To Sleep or Not to Sleep?

Sleep training can be a very stressful experience for parents!  Many parents question when and how to begin sleep training, and many struggle with whether or not to let a child cry himself to sleep.  With all of the books and theories floating around out there, it can be challenging to make these decisions!  With countless families approaching us for help, we realized that this is a blog-worthy topic!  This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a parent:

We recently communicated with a Mommy who was struggling to sleep train her child.  After consulting and gaining more information, we realized that all this family really needed was a little bit of encouragement.  We find that many parents struggle with the emotional challenge of hearing their child cry and sometimes just need some reassurance that it will all be okay!  Following our conversation, this Mommy was able to stay strong and stick out her sleep training plan.  Her child was sleeping in her crib after just one night!  All this Mommy needed was a little push and pat on the back to get there.  So, for any families out there considering sleep training we are here to give you the push, courage, and motivation you may need to do so!

Now, the big question: what is the best way to sleep train your child?

The truth is that we cannot answer this question with 100% certainty without knowing you and your child.  After all, each individual is unique and deserving of individualized support.  You and/or your child may have specific needs that may need to be considered, and everyone's definition of best may be different.  However, as behaviorists, we can certainly inform you of the most effective methods for sleep training your child!  Generally the fastest and most effective method is to allow your child to cry it out.  Now, again, there may be exceptions to this (e.g. in the case of specific medical or safety concerns), but as a rule, this is typically what we recommend.  If you have any specific safety or medical concerns regarding your child, please consult your doctor and a behavior specialist before moving forward with sleep training.

There are many professionals in the field and parents who support the “cry it out” method but also some parents who are fearful of it.  Some families find it too difficult to allow their child to cry.  Some families feel like it makes them bad parents or that they are damaging their relationship with their child.  However, there is no evidence that these effects actually occur.  What we do know is that all of us continue to engage in behavior because it has a history of being reinforced.  In other words, that behavior has worked for us in the past.  In the example of sleep training, your child has likely learned that crying leads to you coming back into the room - he has learned that the crying is effective. 

With this in mind, consider that every time we take him out of the crib in response to his crying, we are teaching him that crying gets him exactly what he wants: more time with Mommy and/or Daddy as well as escape from the crib!  The longer we do this, the more practiced that crying behavior becomes and the harder it is to have your child sleep successfully in the crib.  But don't worry - we can fix this!  The answer is actually fairly simple – do not remove him from the crib when he cries.  Is this easier said than done?  Of course!  It may be challenging for you do to this, but it is less challenging than years of no one getting a restful night of sleep!

The first night will likely be the most difficult.  He has already learned that crying works, so if you do not go into the room as usual, he may up the ante.  He may cry louder; he may start to scream; he may even become hysterical and vomit (yes, this sometimes happens).  From a behavioral standpoint, one of the worst things we can do is to give in when the behavior has escalated.  If we do so, we have now taught him to engage in that escalated behavior the next time, rather than just crying. 

Here are 3 simple steps that may help you:

1.     Mentally prepare for a rough night.  Hope for the best but prepare for the worst!  You may want to try this on a weekend when it may be more feasible for you to be sleep deprived!  You may also want to consider starting bedtime earlier so that hopefully your child is asleep by your typical bedtime.  In other words, rather than starting bedtime at 8:00pm, consider starting it at 6:00pm.  That way, if it takes 3-4 hours for your child to fall asleep, at least you are still getting to bed at a reasonable hour (we know that you need to get your sleep as well!)

2.     Place a baby monitor in your child’s room so that you can hear and observe him without being in the room.  We particularly recommend this if you have any type of safety concern (e.g. falling, hitting his head, vomiting).  If you are able to watch from outside the room, then you can at least be assured that your child is safe.  You may be able to stay stronger through the crying if you know that he is not in danger.  Consulting with your child's doctor regarding any potential medical concerns (e.g. vomiting, aspiration) may also help to ease your mind.

3.     Put your child in the crib and do not go back in (unless, of course, there is some type of real danger.)

Remember that the first night will likely be the hardest.  It may take a long time.  But if you stick it out, your child will eventually fall asleep on his own.  Hopefully what we will see is that the crying will slowly reduce each night.  Always think long-term.  To achieve the long-term goal you sometimes need to work through short-term challenges.

So, for any parents out there who just need a pat on the back and an assurance that it is okay to let your child cry sometimes--we write this for you!  You are not harming your child or doing anything detrimental to his development by letting him cry during sleep training.  So set a plan and go for it!  Remember to be strong and think about the bigger picture.  You can do it!

Note:  This post primarily focuses on how to manage your child's challenging sleep behavior.  We focused on the topic of crying because this is often a source of questions from our parents.  However, as behaviorists, we also highly support the use of proactive measures!  There are many things we can do proactively to set your child up for success.  To learn more about these strategies, check out our Successful Sleeping post.  

For additional information or support, feel free to contact our behavioral team.  We are always here to help!

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