Let’s talk about crying.
In particular, crying around sleep and sleep training, but this is also relevant to other aspects of parenting.
Crying is something we talk about a lot when I do one on one consultations with families as it tends to be one of the biggest hurdles for parents when it comes to making changes to their little one's sleep.
I get it, no one likes listening to their child cry.
Our first instinct as parents is usually to jump in straight away and fix things in order to stop the crying because, let's face it, the crying makes us uncomfortable.
But crying is communication and it’s also a healthy expression of feelings.
We don’t need to be afraid of crying.
Of course, we can always aim to minimise crying by pre-empting our kid’s needs. We can do this by following a routine, so for example, they aren’t crying out of hunger because we’re feeding them at regular times, or they’re not crying from being tired because we know when naps are due, and we put them down before they get to the point of exhaustion.
But, if your child is frustrated, angry or just sad we don’t necessarily want to always distract them away from those feelings or give in to unreasonable requests in order to stop the crying.
If you always immediately try to stop the crying, whatever the situation is, this will eventually lead to your child thinking that crying is bad or shameful. They won’t have the opportunity to learn how to process their feelings in a healthy way and they can start bottling their emotions.
Let’s say you give your toddler the iPad to watch while you prepare dinner. When it’s time to take it away they cry.
Now, you could give it back them or say “ok, one more video” so they stop crying. I’m sure we’re all guilty of doing this at some point, but most of the time we will follow through and take it away because we know that it’s not good for them to spend too much time on screens and if we keep giving in to “one more video” then this is what they’ll expect each time.
When the crying starts when you take the iPad away, instead of distracting them with another activity straight away, we can support them through their feelings of frustration or disappointment.
Name the feeling and ok it - “you are upset that I told you to turn off the iPad. You wanted to keep watching, it’s ok to be angry with me.”
This won’t stop them from crying straight away but they will start to recognize and name their own feelings; they’ll feel confident expressing their feelings and they’ll learn how to work through those feelings.
So, let’s look at this is terms of sleep and sleep training, because it frustrates me when parents are told it’s not ok to let their children cry during the process of settling to sleep.
The idea that crying during settling is bad goes hand in hand with the idea that sleep training is synonymous with cry it out. The anti-sleep training movement will also have you believe that controlled crying and even in-room settling methods are damaging because they view any crying as being inherently bad.
Crying isn’t bad! Crying is feeling and no feeling is bad. Everyone is allowed to feel how they feel, when they feel it.
So, when someone tells you that allowing your baby to cry while settling to sleep is bad because it teaches them to give up, teaches them that you’re not coming and that they just learn to stop signalling to you overnight, don’t listen to them.
I am yet to meet a sleep trained baby who sleeps through the night forever more without ever crying out for their parents ever again. A sleep trained baby will still wake overnight if something is wrong, like when they are sick, scared, or for a million other reasons, and they still signal to their parents for help. And guess what!? Their parents respond and go to them. So, the idea that sleep training teaches your baby to give up and not cry any more is utterly ridiculous.
Sleep training lasts a few days or weeks where yes, there will be some crying. But it often results in less crying overall because you end up with a happier, well rested baby.
It also usually ends up with better rested parents who then become more emotionally capable of supporting the emotional needs of their family. Win, win!
You’ve probably heard the theory that crying during settling is bad based off the children in an orphanage who were left to cry. These children were truly neglected, and yes, they would have cried themselves to sleep and yes, they would have eventually stopped crying, but this is because NONE of their cries were ever being responded to compassionately and none of their basic needs were being met.
This cannot be compared to using the CIO method in a loving home, let alone trying to compare it to controlled crying or in-room sleep training methods where the parents are being responsive.
I totally get it if you don’t want to do CIO or controlled crying. There are other more gentle options, but if you’re open to doing controlled crying, I find the unwarranted negativity around crying and sleep training really unhelpful and it causes undue stress for already sleep deprived parents.
What about parents with colicky babies who cry for hours on end regardless of what their parents do? Are these babies going to be permanently damaged from all that crying? NO!
I don’t advocate true CIO, although it does have its place when done correctly in certain situations. But with any other sleep training method, including controlled crying and the gentler in-room methods, yes there will be crying, but you are still checking in on your child or sitting with them to reassure them and to support them. They’re not going to feel abandoned.
Before I start any sleep training with families, we always make sure we cover all the foundations in order to minimize the crying as much as possible. So we make sure all their needs are being met i.e. feeling connected during awake times, that they’re healthy and well fed, that they’re warm, that we’re putting them down in a safe and sleep conducive environment and that they’re ready for sleep when we put them down.
From there we are simply changing their expectation around how they fall asleep. In most cases we are sleep training because your baby has formed a sleep association which requires you to physically assist to sleep.
When we change this and no longer assist them to sleep of course they’re going to be frustrated, so they will probably cry. Do we need to stop this crying? No. Can we support them through this change? Yes!
Unlike the iPad scenario where we are more to follow through with taking the iPad away and endure the crying, when it comes to sleep we’re usually less tolerant and are more tempted to go back to assisting our child all the way to sleep in order to stop the crying. But does this help in the long run?
You are probably considering sleep training because your current situation of assisting to sleep isn’t working any more. It’s likely leading to more broken, poor quality sleep for everyone. Often when a child is assisted to sleep they do require that assistance multiple times during a nap or overnight when they wake at the end of a sleep cycle or partial sleep cycle.
Why should our tolerance to crying change just because it’s sleep time?
It’s ok to make a change to your child’s sleeping habits if what you’re doing isn’t sustainable. It’s a positive change. And you can support your child through the crying during this process.