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Why one child psychologist tried the cry-it-out technique—and never looked back

Before I gave birth to my sweet little boy, I made so many promises to myself about the kind of mama I would be.

Breastfeed for at least a year.

Only serve homemade, organic, MSG-free baby foods.

Never touch a disposable diaper.

And the attachment researcher in me promised never to sleep train my darling baby.

Confession time?

I was only able to effectively breastfeed for around 7 months. My kid’s favorite food is cookies. We use disposable diapers every night for bedtime. And yes, after much soul searching, I sleep trained my child.

When my son was born, he co-slept in a crib in the master bedroom until he was six months old. For the first few months, we used the Miracle Blanket as a swaddle, which remains one of my top five baby must-haves.

At four months, we ditched the swaddle because he started rolling over…enter the four-month sleep regression. After a month of sleepless nights, I moved his crib to his nursery. (I made the switch during the day while my softie of a husband was at work. I could only handle one boy in the house being upset with me at a time.)

By seven months, I was deliriously tired—and so was my little bundle, more importantly. We had the comforting bedtime routine mastered, but he would wake up constantly throughout the night even when he wasn’t hungry. I started weighing my options.

As a developmental psychologist, my first inclination was to conduct my own in-home meta-analysis of every behavioral sleep training study ever conducted to pragmatically weigh the costs and benefits of sleep training methods on my child’s development.

Yes, I was a little crazy at the time (I blame the sleep deprivation).

After hours of scouring databases, I realized shockingly few studies had addressed the outcomes of sleep interventions in infants.

One notable study that the American Academy of Pediatrics cites when recommending sleep training methods found that sleep training implemented at 7 months led to improvements in baby’s sleep, mama’s sleep, and mama’s mental health as much as two years later. By age 6, these children showed no discernible differences in their emotional or behavioral problems, closeness to parents, or attachment security. Was this study perfect? By no means. But after a little more research, I was finally ready to give sleep training a chance.


For a month, we tried controlled comforting, in which we would lay our son down drowsy but not asleep. If he woke up, we would give him a chance to soothe himself. If he couldn’t, we would wait 2-3 minutes and then respond to his cries. We would hug him and offer a few words of comfort (without lifting him out of his crib). Within a minute, we would leave him, and if he continued crying (he usually did), we would wait to respond for increasingly longer intervals. After a while, we admitted that going in and out of his room every 5-10 minutes seemed only to upset and confuse our tot, prolonging his crying for hours each night.

We finally hit a wall where we conceded to try the cry-it-out method for one week and see where it took us. With this method, we would lay him down drowsy but not asleep. If he woke up, we would close our eyes, cross our fingers, and find our happy place. You can imagine there was as much strife going on outside the nursery as inside.

The first night, my tot woke up and cried for 45 minutes.

The second night, 20 minutes.

The third night? He slept like a baby and woke up happier than a mother whose baby slept through the night.

How has our tot fared in his subsequent 15 months?

He sleeps, well, like a baby most nights, not including a few anomalies due to travel or illness. And as for this mama? I am getting the sleep I need to provide my child with the sensitivity and responsiveness he needs during the day to develop and maintain a secure attachment.

If you ask me, the key to a happy + healthy child is sleep…for everyone.

Indeed, healthy sleep patterns in infancy can help baby’s learning and memory, mood, and physical growth.

Upon much reflection, I know that cry-it-out was right for my child, and that all the testimony in the world from other mamas will never change that.

Claims about the adverse effects of sleep training on infants’ development just aren’t supported by most current research—or by my experiences. My son shed fewer tears during those three nights (and every night since) than he did during our weeks of denouncing this “heartless” method.

But here’s the catch. Every child is unique. What technique works for one child may be completely ineffective in another.

The fabulous thing about parenthood is that we get to experiment with techniques until we find the ones that work for our children…and when we have it all figured out, we might even think about bringing a second life into this world—a life just as unique as the first.

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