Raising Richmond: Crying it out

Sleep training is one of the biggest hot button issues in the world of parenting, often bringing with it a much debated question: to cry it out or not? Today we hear about two very different experiences… and hope to learn about yours as well.

Editor’s note: Today’s feature is the newest installment of our parenting column written by two sets of Richmonders: Jorge and Patience Salgado (veteran parents of four gorgeous children), and Ross and Valerie Catrow (parenting rookies who have only been doing this “raising a child thing” for a little while). Check back fortnightly to watch them discuss/agree/disagree/throw down over all kinds of parenting issues, Richmond-related and beyond.

Babies and sleep: quite the recipe for controversy in the world of parenting. But if we’ve learned anything in doing this column it’s that controversy brings conversation, and with conversation, you get perspective. So here we go…

Today’s question: How do you feel about babies crying it out?

The Salgados

There was just one goal when our kids were infants: to try to solve all crying. It wasn’t always as easy as it sounds. We kept our babies close, we shared the same bed, I breastfed on demand — all the traditional attachment parenting practices. I’m not sure it was so much that we adopted the philosophy, but rather it just happened to jibe with our intuition. Intuition is a powerful part of parenting, and when that part was rocky I found the baby helped me out, many times teaching me how to listen.

The truth is babies still cry for reasons we don’t always know or can fix; it’s part of their development and growing process. There are moments when we all need to cry, but I always struggled with the whole idea of putting my child in a position where I would abandon his need for a response in order to teach him something. It felt so incredibly counter-intuitive on so many levels, mostly way down deep in my bones.

It wasn’t long into our journey as parents before someone asked us about sleep and promptly suggested we read Baby Wise by Gary Ezzo, what some see as the Bible for scheduling feedings and sleep training babies. It takes about two seconds of research to discover loads of controversy surrounding Mr. Ezzo and his advice. Babies failing to thrive, a lack of credentials, history of dropped publishers, new editions released softening language and tone, all of it instantly had me feeling skeptical. A peek closer into the book revealed this was not the method for us, and I was surprised that so many were drawn to it. As I got a little further into my parenting, I realized a highly prescriptive method gave parents security and something to do — it normalized their lives that had been completely turned upside down, it was a solution for returning peace and order for everyone. I think there are serious holes and problems with his work but understand some of the logic behind it.

If I am completely honest, early in my parenting I held judgment in my heart for parents who chose this path. I researched brain development in babies and effects of the levels of cortisol release. I wondered if we are resistant as a culture to the surrender that parenthood requires. I found myself deeper into an attachment parenting world. It was hard for me to understand or imagine how anyone could do that to a child.

Life eventually required me to travel outside my bubble every now and then. I started to mix with different kinds of parents and kids. Conversations on playgrounds and playing with kids who were products of everything under the sun started to shift my perspective just a bit. Thoughtful parents who sought connection with their babies AND lead pretty scheduled lives seemed ok. They weren’t stunted or insecure; they were thriving and happy. My assumptions had been checked and my heart was opened just a little.

Almost all of those lovely parents I respected and kids I met had gleaned from the advice and books, altering when needed, and found a balance just like I had to do. I still worry about new parents and infants being left to cry. I’m not sure I can personally ever sign on to that idea but I am aware that parenthood is full of twists and turns for all of us. We all have to find our own way.

The Catrows

I think when people hear the phrase “cry it out”, they tend to imagine one of the following scenarios:

1. A couple is snuggled up in their living room while their poor infant child is alone in her dark, desolate room. As the child’s screams intensifies, the couple turns the baby monitor down while simultaneously turning the volume up on the television up.

2. A couple is huddled outside of the nursery door, gnashing their teeth at the sound of their child’s wails as they clutch a dog-eared copy of Fool-Proof Guide to Helping Your Child Sleep and mutter to each other, “But the book says… but your mother said… but that person we talked to at Target said…”

My mind clearly works in extremes, but I don’t think I’m alone in that fact, hence the bad rap that each and every parenting philosophy gets in at least one circle or another.

I’m very much an Early-90s-Real-World-Cast-Member when it comes to parenting philosophies: I don’t feel the need to label my choices. I think doing so sets yourself up for all kinds of expectations and criticism. Parenting is hard enough, for Pete’s sake.

So! Would I call my husband and I “Cry It Out Parents”? No. Did our child cry from time to time when going to sleep? Yes. We also read and used Baby Wise as a guide to getting our son on a schedule which was necessary due to my return to work and the very specific circumstances of our chaotic life. But I don’t consider us “Baby Wise Parents” either, and I don’t feel like it dictated our response to his cries — that, like most facets of our parenting experience, came from knowing what made our child tick.

With our son, we learned pretty early on that there was (and is) a distinct difference between the “fussy” cry and the “something is very wrong” cry. Nine times out of 10, when bedtime came around and the crying started, it was the fussy cry. Nothing was wrong (and believe me, we checked), he just cried. At those times, there was absolutely nothing we could do to stop him from crying: nursing, holding, rocking, swaddling, singing, walking, more nursing, you name it. In fact, any time we intervened, we made things worse, probably because we overstimulated the poor kid to the point of no return. There were just some nights where it seemed like he needed to release a little energy before settling down and going to sleep, and crying was how he did that. Is this the case with your kid? I don’t know, but it was for ours. And here he is, 19 months later: totally happy, as healthy as can be, and loved to itty bitty bits. He also sleeps like none other.

Despite my tendency to fret with the best of them, in the end, I trust my gut. I trust my husband’s gut, too. We have good guts, you could say. And we trusted those guts when it came to the issues of sleeping and crying and the relationship between the two. For us, we never set a date saying, “This is the day that we will let him fuss a little.” We followed our son’s cues, watched his behavior, and paid particular attention to how our behavior was affecting him. Then we went with our instincts. Some nights we just knew that we needed to back off a little and give him a minute. That course of action actually embodies what we have discovered to be the most effective approach to parenting our child overall, not only when it comes to sleeping. So now we’re circling back on a point I brought up earlier: Is this the case with your kid?

I can’t sit here and say that the way we did things is The Way. It worked for us, but parents should never, ever (ever, ever, ever) do something just because a person or book or website tells them to. If the advice you get lines up with your instincts, go for it. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t — even if everyone else swears up and down that it will “work.” Talk to your partner, discuss it with your pediatrician if you feel led to, listen to your baby’s cues, be willing to change your approach if needed… and trust your gut. I bet yours are pretty good, too.

Ok, your turn

What are your thoughts about crying it out?

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Patience Salgado

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Jeb Hoge on said:

    Our experience (again) seems to match up with the Catrows, in that as we got tuned into how our boys variously cried depending on mood and thoughts, we figured out when it was just output and when it turned into need. With our first son, we were more in the “just let him fuss” mindset, especially since he was quite big for his age and ended up out of the crib and in a toddler bed pretty early. With our second baby, who was smaller and much more mommy-centric, he got “rescued” more often and sooner, but in neither case did we let them cry to the point that we started to hear fear/panic in their voices…much. That was always the give-in moment.

  2. Sore subject. Sleep training gave me a deep-seated distaste for all so-called “baby experts.” Baby Wise, Baby Whisperer, Happiest Baby on the Block, you name it, I read it hoping for some answers on why my baby wouldn’t sleep. None of them helped AT ALL with my son (and instead made me a very stressed parent). By three or four months, I finally found some solace in the term “high needs” from The Fussy Baby Book by Dr Sears.

    Since then, I’ve been pretty much a “whatever works for the moment” parent. We coslept for a few months until he stopped falling asleep that way, then moved him to the crib, which involved some crying. I don’t think he’s ever destined to be a great sleeper, but he does OK in his big boy bed these days.

    All that said, I think sleep training in some form can be helpful in some cases, as long as new parents realize there is no “magic bullet” method. If your instincts conflict with advice, trust your instincts!

  3. It is so stressful, Alison! We were fortunate that we found our groove pretty quickly, but I’m not expecting that to be the case for future children, should they come along.

    I think the “whatever works” approach is what you have to go with in most parenting situations, particularly sleep. As longs as everyone is happy, healthy, and rested, hooray!

  4. Mel on said:

    Why is it that this subject (getting your child to sleep) is so controversial? My 1st child was very fussy and colicky. Very. I would rock her to sleep for hours and hours every night and she would still scream as soon as I put her in the crib. She was a tough one. Finally around 4 or 5 months (after getting the go-ahead from her doctor) we let her “cry it out.” It was 3 nights of pure hell. I’d go in and check on her every 5 to 10 minutes gradually stretching it out for longer periods of time. It was very stressful, but after the 3rd night she went right to sleep without a peep and continued sleeping happily from then on. Finally life was normal again! Mommy, Daddy and baby were all well-rested and happy!

    With my son, my 2nd child, I was determined to follow his cues more and avoid CIO. He was an easier baby, but there were many sleepless nights when he woke up 3-4 times a night. I was exhausted and could barely function. At 5 months we were going to let him “cry it out”, too, but we found that we didn’t need to. He started sleeping through the night on his own, without much fuss. It was just a long, gradual process and I’m glad I didn’t have to listen to him crying, like I did with my daughter. My patience paid off.

    Babies are so different and so are parents. One approach won’t work for every baby or family. You just have to follow your instincts. It’s hard, though..it’s a tough badge to earn.

  5. Gianna on said:

    I saw on Oprah about the 6 baby cries. My son totally had 3 of those cries down when he was a really little dude. It made my life so much easier. I was of the “crying it out alone is not ok” breed of parent. My son was upset and had no clue what was going on or had the means to cope. If he cried I stayed close if the usual needs had been met and crying continued. There were 2 times when I had to leave the room out of sheer exhaustion of the situation. But even then I just walked into the other room to catch my breath and get my game face back on. My son hardly cried to begin with and thankfully during those first 3 months learning the initial cries helped me learn other queues from him and made the rest of infancy a delight. Did we “fight” sometimes..sure..there is no communicating with an infant, and during those “fights” I promised my son the stars and the moon for the tears to stop, but in the end, today, I can not even remember those bad moments. As a new parent you just have to take life every hour-one hour at a time. Not every experience is going to be amazing with your child and the first 4 months might be a sleepless blur, but if you remember the good during the bad times, everyone will end up OK. I think the best advice I have for parents with regards to “crying it out” goes along with every one else..find what works for you and your child. Take advice with a grain of salt. Don’t be afraid to step away if you need to. Your child requires so much of you, that you sometimes forget to take care of your self during those early days. If things get to be too much, ask for help. There is nothing wrong with needing a brief moment for yourself or asking someone to take over. To often we see on the news a child that was shaken or beaten because of “crying.” It should never get that far.

  6. Our kid is 2 years and 4 months old and he must have gotten a copy of “Parent Wise,” because he made us his bitch from day one. We are just now beginning to encourage nocturnal independence in our devout “Parent Wise” toddler. I’m not sure how Jasper lives with it on his conscience, but he doesn’t seem to mind listing to mom and dad cry it out every night.

  7. Alicia on said:

    Being a mom of two I’ve been through this with both my boys. If Bay, my now 5 year old cried prior to bed he was usually either gassy or hungry. Quick fix, back to the crib, and it was bedtime (8pm-8am).

    Talan, my now 3 year old would cry simply because he was a mama’s boy and wanted to be snuggled to sleep. So our routine was feeding time, diaper change, then to the rocker where I would sing and snuggle him to sleep.

    Then it got to the point where he just wanted to be held until he fell asleep, and if he woke up when I put him down he’d start fussing again. This turned into me having to hold him through his naps, and he was impossible to get to sleep unless I was lucky enough to sneak him into his crib.

    For Talan I decided to try letting him cry it out. I wouldn’t let him cry for too long, 5-10 minutes was my limit. He had to know that it was bedtime, and as much as I wanted to hold him all night, that’s not how it was going to be.Mama’s gotta sleep too!

    It took 3 nights for him to get used to it. I’d start out at 5 minutes (which seems like FOREVER when your baby is crying) then I’d go in, lay him back down, pat his back, and say goodnight. If he cried again, I’d wait a bit longer before going back in (7-8-9-10). We did this back and forth for a while, but it shortened the duration he was crying consistanly, and finally he’d tire himself out. After the 3 nights I guess he just decided to throw in the towel, and soon he was on an 8pm-8am sleep schedule as well.

    Every child is different, as is every parent. You have to go with your gut, no book can really tell you how to raise your children. Talking to other parents and reading/researching are good resources, and take from each what makes sense to you, and what you think is best for you and your child.

    Wow, that was long! :) haha

  8. We were blessed with three kids who slept through the night by 9 weeks (max). and we did follow BabyWise to a t, although I’m not sure that’s why they slept.

    I just had more confidence because of the book, honestly. But it doesn’t work for everyone–it is truly personal. I just hate seeing parents not getting a good night’s sleep after a year (or more). I would have been an awful parent at that point personally, so hats off to all that can do it with a smile!

    We can all be supportive of and help each other to understand varying viewpoints like these. great article.

  9. Eric on said:

    1st born – Son — Let that boy cry it out. 2nd Born – Son — Let that boy cry it out. 3rd Born – Daughter — I’ll go get her, she’s upset!!! That’s how those girls do to us dads.

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