The Cry It Out Sleep Training Method, Finally Explained

baby crying it out in crib

It’s one of the most controversial parenting topics out there (your colleague swears by it; your sister is horrified you’d even consider it) but what exactly is it? And is it safe for your baby? Here, we break down the cry it out (CIO) sleep training technique, once and for all.

So, what is it? When you hear the words “cry it out,” visions of letting your poor baby wail for hours on end without any comfort inevitably come to mind. But there are actually multiple variations of this sleep training method, many of which recommend going in to check at regular intervals (also known as graduated extinction). All “cry it out” really means is letting your baby cry for a period of time before going to sleep—the details of how you do this will depend on the specific method.

Why does it work? The idea behind CIO is to teach your kid how to self-soothe, thereby creating a happy, healthy sleeper for years to come. By figuring out that crying doesn’t get them out of the crib, infants will learn how to fall asleep on their own. It’s also meant to help children get rid of any unhelpful associations at bedtime (like cuddles or rocking) so that they’ll no longer need or expect them when they wake in the night.

But is CIO traumatizing? Most experts say no—provided your baby is healthy and at least four months old (the recommended minimum age to start any sleep training program). Need proof? One study published in Pediatrics journal found that babies who soothed themselves using the graduated extinction method saw no greater signs of attachment or emotional issues one year later. In fact, their levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) were lower than those from the study’s control group. Even more promising? The babies who learned how to cope using the cry-it-out approach were falling asleep 15 minutes more quickly three months into the study (with better sleep often observed within the first week).

OK, how do I do it? One of the most popular cry it out methods is the Ferber approach (aka gradual extinction), which involves checking in on and briefly comforting (without picking up) your infant at predetermined and increasing time intervals until she falls asleep on her own. Sleep expert Jodi Mindell’s “basic bedtime method” is similar to Ferber but with an emphasis on early bedtimes and creating positive associations with the crib. On the other side of the spectrum is the Weissbluth/extinction method, which uses no comfort at all, although it still allows for night feeds (obviously, if your child sounds unusually upset, then you should make sure there’s nothing wrong). Instrumental to all techniques is prepping your baby with a soothing bedtime ritual and sticking to the plan (stay strong).

OMG, I don’t know if I can do this. We get it—hearing your baby cry and not rushing to immediately comfort her seems unnatural. And we’re not going to lie to you—CIO is hard for parents (let’s just say the infant might not be the only one crying.) But many families and pediatricians promise that it works and reason that a few nights of crying is worth a lifetime of good sleeping habits. Still, cry it out isn’t for every baby (or every parent)—and there are plenty of alternatives available if you’re after a different approach. The one thing all sleep training methods have in common? Consistency. You got this.

Quiz What Method of Sleep Training Is Right for You?