Babies and crying

I wrote recently about the way that we’ve responded to our kids night needs, and wanted to explain our reasoning behind not letting our babies cry it out as a method of sleep training. I want to start by saying I am NOT sharing our thoughts to guilt-trip anyone who made a different choice in the past that worked for their children.  We parents are doing the best we can, right?  And different things work for different families.  But I wanted to share the reasoning behind our choice for moms who are still struggling to find what might work for their family.

The biggest reason is that we choose to respond to our babies at night is because we believe babies’ needs don’t end at bedtime.  They are small, helpless people who get hungry and uncomfortable and lonely and sad very frequently.  They cry, not to manipulate us, but rather to communicate honest distress.  Ignoring that distress is going to make everyone in earshot miserable. Some folks respond to crying with nurturing, others with anger.  But the reason for both of those responses is that we are primed by nature to react quickly to crying, to

Yes, it is sometimes possible to train babies to sleep by letting them cry it out. Many babies can eventually learn that no one will come when they cry. And, yes, that ‘defeat’ response (it’s why orphanage babies don’t cry much) does sometimes translate to more sleep for parents.  But at what cost?

First of all, to allow a baby cry for a long time requires parents to harden their hearts against their children, at least to a certain degree.  Second, it causes great emotional distress to the babies.  Allowing babies to cry for hours isn’t good for them, plain and simple. An otherwise well-nurtured and emotionally resilient infant may very well be able to get past such nighttime treatment with an intact attachment. But human beings vary tremendously in what they are able to withstand emotionally, and tiny infants haven’t been with us long enough for us to fully understand their strengths and weaknesses.

And — this is just a momma observation based on my 10 kids– the kiddos who are most likely to fray their parents around the edges at night are often the ones who are least able to tolerate the stress of being alone at night.  In needing a lot of care at night they are communicating with us about their temperament, and the legitimate needs they are feeling because of the type of people they are.  God didn’t make us all the same, after all.

Crying it out is an especially dicey choice for an adopted child who might not yet have an attachment to his new parents in the first place.  Attachment is the glue that binds humans together, makes interaction fun and enjoyable, and is the basis for all future interaction in life.  As a mom I want my kids to have as secure an attachment as I can possibly nurture within them.  If that means less sleep for me for a few months, so be it.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying this from a position of naive inexperience.  We had several kids who slept extremely poorly at night.  One of our adopted kids woke every hour and a half for five.months.straight after he came home, which means I went almost half a year sleeping in increments of 90 minutes or less.  I remember waking many mornings so tired that I could not imagine carrying on until bedtime.  And yet somehow by the grace of God and through His wonderful gifts of chocolate and coffee, I survived til the end of the day.

Now I’ve got to confess:  the baby who brought me closest to the edge was one for whom I actually DID try the cry-it-out method for a few nights eternally long hours several nights in a row.  And he screamed, red-faced and utterly hysterical.  For hours. And hours.  Maybe if I’d held out just a little longer, he’d have given up.  But looking at him now as a 13 year old, I’d guess not.  He is THE most determined kid I’ve ever known.  Once he’s made up his mind he does not give up for anything. Thankfully our bond remained strong and he does not seem to be wounded by the crying I let him do.

The bottom line for me really was how I felt when I responded to my baby’s needs versus how I felt standing outside the door listening to them scream.  Even when bone-tired, when I responded to my children’s cries I felt a sense of rightness, of being where I was supposed to be.  I felt like I was a good mom.  Leaving babies to cry jangles my psyche so completely that no calm can exist in my heart.

I know that different parents come to different conclusions.  Even John and I, though mostly in agreement about babies at night, had nights where one of us would want to respond quickly and the other would say, “wait, let him cry a minute and let’s just see if he’ll go back to sleep.”  (Tired parents in the wee hours can have volatile moments of disagreement!)  But because we had made a general rule to respond at night, our arguments were infrequent.  Responding to their cries brought us all the most sleep at night.  And guess what?  Now they ALL sleep just fine at night.

Except maybe for our 8-months-pregnant daughter who is sleeping restlessly as she and her husband get ready to embark on their first parenting adventure with their own child.  🙂  Children:  what a blessing.  Even at 3AM.  I wish you all every blessing as you work through what will work best for your own precious ones.

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  1. I totally agree. I am very thankful that we chose to night time parent the way we did. I firmly believe having those first couple of years with the children so near has had a positive impact on our relationship to this day.
    A sweet momma to ten, once told me that she loved getting up and nursing her babies at night because it was her time to be completely alone with her little one. I have never forgotten this and realize now that truly the young years fly by, and are so very precious.
    I appreciate you Mary.

  2. Great post Mary! I agree, as a Mom of 5, with my youngest 7 months old, I am always glad to respond and help my kids whenever they need me. The time is so short! I am always surprised when people say that the baby is manipulating the parent. They just need something! Since when is expressing needs manipulative?

  3. This is wonderful Mary. What an encouragement to tired parents to keep listening to their hearts and nurturing their little ones during the night. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  4. Thank you so much for these posts. I have been struggling with this issue oh so very much right now and I so very much appreciate your thoughts and advise since you have done this 10 times! Thank you!

  5. Yes yes yes, one thousand times yes! Thank you for writing this for everyone who may not have found their own way yet. I could have really used someone to come alongside me and tell me this when I was a first time mother. It seemed like no one else was like us. This is exactly what we do and why we do it. Now, if you have any advice about a three year old who still wakes up (and this is absolutely a temperament thing in my child), I would love to hear. Hubs and I are getting worn out.

  6. Thank you. I chose to respond, even when I sang ‘please oh please oh please just quit’ to the tune of twinkle twinkle as i rocked.. i answered his cry. Not because it was ‘better’ or ‘right’ as a parenting philosophy but because it broke me inside to even think of not going to him. My husband can be found at times on top of the covers frozen by sleep as he soothed a little heart in the night. or everyone lands up in our bed. Home is safety. Mother is trust.
    Thank You

  7. Thank you for this and the last post! I am a first time mom and I have a very attached baby that stays at home with myself and a babysitter while I work. She’s been in our bed from day one, mainly because she cried hysterically if left even a foot from us to sleep even from the first night home, and it’s really been a very lovely time. I tried her in her crib one night recently and I can’t sleep peacefully without her nearby yet. It is sooo easy to nurse and tend to her at night and I’m not nearly as exhausted as nursing friends of mine whose babies sleep in the other room. That being said, she is now almost 8 month old and while she is more than welcome to sleep in our bed still at night we’re having a hard time getting her to nap by herself. Up until now I’ve been able to nurse her to sleep and she’ll let her babysitter rock her to sleep but if now her nursing needs isn’t corresponding as well to her sleep needs and when I try to rock her she screams bloody murder. I’ve let her cry herself to sleep for a nap 4-5 times and my husband thinks it a great idea (but he wasn’t crazy about co-sleeping before she was born either), but I don’t like it at all. You’ve inspired me to keep trying to get her to sleep other, loving ways and to not accept other advice about her needing to self-soothe so soon. It doesn’t feel right to leave her crying and I’ve never heard her get so upset or look so heartbroken with me than those few times I’ve tried to lay her down and walk away. Different strokes for different strokes by crying it out isn’t for me as a mom or her as a baby so I truly appreciate your take on alternatives that worked for your babies. Thanks!!!!!

  8. I so wish that I could have read this when I was a first time mom. Everyone around us seemed to be doing Baby Wise and we went along because we honestly didn’t know any different. And we failed! We let our son cry it out one time for 45 minutes and I’ll never forget the agony I was in (or the agony he was in). After our first born (why do they always have to be the guinea pigs?) we certainly did things the way that was most natural.
    Thanks for sharing your story and I hope that it helps so many new parents.

  9. Thank you for a wonderfully articulate post on meeting the needs of babies not just when it’s convenient but all the time. Love the quote “babies needs don’t end at bedtime”. I couldn’t agree more!

  10. Ditto what Kristin said. 🙂

  11. You really hit the nail on the head! Each baby is SOOO different, and it’s easy for a first-time mom to feel insecure and worried when “everyone else” seems to have perfect babies who sleep through the night. You are right, some babies are resilient and able to do that. They are born with temperaments already embedded in them– be they calm, instense, persistent, low-key…

    My instense 1st born was also hysterical in her own crib. I would have LOVED to have her sleep seperately, but after several hours of “crying it out,” it just wasn’t going to happen– ever.

    I’m glad you wrote this post– even I need a refresher after 3 kids 😀

  12. I agree, I have let my babies cry themselves to sleep a few times when they were old enough to understand what I was saying and they were SOOO sleepy but were just fighting it but in each case the crying/fussing only lasted about 5 minutes if that. Ultimately we all need to do what we feel is best for our babies and it should also bring a peace to our hearts. Thank you so much for your post.

  13. Thank you so much for this article. I really needed it. I’m a first time momma to a one year old and for most part always responded because my heart said so, but always felt guilty because most of the people I know who did this seems to have no reason but very emotional and the CIO group in my circles had it more together. Hearing a person like you with so much experience and reason to back it was exactly what I need to get rid of this guilt and know I’m doing right. Thank you.

  14. What a great post! I never was very good at the “let them cry it out” kind of parenting! I felt like a terrible mom! Thanks for the post!

  15. I so appreciate any defense of parents who choose not to go the “cry it out” route. With my oldest we basically responded to every night waking, co-slept etc. — and ended up feeling very worn out from the effort later to transition her into her own bed. SHE was one who simply needed a lot of attention, particularly at night. However, we didn’t let this experience turn us into jaded, deaf, parents with our second. We instead chose a more balanced approach that allowed our baby at least the first three months of always getting picked up when she cried. After that, we learned to listen to her cries and determine: Did she need to nurse? Did she need to be held? Did she need to be changed? If we picked her up would we in fact be able to help her get to sleep (or back to sleep) more quickly or was she working on figuring it out herself? She was a thumb-sucker so that right there helped her self-soothe, a huge relief. We found that, very often, she COULD get herself to sleep — however, we NEVER, EVER let her cry more than 15 minutes (sporadically at that — if she was really wailing we didn’t waste any time in grabbing her). The transition has been smooth and we have not ignored her needs but rather, helped her learn how to soothe herself. We found this approach helped us ALL get better sleep. Many nights she goes to bed still awake and with no crying goes right to sleep, and at almost 2 she very often, though not always, sleeps through the night (when she does wake up she gets nursed or comforted or whatever she needs), and occasionally sleeps in the bed with us for a little while when she needs a little extra TLC (she’s teething or sick, for example). So much easier this time around!

  16. Preach it! My baby years are gone. Having “survived” six babies’ night waking, I whole heartedly agree. Thanks for saying what I couldn’t have said as well as you did.

  17. thank you 🙂 fabulous…amazing… and WOOO HOOOO! 🙂 i love your ideas, thoughts, perspective, and experience… so incredibly valuable 🙂 i appreciate you…thanks 🙂

  18. I love this post. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about the difference in how you felt as a mom when you responded either way. Anytime I let me babies cry I felt so helpless, honestly that’s certainly how they felt. God has given us intuitions and discernment for a reason. I think often times society makes us rethink these intuitions by telling us what is “right”. In listening to society we fail to recognize the power God has given to mothers to read their babies. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us!!!

  19. I co-slept with my son and never let him cry it out, and I believe that is why he is such a happy go lucky kid. I had read the crying it out theories and the not letting them cry theories from the adoption books that I had prior to getting pregnant, and felt that the theory behind not allowing them to cry it out made more sense to me and when push came to shove it felt natural. My son has been a happy go lucky kid, and I contribute it to knowing from day one that his needs were going to be met. Mary thank you for sharing your perspective and encouraging moms to do what feels “right.”

  20. Katy Wedepohl says:

    I agree about nurturing a child, even through the sleeping period. Eventually every parent finds out, the crying at night, is just another stage in their development, it too will eventually end. It’s a very good lesson in patience!

  21. I think this is the best explanation of why not to let babies cry I’ve ever read…you summed up all my feelings about it exactly. And I too tried it once with my daughter and it was an utter and complete fail despite what everyone promised and after hours of crying…I vowed I would never ever do it again. After having six children I can absolutely say that their sleep habits as babies are so much a part of their personality.


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