlers, they tend to understand story time and understand that when you tell them sleeping in their fort is awesome, babies are different. Good job for finding what works for your family and I hope that this method has continued to work well 🙂


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