The sleep training method now commonly referred to as the Cry it Out Method (CIO) was introduced by pediatrician Richard Ferber in his 1985 book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (Revised and Expanded in 2006). Basically the idea is to teach the baby to fall asleep on his or her own by progressively increasing the waiting time before responding to the child’s cries. Not surprisingly, this method has often been misunderstood as involving simply letting the baby cry until he or she goes to sleep. Although this progressive method may work for some infants, there are other things to consider.
First and foremost is the infant’s age. The world for a newborn is a completely foreign environment; it is as if we were to be suddenly dropped onto another planet. The young infant is not fully aware of what is making him or her cry, only that there is something causing discomfort. You cannot spoil a young infant. What the young infant needs to know is that the world is a safe place and that his or her needs will be met. This means picking up the baby and finding out where the discomfort comes from: hunger, wetness, irritation, and so on. The CIO method should only be introduced after the baby feels secure in his or her new world, after the age of four or five months.
The second most important thing to consider is the uniqueness of each child. There is no “one size fits all” child-rearing practice. A number of pediatricians have offered alternatives to the Cry it Out Method that speak to the matter of individual differences. Famed pediatrician T. Barry Brazelton, to illustrate, suggests talking soothingly to murmur, “You can go to sleep, you can do it.” Another approach is offered by pediatrician Harvey Clark, who suggests modifying the environment to ease the baby into sleep. He suggests that playing white noise from a fan or special machine will do the trick.
Dr. Jodi A. Mendel suggests a modified Ferber approach and advocates putting the baby to bed while he or she is still alert and then popping in periodically if he or she is crying.
Because no one method works with all babies it is well to keep all of these methods in reserve and keep trying until you find the one that works for your baby. I would like to add one other suggestion that I find missing from these approaches, namely, the nature of the child’s cry. Not all crying is the same and we, as parents, need to learn to tell those cries which are just to call us back from those which reflect pain and discomfort. At the same time, it is important that the baby learn to go to sleep on his or her own, so you should use whatever method works. Otherwise, you will be in the position of some parents whom I have known, who still have to be with the child at bedtime, even during the preschool years.
Learning to go to sleep on one’s own is a healthy part of growing up and we need to use whatever method that works to help the baby achieve that goal.