Let him cry?

Carlotta Cerri

NOTE two years later: I tried exactly the same with my second daughter, Emily, but it never worked with her, so as soon as I realized she would cry for hours, I decided to let go. This is proof that every child is different and that there are no universal methods or model experiences: we must always listen to our own maternal instinct.

Emily is very different for Oliver. To this very day, Oliver needs some alone time to reflect upon things, sometimes while crying. Maybe that’s why this method worked for him.

For the past 12 nights, Oliver went from waking up almost every hour to sleeping 12 hours a night and putting himself to sleep in the evening. I decided to do something that goes against my personal motherhood beliefs, but I’m learning that compromising is necessary for my mental health.

Since he was born, I always rocked or nursed Oliver to sleep. Most nights, he was waking up every three hours, feeding and going back to sleep right away. It was heaven. But around 6-7 months it all changed: our nights started becoming worse and worse, Oliver started waking up almost every hour, using the boob as a dummy (he wasn’t really feeding) and he had no idea how to soothe himself to sleep (well, duh, we never taught him!).

One of the best articles about your little ones' sleep

Long time ago I had read this long article in three parts (believe you me, it’s the bible of baby sleep!), and some sentences got really stuck in my mind as they perfectly described our situation. I’ll summarise them here:

If you haven’t gotten your baby to fall asleep on her own by 6-9 months you are likely to find that your baby who was waking up 2-3 times a night while a newborn turned into a 6 months old who's now waking up every 45 minutes all night long.
Around 6-8 months old babies develop something called object permanence: they are capable of remembering things and people. This means they can also remember that when they go to sleep you are there and they're in your lap, but when they wake up you're not there and they're in their bed. It's like if you fell asleep in your bed and woke up on the front lawn. I'd scream, too.
If you continue to surprise your baby by changing the circumstances after they fall asleep, you'll find yourself with a baby who is now fighting falling asleep. The scene they find when they wake up needs to be IDENTICAL to the one they saw when they fell asleep. No, this is not the ONLY reason why older babies and toddlers wake up at night. But this is the MOST LIKELY reason.
Most parents don't understand this and they keep rocking and nursing baby to sleep, clinging to the hope that it's just temporary sleep regression and things will get easier. They won't, unless you teach your baby to fall asleep on his own. If your baby is older than 8 months, he's still sleeping poorly and you've tried different techniques, you've pretty much landed in cry it outsville.

Let my son cry? Never!

When I read this article for the first time (I re-read it so many times I could almost recite it by heart), I didn’t like it. I was sure I could do better than that. Let him cry? My sweet little baby? Never! I believe in contact, warmth, in giving love and affection at all times, in following the baby. I thought I would never even consider letting him cry.

Until I got to a point when I felt like sleep deprivation was really affecting my being a good, patient, calm mummy during the day, and converting me into a vegetable on some days, a biting zombie on others, or a mix of the two on the worst ones.

Catherine's 3-minute method :-)

One of the veggie zombie days, I had a chat with Sarah, mother of three gorgeous girls and baby guru, who told me, “This is what my sister Catherine did and, if I were you, I’d try it tonight. Turn off the monitor: you don’t need it, you’ll hear Oliver anyway, but at least you won’t wake up at every small noise. When he wakes up, go to him, little interaction, tuck him in, and leave. Most likely, he will cry. Sit (on your hands) out of the room and wait for three minutes (set a countdown on your phone if necessary). After three minutes, if he’s still crying, go back in, no eye contact, tuck him again, and leave for another three minutes. Do this until he falls asleep”.

I told her we would surely turn off the monitor, but we wouldn’t let him cry.

The three-minute method with a twist

By night, though, both Alex and I were so exhausted we knew something had to change. So, against all odds, we decided to try. When Oliver woke up and started moaning, Alex went (so Oliver wouldn’t smell the milk on me), tucked him in (which surprised Oliver and made him cry more), whispered in his ear that everything was alright, that we were in the other room, that it was time to sleep, that we love him. Then he kissed him goodnight and left. Oliver cried, of course. After less than three minutes, Alex went back in and did the same thing. Oliver would stop crying for minutes at a time, but he’d then start again. It took an hour—in which Alex kept going in every 1.5/2 minutes and I bit all my fingernails—but Oliver then fell asleep and slept till 8.30am.

We woke up feeling strange and guilty as if we had abandoned him. It felt wrong and even Oliver seemed to behave differently with us (I then realized it was all in our minds). We took a few hours to reflect on it and we then decided that the only way to see if the previous night had had any effect, was to try again. And I’m glad we did.

The following nights

The second night, Alex put him to sleep at 9am: after reading a book, he laid him in bed semi asleep, stayed with him until he was almost completely asleep and then left. Oliver fell asleep almost right away, no crying involved. He woke up around 2.30 and this time I went to him: I tucked him in, whispered something sweet in his ear, then told him I was going to leave and I’d see him in the morning. After I left, it took 1 minute for him to stop crying and fall back asleep. Until morning.

The third night, Alex went in, same thing: it took Oliver 1 minute to fall asleep. He then woke up again after 15 minutes, Alex went back, tucked him in and left. After 1.5 minutes, Oliver was sound asleep. Until morning.

The fourth night, we didn’t even have time to get to his room that he had already soothed himself back to sleep. Until morning.

It’s been two weeks now and he’s still sleeping great, most nights 12 hours a night—we. Not just that. He goes to sleep on his own in the evening (which for me is mind-blowing): when he’s had enough of the book (we’re reading Barney’s ABC & 123), he pushes it away, puts his head on Alex’s chest or on the mattress and falls sleep. It never takes more than 15 minutes for him to fall asleep.

What Oliver learnt that one night when we let him cry

Mostly, that he’s capable of sleeping on his own, of soothing himself to sleep. We had never given him the chance to try, so of course he didn’t know. In the past two weeks, he went from being rocked to sleep and sleeping poorly, to being put to sleep awake. From waking up every 1.5 hours to soothing himself to sleep (most times without crying) and sleeping all night long—although we already know this is not entirely true, they wake up often and fall back asleep.

What we learnt from all this

That walking away from your crying baby is one of the most terrible feelings in the world. But also that often we just need to let our little ones show us (and themselves) they can do it. Oliver was clearly ready to learn to sleep on his own and all night long. And furthermore: I think he himself was sick and tired of waking every hour and sleeping poorly, but he just didn’t know how else to do it. He needed a guide.

Will it work for you?

I hope so. As it worked so great for us, I’d totally recommend you try if you’re having the same problem. But everybody—big or tiny—is different and maybe what worked for us won’t work for you. Maybe, like me, you’re against letting your little one cry it out and you think you’ll never do it. And maybe you won’t and he’ll learn anyway. Or maybe you’ll get to your personal limit—when lack of sleep is making you less patient during the day—and will find a solution that is not completely in line with your principles.

And it’s alright.

Parenting is something you learn as you go

What we really learnt from this, and many other experiences, is that parenting is something you learn as you go. That what feels wrong one day might feel right (or needed) the next. That sometimes rules, principles, methods and values just don’t agree with your new reality anymore. And so parents simply adjust and keep evolving.

Because this really is the most difficult, tiring, challenging job in the world. It’s hard to believe how it can possibly also be the most rewarding.

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