Most parents believe they must sleep train their baby to get them to sleep through the night. And when parents think of sleep training, “crying it out” is usually the first sleep training method that comes to mind…and it’s one that puts fear in their hearts! “Cry is out” seems so…brutal! But is it, really? Read on for my take on this popular sleep training method and my thoughts on gentler alternatives.

What is the “cry it out” sleep training method?

To put it simply, “cry it out” (CIO) is a sleep training method (sometimes dubbed “controlled crying” or “extinction”) that requires you to let your baby shed some tears and be fussy for a set period of time, so that they can learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. Typically, you let your child “cry it out” for gradually increasing intervals of time before intervening by either consoling your baby or feeding them.

Is the “cry it out” sleep training method harmful?

A 2020 study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that using the “cry it out” sleep training method made little difference to a baby’s development by 18 months. That said, it’s my opinion—and others—that “cry it out,” essentially, goes against a fundamental evolutionary drive. And it can work against the goal of helping your little one build confidence in themselves. Of course, every family is different! If you end up deciding to use the “cry it out” method of sleep training, here’s how I recommend you do it…

What age can you use “cry it out” sleep training?

There’s no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to sleep training. But babies are usually developmentally ready for sleep training between 4 and 6 months old. At that point, your bub hasn’t truly gotten used to getting rocked or nursed to sleep—and it’s about when the 3- to 4-month sleep regression kicks in, which makes this a great time to consider sleep training. But before you begin sleep training your baby, it’s important to have a good understanding of what you can realistically expect from your wee one. For example, by 6 months old, “sleeping through the night” often means snoozing for five to six hours without needing to be fed.

How do you sleep train with the “cry it out” sleep training method?

There are a few ways to approach the “cry it out” sleep training method. The first way to go about “cry it out” is to feed, burp, and change your baby, place them in their crib or bassinet drowsy, but awake, say goodnight, exit…and do not return until your baby’s next scheduled feeding—or they wake in the morning. Alternatively, you can do all the above but opt for a more graduated approach that entails keeping track of the time between you checking in on your baby and briefly soothing them. If you’re going to try “crying it out,” I recommend the graduated approach:

Step 1: Again, feed, burp, and change your little one’s diaper then place them in their crib or bassinet drowsy, but awake and offer a soft “I love you.”

Step 2: Exit the room without waiting for your nugget to fall asleep. That means leave no matter if your baby is quiet, cooing, fussing, or full-on crying.

Step 3: There’s a good chance there will be a fair amount of protest and crying…and here’s where it gets hard: Let your baby cry for a full 5 minutes.

Step 4: Go back into the baby’s room, give your sweet pea a gentle pat, an “I love you” and “good night,” then exit again.

Step 5: Repeat this process for as long as your child cries, making sure to extend the time you leave your baby alone by five more minutes each time until your baby falls asleep.

Does the “cry it out” sleep training method work with naps?

“Cry it out” is pretty tough to use for naps because tenacious babies and toddlers can keep up their crying for 30 to 60 minutes! By then, naptime is over for many…and everybody is cranky, and the rest of the day is miserable. So, even if you’ve opted for “cry it out” at night, I’d avoid this method during the day.

Is “cry it out” the most effective way to get Baby to sleep through the night?

There’s no evidence that suggests “cry it out” is the fastest or most effective sleep training method. I’m not saying “cry it out” can’t work. Indeed, it can! It’s just that the “cry it out” sleep training method is contrary to one of our biggest parenting goals: building a child’s confidence in themselves…and us! I realize that parents (understandably!) are always searching for the most effective strategy to help their baby sleep through the night, but I think many might be missing the bigger picture, which is that even so-called sleep-trained babies (and all children…and all adults, actually) still wake up roughly three or four times a night. This fact often falls under the radar because we’re talking about slight nighttime rousing, not eyes-wide-open waking. So…why I’m telling you this? I want you to know that your goal shouldn’t be to reach an elusive milestone, but rather, to teach your baby to self-soothe, so that when they inevitably wake at 2am, they can settle back down without your help. I feel the best strategy for that is a much gentler approach to sleep training. Fortunately, most babies can be trained to sleep well—and to be more self-sufficient—without leaving them to cry it out.

“Cry it Out” Sleep Training Alternative: Wake-and-Sleep Method

I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s possible for your baby to sleep a six-hour stretch within their first few weeks whereas traditional “cry it out” sleep training is usually not attempted or even recommended until 4 months. And in most cases, my gentler “sleep training” method will help you avoid the dreaded “cry it out” strategy all together! (I say, “most cases,” because when it comes to one-of-a-kind babies, nothing is ever guaranteed!)

My technique is called the wake-and-sleep method because when you place your sleeping baby down, you need to wake them up…just a little…and let them get back to sleep on their own. What’s amazing is that you can start teaching your baby this healthy sleep habit from day one! While the wake-and-sleep method works best with Happiest Baby’s award-winning SNOO Smart Bassinet, a baby bed made to help teach self-soothing, this method is my pick no matter which (safe) sleep space your child snoozes in! Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Every evening—before the last feeding—put on some low, rumbly white noise and swaddle your little one, letting them fall asleep in your arms.

Step 2: Right after you slide your bub into the bassinet, gently rouse your baby awake with a soft tickle on their foot.

Step 3: A few seconds later, your baby will close their eyes and slide back into slumber-land. The white noise and snug swaddle will make this easier. If you’re using SNOO, the gentle motion aids sleep even more! (White noise, swaddling, and rocking are all part of the 5 S’s for soothing babies which work to engage Baby’s innate calming reflex, or their “on switch” for sleep.)

Step 4: If your little one fusses, feel free to pick them up for a feed or some comfort, but be sure to wake your baby up again when you put them down to bed. While I admit this does seem like a ludicrous idea, know that those few seconds of drowsy waking is you teaching your baby that they are capable of self-soothing and sleeping through the night.

If youre using SNOO, when your little one wakes later in the night, SNOO will provide the same rocking and shushing. If that’s all your little one needs, they’ll promptly drift back to sleep. But if your baby is hungry, uncomfortable, or just wants YOU, they won’t settle. Then it’s your turn to meet your bub’s needs. Every time you lay your baby back down again—after a diaper change or feeding—be sure to use wake-and-sleep.

More Baby and Toddler Sleep Training Options

You have more sleep training options beyond “cry it out” and (my favorite) the wake-and-sleep method. To learn more about the Ferber sleep training method, “the chair” sleep training method, and the “pick-up, put down” sleep training method, check out our official guide to sleep training your baby. And for help getting your toddler to sleep, read my advice on sleep training your toddler.

For additional baby sleep advice, check out…

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

View more posts tagged, sleep

Have questions about a Happiest Baby product? Our consultants would be happy to help! Submit your questions here.

Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.