It’s the most common question I get during an enlightenment call with a prospective client: is it possible to conduct sleep training without crying?
It’s a fair question.
Parents are worried about the amount of crying that will actually take place during sleep training. They are concerned about the long term effects of the crying and their child’s safety.
The answer is not a simple one and anyone who claims that sleep training can be done without crying, should be questioned.
We are biologically driven to act when our children cry. The sound of a crying baby will wake a mother out of a deep sleep and cause her to stumble down the hall before she’s fully awake.
Crying is how babies communicate. Primarily they will cry when they need something, which is why the sound of crying, especially intense crying, can set off our parental alarm bells. But children also cry to communicate their unhappiness or to protest something they don’t like. The honest truth is, most parents can tell the difference between a hungry cry and a protest cry but still – no one wants to hear their baby cry.
Sleep Training without Crying – What are your Goals?
When parents bring up the inevitable question about sleep training without crying, I always answer their question, with a question: What are your sleep goals for your family? In other words, what do you want to accomplish with sleep training?
If they answer with statements like “I want to stop rocking my baby to sleep.” or “I would like my baby to go to sleep on his own.” or I would like to stop bedsharing.” Welp – if those are your goals – there will be some crying.
In essence, if you want your child to sleep independently – crying is to be expected.
Sleep training is encouraging your child to do something that they don’t want to do, something that they are not used to doing and something that they are very likely afraid of doing. It’s going to be hard on them for a few nights and they will cry – no matter what sleep training method you use.
If you have met all their needs, such as feeding, changing, burping and making sure they have a good sleep environment, then it’s likely they are crying in protest of the new approach to bedtime. They could also be crying out of fear and/or separation anxiety.
I know the idea of babies crying out of fear could make a few readers uncomfortable but remember that although the children think they are in danger – they are not.
Part of the sleep training process is to educate parents on how to create the safest, most comfortable sleep environment for their babies. I also encourage parents to use sleep training methods that allow for physical contact with the baby to ease their separation anxiety.
Comforting them through this process is crucial to its success so I always encourage parents to give as many hugs, kisses and cuddles as they want. However, I also remind them of their goals. If you want your children to sleep independently, they need to be nudged toward independence. Throughout your child’s life, there will be moments where you will watch with pride as your children take on challenges and bravely try new things. You’ll be surprised at how courageous and open they are to trying new things.
Sleep training will not be one of those moments.
Most children don’t take well to the new routine in the beginning. They’re not going to like you for this.
However, they will get used to it and if done effectively, the change will be positive for the whole family.
Although there is little chance of completely eliminating crying from the sleep training process, there are so many ways to minimize it.
Make sure your baby’s needs are met.
Make sure your baby has a full tummy, that his diaper is clean and that he is comfortable. The temperature and the darkness level in the room should be appropriate. If you would like some tips on how to create the optimal sleep environment for your child, you can read my top tips here.
In addition to the basic things that your child needs to feel comfortable, giving him love and affection throughout the day and during the wind down process will also minimize crying. Your hugs, kisses and presence go a long way with kids. If you got home late from work and barely had enough time to cook dinner, let alone spend time with your baby, expect some crying and separation anxiety. The solution is to take an extra 15 minutes and give him the attention that he craves. Your children want time with you and the wind down process is the perfect time to fill their emotional cup.
Follow appropriate wake windows
Wake windows are a very general guideline that will help you determine when your baby will begin to feel tired.
A wake window opens or begins when your baby first wakes up and closes when she goes to sleep again. Age appropriate wake windows vary depending on your baby’s age and sleep needs.
I have included a wake window chart below but this is simply a guideline. It’s also a good idea to watch for your baby’s sleepy cues. Every baby is different and some get tired sooner than others. Figuring out your baby’s sleepy cues and wake windows is key to minimizing crying during the sleep training process and beyond.
If your baby is tired – but not too tired, she is less likely to cry when she is placed in her sleep space.
Wake window chart
Establishing independent sleep habits in the newborn phase
To be clear – I do not recommend sleep training when your baby is younger than 5 months old, especially if your baby is premature or has a medical condition. It’s not a good idea to let your newborn cry for more than a few minutes. Do your best to respond to his cries immediately and assess his needs. You can establish good sleep practices during the newborn phase but a sleep training plan is not appropriate at this age.
Here are some ways to establish good sleep habits that may help you avoid sleep training altogether.
Gently introducing independent sleep
It is perfectly ok to feed, rock or hold your newborn to sleep. Newborn’s get drowsy so easily that it is hard not to. However if you want to encourage independent sleep, try to place your baby in her sleep space before she’s completely asleep. Try to think of falling asleep as a scale of one to ten, one being wide awake and 10 being deep sleep. Try to place your newborn in her sleep space when she is at seven or eight. Don’t feel discouraged if this doesn’t work every time. It’s likely that your baby will cry when put down. Give her a few minutes to settle but if she doesn’t fall asleep, respond and help her settle.
A Dark Sleep Environment
A dark room will definitely help your newborn settle and sleep for longer periods. Try to eliminate as much light as possible, including lights from toys, mobiles or night lights. They are not necessary at this stage and will not help your baby sleep.
White or Pink Noise
During the newborn phase, white or pink noise has two benefits. White noise sounds like the inside of the womb and reminds your baby of the gestation environment. This helps to settle your newborn and could explain why many parents report that the sound of the vacuum or shower seems to calm their newborn.
The second benefit is that white or pink noise absorbs other noises that could wake your baby. Babies are light sleepers and move through sleep cycles quickly. Small noises can wake them and disturb their sleep.
Are there methods that ensure sleep training without crying?
In my experience, I have never seen a family implement a sleep training plan without some tears, regardless of the method.
In fact, the sleep training methods that are considered the most gentle, lead to more crying in the long run.
For example the pick up, put down method, arguably the gentlest sleep training method, is based on the idea that crying is inevitable. This method dictates that you pick up and comfort your baby every time she cries, resulting in the need for a lot of support from the caregiver. It can take a long time (literally hours) for your baby to fall asleep using this method and she will still need intervention from you if she wakes later in the night. This means that while you are trying to perfect this method, there will be crying that could last for weeks or even months.
If you would like a breakdown of how to perform this method and other popular gentle sleep training methods check out my post How to Sleep Train Baby
Essentially, if you want to sleep train your baby there is no way to avoid crying. However, remember that you have options if you truly feel that this is the wrong choice for you.
You can choose to bedshare or co-sleep or simply be prepared to assist your child for every nap time and bedtime. My only suggestion is that you minimize the inherent risks that come with bedsharing if you choose that solution. Research how to bedshare safely and be prepared to defend your choice to those who may pressure you to sleep train. Do what works and if it stops working, know that I’m always here to offer help.