To Cry or Not To Cry: Helping Your Child Learn to Sleep

Mother breastfeeding baby on bus

If you’re feeling sleep-deprived because of the nighttime waking habits of your little one, rest assured that you’re not alone. Getting your baby to sleep through the night is one of the most challenging, widely discussed, and hotly debated elements of new parenthood. Pretty much everyone agrees on the end goal: a child who falls asleep on his or her own and stays asleep for the night. The debate arises with figuring out what it takes to get there, and where a parent can begin.

Mother rubbing babies tummy in crib

Kinds of Sleep Techniques

In general, sleep techniques can be divided into two categories: one in which the parents allow the child to cry as they learn to self-soothe, and the other in which parents help their children go to sleep without crying. Between those two camps, there is a wide range of different strategies. However, keep in mind there is no single “sure-fire” technique that will work for every child or every family. In some cases, you may start with one method, decide that it is not working for you, and then switch to a different method.

Before you decide whether you want to head down the “cry-it-out” or “no-cry” track, you have to evaluate several different facets of your home life. For example: Are you willing and able to hear your child crying in the crib without rushing in to the room? Do you want or need to sleep-train your child within a certain amount of time (say, before you have to go back to work)? Will your other family members and close neighbors understand what is going on if they hear your baby crying for extended periods of time? Is your child otherwise healthy and happy during the daytime? If so, the “cry-it-out” track might be the right direction for you. From there, you need to research the different techniques and make further decisions, such as when and how often you will go in to check on your little one.

Remember that if you choose the “cry-it-out” track, you need to be willing to commit yourself to the program so that you don’t send your child any mixed signals. Also, if your baby is sharing a room with any siblings, you need to have an alternate sleeping arrangement for the siblings for at least a few nights to make sure that they still get a good night’s sleep.

On the flip side, if you can’t bear the thought of hearing your child crying at night without rushing to him, if your home situation is not conducive to having a baby cry for long periods of time, and/or if you and your partner are willing to commit weeks or even months to the project, you are a better candidate for the “no-cry” sleep-training techniques. From there, you need to evaluate the different “no-cry” methods and decide, for instance, whether you are comfortable continuing to use nursing, rocking, or bottles as sleep aids, or whether you want to train your child to sleep without these associations.

Baby sleeping holding parents hand

Preparing to Sleep Train, No Matter Which Method

Beyond the “cry-it-out” or “no-cry” decision, just about every sleep expert agrees that you need to set the scene properly for sleep training. Your child should be at least four to six months old before you begin, and your child should be in good health and not undergoing any major transitions (such as starting a new daycare). You’ll want to make sure that your child has a safe and comfortable place to sleep, is not too warm or too cold, and has a predictable, comforting bedtime routine. It also helps if you can make your child’s room as dark as possible during the nighttime, and shielded from outside noise distractions. Many parents use a white noise machine, a fan, or some other monotonous sound to drown out any distractions from beyond the bedroom.

Additionally, you should keep in mind that your child may lapse into old sleep habits if she is going through any sort of major changes (teething, developmental milestones, going on vacation, etc.). Your job is to know your child, recognize what works the best, and keep providing consistent and loving reassurance through each of these stages. Before you know it, those wakeful nights will be a sweet and distant memory.