Making the decision to change your child’s sleep habits can be a hard and stressful decision to make. Not to mention that if you need to make this decision, you are sleep deprived yourself, and it is hard be consistent and follow through when you are exhausted as an adult. There is much controversy over crying these days and the harm may cause your child. The vast majority of parents who contact me report concerns about letting their child “Cry It Out” (CIO). I hear from parents, “I just can’t let my child cry all alone in a dark room.” However, this is not the only way for your child to learn improved sleep habits. Yes, there is nearly always crying involved but giving your child space to learn the skill of putting him/herself to sleep can be done while still providing comfort and support. Ultimately you will be giving a gift that your child will use for a lifetime. Regardless, parents are often asking me about what methods I recommend and how much crying will be involved.
Most parents who contact me have reached out because what they have been doing until this point to help their child fall asleep is no longer working. As crying is a preverbal child’s way of expressing frustration, I cannot promise families that their child will not cry. When you are making changes to your child’s sleep, you are teaching him or her to do your child has never had to do before: to learn how to put him/herself to sleep at the beginning of the night and back to sleep throughout the night. Sleep is a learned skill and it is something that takes time for your child to learn. As part of the process of learning something new (remember, change is hard for EVERYONE) there is no way to protect your child from experiencing frustration. In fact, by continually trying to minimize the amount of frustration your child experiences, you can prolong the period of time it takes for your child to learn this skill. How long your child has been sleeping with the help of sleep crutches (anything that you do to your child to help him/her fall asleep such as rocking, bouncing, nursing, holding) and to what extent their current sleep behavior is engrained will determine how hard it is for your child to learn how to put him/herself to sleep and how much crying there will be.
When families ask about how much crying there will be, I am up front about the fact that I can’t answer that question exactly. I do know that if parents are consistent with their plans and follow through, the crying can be minimized in the long run. Specifically, there are three factors that impact how much your child will cry:
- Temperament: Temperament refers to your child’s behavioral style or the manner with which he or she interacts with the environment. If your child has a typically easy-going temperament, handles change well, and is generally adaptable, then making changes in his or her sleeping behaviors is not usually accompanied by much crying. If, however, you have a very alert, high needs or fussy baby, he or she is going to let you know, and probably forcefully so, that they are not pleased about your plans to change their sleeping behavior. Assessing your child’s temperament can help you set realistic expectations for the best method to use to change your child’s sleep behaviors.
- Age: As babies get older, move closer and closer to toddlerhood, become more and more aware of their environment and surroundings and have had longer for various behaviors and patterns to become engrained, it becomes more challenging to change their sleep behaviors. Making changes to your child’s sleep is typically the easiest between 6 and 9 months old. 4-6 month olds also learn very quickly but special attention must be paid to their more demanding nutritional needs at this age and not all children are ready to learn this skill at less then 6 months. At 9-12 months, most children are still fairly adaptable as well although some will go through a sleep regression at around 9 months (often tied to developmental changes such as the ability to stand up and a burst of separation anxiety). Children over 18 months old fall into the category of much more challenging with regard to sleep changes as they are beginning to want to control much of their environment and they have the ability to outlast their parents in many battles of will. This is not to say that it is impossible to improve your child’s sleep over 18 months old. It certainly is possible. It will just require much more consistency and commitment.
- How much you have tried and been unsuccessful at changing your child’s sleep in the past: Every time you attempt to change your child’s sleep and are inconsistent by giving in and go back to old patterns, you are training your child to cry longer and harder to get what they want. This means that every time you start over again, it is going to be harder and there will likely be more crying.
Make no mistake, it can be hard to go through the process of making changes to your child’s sleep. With a good plan, support and consistency, you will be amazed at what your child can do.