When you’re looking through the various sleep methods, cry it out (also known as extinction) is a controversial but effective method. But even so, what’s the right way to do it? And what do you need to know to use it properly?
Cry it out is a safe but controversial sleep training method that uses intentional intervals of crying while a child learns to fall asleep. These periods of crying may (or may not) be monitored or involve parental comforting between sessions. Extinction sleep training can be done in 3-7 days.
Even so, there’s a wide range of ways to do cry it out sleep training. Keep reading to find out about each of the most common ways – and be sure to check the Q&A section at the end for commonly-asked questions and answers.
How to Do Cry it Out Style Sleep Training
Generally speaking, cry it out sleep training methods involve allowing your child to cry for a period of time.
Here’s the how-to recipe for any and all cry-it-out sleep training methods.
- Go through your bedtime routine with your child.
- Put your child in their bed. The idea is that your child is still awake but is very drowsy, without being overtired or exhausted. This is usually referred to as the “awake but drowsy” stage.
- Let your child self-settle and even cry for a predetermined amount of time.
- If you choose to check in on your child, do so via your predetermined method of choice (whether in-person, via a video monitor, or via the baby monitor).
- If you choose to comfort your child, do so via the predetermined method (pat them on the back, pick them up for a moment, or talk to them in a low, soothing voice) before putting them back in bed.
- Repeat steps 3-5 as needed until your child falls asleep.
These steps can be used any time your child wakes up during the night and/or before naps, too.
Steps 4 and 5 are highly customizable and are the difference between the various cry-it-out methods. In fact, they’re pretty much the extent of the differences between specific cry-it-out methodologies.
Important note: during daylight or daytime hours, be sure to spend extra time cuddling your child and meeting their wants and needs so that nighttime sleep training will go as smoothly as possible.
So whether you’re considering pure extinction, controlled crying, a modified cry-it-out, the Ferber method, or any other method that uses crying as an intentional teaching tool, the differences will be in these two factors:
- how long you let your child cry;
- whether or not you check in on them at any sort of interval.
Even so, the basic premise of cry-it-out sleep training is the same. So now that you know the basic recipe, let’s talk about the most common and specific variations.
Pure extinction is generally seen as the most extreme and controversial version of cry-it-out sleep training. It generally calls for:
- letting your child cry as long as they safely need to in order to fall asleep.
- not checking in on your child at all (at least not in person – via a monitor is usually fine).
Pure extinction cry-it-out sleep training usually works best for children who:
- can cry without physical issues like vomiting or soiling their pants.
- react poorly to being checked on in-person by their parents.
- are able to cry themselves to sleep safely.
On average, pure extinction takes an average of 1-2 hours of crying (for up to a week) to see full results. For many families, the first night is the worst, with subsequent nights involving fewer tears and more sleep. For some families, nights 3-5 are the worst in length and duration of tears.
In almost all cases, though, sleep training was reported as successfully completed between days 5-7.
Controlled Crying (including the Ferber Method)
Controlled crying is generally seen as a less severe and more acceptable version of cry-it-out sleep training. It generally calls for:
- letting your child cry in timed intervals, usually between 10-15 minutes long. Parents can choose to keep the timed intervals at a constant number or to slowly increase the amount of time between check-ins until the baby falls asleep.
- checking in on your child at the timed intervals and offering them any level of comfort and support as pre-chosen by the parents.
Slowly increasing the amount of time between check-ins is the hallmark of the Ferber method. With the Ferber method, the check-in intervals can either increase from check-in to check-in and/or from one night to the next night.
This controlled cry-it-out sleep training usually works best for children who:
- can cry without physical issues (like vomiting or soiling their pants) for short intervals, usually about 10-15 minutes long.
- do better being checked on in-person by their parents.
- are able to cry themselves to sleep safely.
On average, controlled crying can take an average of 1-3 hours of crying (for up to a week) to see full results.
For many families who report that in-person check-ins make the crying worse, changing from in-person to checking in via a monitor is a viable option.
Controlled crying style cry it out usually takes up to 5-7 days.
Modified Cry it Out
A modified cry it out method is one that is customized by you for your family. As such, there are countless variations out there. It could be your version of pure extinction or just your variation on controlled crying.
Some examples could include:
- letting your child cry in short, timed intervals that slowly increase from one night to the next.
- checking in on your child at regular, timed intervals until the baby falls asleep.
- offering your child any level of comfort and support as you’ve preselected and pre-determined in your sleep training plan.
Modifying cry-it-out means that it can work for anyone because you get to choose what it entails.
On average, a modified cry it out still takes an average of 1-3 hours of crying (for up to a week) to see full results. Some families that modify this version into a much more gradual (and less tearful) method do report that it can take longer than pure extinction methods. In some cases, this version of sleep training may take as long as 2 or more weeks.
How Long to Let Your Baby Cry During Cry-it-Out
Most families report that the first night of crying it out takes between 1 and 2 hours crying and that it takes between 5-7 days to fully sleep train.
That data is from research, my own experience, and from surveying hundreds of families. It is self-reported survey data, but it agrees with what the best sleep training books say. Thus, it’s pretty solid data.
All that being said, how long you choose to let your baby cry is 100% your choice. And there are dozens of factors that should be considered before you decide to use any type of crying sleep training method.
Some of those factors include:
- your baby’s age
- their personality
- how they react to crying
- how you react to crying
- the type of cry
- and signs to know that your baby has been crying too long.
For the rest of the items that you should consider when deciding how long to let your child cry, see my full post – click here to access it now.
Extinction Sleep Training by Age
Extinction (or cry-it-out) sleep training is one that does best within a certain age range. So let’s talk about this particular sleep training method by age.
Can You Let a Newborn Cry it Out?
Newborns cry, but using cry it out as a sleep training method with a newborn is not recommended for several vital reasons.
First off, newborns need constant comfort, love, and reassurance as they grow. So if sleep training is needed, they will do better with a sleep training method that is more gradual. Sleep training for newborns is also better when treated as a practice or a lifestyle approach, rather than a training event.
Next, letting a newborn cry as an intentional part of sleep training will not work until they’ve matured into a more adult-like sleep pattern. This maturation usually happens somewhere between 4-6 months of age.
Finally, letting a newborn cry will only stress everyone out and inhibit the natural bonding that happens with comforting and cuddling a baby.
If your baby is less than 4-6 months of age, this is not the right sleep training method yet. Look at this article to choose a better sleep training method for your baby’s age and developmental stage.
Babies and Extinction Sleep Training
Once your baby is at least 4-6 months of age, extinction sleep training becomes a viable option. Different levels of crying it out as a sleep training method will help you and your baby see success.
Personally, I still had a hard time using any variation of cry-it-out until our children were at least 7 months old and proficient at rolling around. Looking back, they may have done just as well at about 6 months. I was not ready before then – and that’s okay.
Most parents I talk to have similar hesitations. That’s okay. If you aren’t ready to use a cry-it-out method, waiting is totally fine. As is trying a different method first.
Crying it out is a difficult method. Yes, it sees fast results. But it can be emotionally draining, so it’s a good fallback plan. If you do want to try a different method first, know you aren’t alone. Cry it out is generally a last resort for sleep training. Click here to see other sleep training methods that you may want to try first.
Many parents come back to this option after trying other sleep training methods and not seeing the success they wanted. With cry it out, many parents report finally seeing the sleep quality and quantity everyone needed – and fast.
There are also some parents who report trying this first – and seeing immediate success. That’s okay, too. Do what works for your family and your situation.
Toddlers and Crying it Out
Using a cry it out sleep training method can be a great option for toddlers up to 18-24 months of age who are still in a crib. Things will most probably work much as they do for babies who can’t toddle around yet.
Once a toddler graduates to a “big kid” or toddler bed, though, using cry it out becomes much harder – if not altogether impossible.
This is because now you’re also dealing with an escape artist wannabe – whether out of their bed or they’re trying to get out of their bedroom! So if your child has outgrown their crib (or just escaped it so many times that you quit using it), know that your days of using cry it out have probably ended.
That’s not to say that you definitely cannot use extinction sleep training. It can definitely still work – as long as you can still provide a safe environment (safely contain your child) while you’re allowing them time to cry and self-soothe.
Some families report being able to use cry-it-out by holding bedroom doors shut. While that’s definitely possible, just know this: that does put you front-and-center to listen to the crying.
For us, we stopped the intentional use of cry-it-out once our kids were no longer in cribs. Every now and then, a toddler-sized tantrum would end in a nap – but that was generally accidental.
For children who have graduated from cribs, go ahead and try using the methods that are best for big kids. They’ll still work – but it won’t be via a cry it out methodology.
Making Big Kids Cry it Out
Generally speaking, making any big kid (a child who’s past the toddler stage) cry it out isn’t recommended. This is for several reasons, with the main one being your child has learned to say “NO!”
Big kids are learning independence and to do things by themselves. They’re also learning that they have opinions. Not allowing them a say will only end in tears, fights, and power struggles. So give them some sort of say or some choices. Perhaps a say in the process simply means they should get to pick out which pajamas they wear tonight.
In any case, crying it out for big kids may still happen – but it will more likely be an accidental, one-time thing (related to a tantrum) rather than an intentional sleep training method.
Instead, read this article on how to sleep train bigger kids.
Safety of Cry it Out Sleep Training
Generally speaking, cry-it-out sleep training is a safe short-term tool that can be used to help families dramatically improve short- and medium-term sleep problems.
Here’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has to say about the various sleep training methods.
Behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects (positive or negative.) Parents and health professionals can confidently use these techniques to reduce the short- to medium-term burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression.American Academy of Pediatrics, October 2012 Volume 130 Issue 4
For more information on how the AAP says you can make a safe sleeping environment and sleep training experience for your children, read my article on it here.
What Scientific Studies Say about Crying it Out
Studies have found that sleep training, in general, is safe and beneficial. Here’s what a study from Indiana University found regarding several methods, including extinction sleep training.
…the babies in the sleep training groups showed slightly lower cortisol levels than the babies who had no sleep training. This suggests that in the bedtime fading group and the graduated extinction group, the babies had less stress and anxiety… and fell asleep more quickly and woke up less frequently in the middle of the night.Riley Children’s Health, Indiana University
In other words, while sleep training does cause some initial stress, babies who have sleep trained to have an overall lower stress level than babies who aren’t getting enough sleep. So sleep training does help everyone’s stress and sleep!
To read more about what the experts (and pediatricians) say about sleep training recommendations, click here.
Results from Extinction Sleep Training Methods
Based on extensive research, experience with sleep training, and talking to thousands of parents, results from cry-it-out methods usually take between 5-7 days.
Of the parents surveyed, there seem to be two main groups within that.
- Many parents report that the first two nights are the worst – and that things steadily improve after that.
- Other parents report that nights 3-5 are the worst – with steady improvement afterward.
In our experience, the first few nights were the worst. Usually, by the third night, our kids were crying for less than 10-15 minutes and slept much better all night long.
In most cases, children were more or less done crying at bedtime within the full 7 days. And most children were significantly happier (and more well-rested) in the mornings – at least after the first couple of nights.
Cry it Out: A Controversial Method
Letting children intentionally cry as a sleep training method is a highly controversial topic. At least it is here in the United States. Talking to parents in the USA, there seem to be two major schools of thought.
- Letting children cry is an unfortunate but effective means of sleep training.
- Letting children cry while sleep training is an avoidable evil.
Parents on both sides of the fence are opinionated and passionate about their positions. That’s part of why this is such a heated topic.
But what if there were a third, more empathetic approach? What if, we all calmed down and realized one very important lesson… that crying is a natural part of life and communication.
Letting children cry is a misnomer. There isn’t much we can do to “prevent” or “control” crying. Crying isn’t even a big deal. In fact, it’s a natural part of communication and life for children. Kids cry. It’s going to happen.
Furthermore, every child is going to learn different life skills at different paces and in different ways. Is it any surprise that every child will communicate differently? Or that every parent will parent differently?
So while this is a heated and controversial topic, stop the judgment with you. Stop giving unsolicited advice on how to sleep train – unless you’re asked for it (but that’s a whole other scenario!).
Instead, offer support and empathy for another exhausted parent who needs to know they aren’t alone. Let them know it’s okay to find the path that works for them and their family – and that they’re the expert on their family.
Talking to parents in other countries, there are some hints of similar schools of thought – and similar wishes for more support. Be the support – and we can calm the controversy down at the same time.
Cry It Out Q&A
Now, let’s make sure that you’ve got all of your cry-it-out-related questions answered. Here are some of the most commonly-asked questions I’ve asked, researched, or been asked by parents like you.
Oh, and if you don’t see your specific question (or answer), just shoot me an email. I’ll try to respond to as many emails as I can – and I’ll get your question added to this post. To find out how to email or contact me, click here.
How many nights does it take before your baby doesn’t cry at all?
In most cases, cry-it-out methods take between 5-7 days to see success – with success being your baby goes to bed with no-to-minimal fuss. Most families fall into one of two groups:
- some families say the first night is the worst – and things improve steadily from there.
- some families say that nights 3-5 are the worst – and then things improve dramatically.
So in most cases, your baby should be done crying within about a week.
Will my baby still cry when going to bed even after sleep training?
Some babies may continue to cry for a few minutes at (or just before) bedtime even after the first week of sleep training is done. This could be for many reasons, such as separation anxiety related to bedtime or just being sad that you’ve left the room.
Making the daytime full of fun and cuddles is a great way to help your child learn that 1. you will always come back and 2. days are so full of fun and cuddles that everyone needs a good night’s sleep.
My two youngest children still cry for a few minutes after bedtime sometimes – it’s a loud, fake cry (because I dared to leave the room). The wailing stops as soon as they realize I’ve tucked them in and it’s bedtime – and then they settle down to sleep.
Even as babies, my kids still whimpered some nights for a few minutes. But over time, things will quickly get better – especially as everyone gets the sleep they need.
Just remember: a few minutes of whimpering (or even crying) at bedtime can be worth it – if it means getting a full night’s sleep.
How do you control crying?
This is a misnomer – there’s no actual way to “control” your baby’s crying. What you do control is how long you let them cry before you go check in on them. In most cases, “controlled crying” means you let your child cry for a 10-15 minute interval, then check on them.
When you check on your child, it can be remote (via a monitor) or in-person. This will probably depend on how your child reacts to being checked in on.
Our oldest screamed more when we went into his room to check on him in person. So we changed to checking in on him via his video monitor at timed intervals. This way we knew he was safe and he soon calmed down as there was no further stimulation (AKA us) keeping him awake.
Can letting a baby cry too long be unsafe or cause them harm?
Letting a baby cry for too long can be an issue if they vomit, soil their pants (poop from all of the straining related to crying), or if something else changes. This sleep training method can also become unsafe if parents begin ignoring or neglecting their children at any time.
However, if your child is in a safe environment and you have a way to monitor them, then generally cry-it-out is totally safe. Especially if it’s used as it is intended – as a short-term tool to help everyone get the sleep they need.
Does cry it out work for naps?
Cry it out can definitely work for naps! Just know that the first few days may be particularly rough – and your child may spend their whole “nap time” crying instead of sleeping.
Also, doing cry-it-out for naps and at bedtime at the same time is emotionally taxing on parents. You may either need to have a plan for your sanity or plan to do nights and naps separately.
How long should a baby stay in their crib for a nap if they don’t stop crying?
This one is up to you. You may choose to let them stay for the whole duration of their naptime. Or you may choose to get them after a set amount of time. Both methods have worked well for various families, so as long as your child is safe, either is fine.
We had a 10-minute cry-it-out-at-naptime limit. This was mostly for my sanity – and because that’s all my other children could handle listening to siblings cry before they started trying to “help.”
Do what works for you and your family. If you have to get your baby up and let them sleep in a baby carrier, that’s okay – I did that plenty of times. Do what works – just remember to use that earlier bedtime to your advantage if need be.
How long should I let my baby stay in their crib if they aren’t napping?
If your baby is happily quiet or quietly playing during their naptime, let them have a quiet time. Some children don’t nap the whole of nap time, but they’ll still need the rest and time away from everything.
Our oldest boy didn’t so much nap as quietly play in his crib for a large part of his naps. But he needed the quiet time to recharge – I quickly learned to stop using the video monitor to gauge when he was awake – and just to listen for him calling for me.
Will the length of time required for sleep training vary for different naps?
It very well may. The amount of time your child cries it out at naptimes may depend on which nap it is, how many naps they take, and your child’s personality. There isn’t any set way to know until you try things out.
What are the best ways to make yourself not feel so bad about sleep training while a baby is crying?
There are several great ways to help yourself stay busy and sane while listening to your child cry-it-out.
- Stop listening to your child cry. Go do something else instead. Preferably something with headphones or a white noise machine.
- Read your sleep training book or material of choice – and remind yourself WHY you’re doing this.
- Go take a shower before you do anything else. Odds are you need one – and that your baby may have finished crying by the time you finish a nice, long, hot, refreshing shower.
- Let your spouse/partner/co-parent take a turn monitoring the baby while they cry. You go do something else – like sleep.
It’s going to be a difficult week for everyone. Do what you need to to get through it – and then things will (almost magically) be tons better.
My husband usually sent me to shower or sleep while he monitored our kids for the first few days. For our younger kids, he even started sleep training while I was out at a church event or at school with the older kids.
But don’t just sit outside your child’s bedroom door and listen. It will break your heart and then you will go in to rescue them and undo all of your hard work. Go do something else – even if it’s just the dishes. For more ideas on surviving sleep training, click here to read my article.
If checking in on the baby seems to exacerbate the situation (and makes crying worse) how do you prevent starting back at square one during check-ins?
If doing check-ins seems to put you back at square one and is making your child angrier, I want you to know a few very important facts.
- This happens to a LOT of families – so you aren’t alone.
- You may want to consider not doing in-person check-ins.
Keep track for a night or two – and see if that trend continues. If check-ins continue to just plain old make things worse, quit doing in-person checks. Switch to checking in on the monitor.
If the in-person checks were the exacerbating issue, then once you make the switch you should see faster sleep training progress.
How long is too long – when does it become acceptable to hold or nurse your baby?
If you ever feel like it has been “too long” and your baby needs to be comforted in order to calm down, please go hold your baby!
Sleep training is a process, not an event. Crying it out can be a great way to jump-start sleep training, as it has the fastest results of any of the methods. But if you and your baby do better with regular contact, comfort, and nursing, that’s okay.
You may want to switch to a more gradual method – or just add in physical comforting to your regular check-ins with cry-it-out. Yes, that’s allowed! Sleep training is about finding what works for you, your child, and your family.
So go and find your balance between sticking to your plan and comforting how you feel is best for your child.
Is there a way to continue nurse/sleep rituals close together and still effectively use cry-it-out sleep training?
Absolutely! You can definitely still use nursing and physical comfort during cry-it-out sleep training. And you can use it however you want to. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Nursing/cuddling at bedtime is totally fine – just build it into your bedtime routine. Try to put your child down in their bed in that “awake but drowsy” state we talked about earlier in this article.
- Nursing/feeding during the night when needed is also fine. Consider waiting a few moments (or minutes) when your baby stirs to make sure they actually need the calories. Maybe they’re just having a crazy dream. Give them a moment before rushing to their aid – but if they do need your comfort, then go give it to them.
- Nursing/cuddling in the morning is an amazing activity. Once your baby has woken up for the day, spend a few minutes cuddling. It will help both of you get through the nights better, knowing that morning cuddles are coming.
Just build these comfort/cuddle/nursing sessions into your routine and plan – and watch as things improve towards your goal of a full night’s sleep.