Should I Let My Baby ‘Cry It Out’?

Sleepless nights can be hard on new parents, but there are simple strategies to help your infant sleep longer.

A newborn baby "crying it out" in the crib.

For most new parents, sleep deprivation is a rite of passage. At times it may seem like your newborn isn’t sleeping at all. In reality, many babies actually require up to 19 hours of sleep each day. The problem is, they tend to slumber only in short one- to two-hour spurts and often decide to be awake in the wee hours of the night, when you’re desperate for some shut-eye. 

But don’t despair. There is some good news: Most babies settle into a predictable sleep schedule eventually, says Alison Niebanck, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mercer University School of Medicine and program director of the pediatric residency program at Memorial Health in Savannah, Georgia. And with a little strategizing, you can get there faster. Here’s how. 

Go with the flow early on 

Babies younger than 4 months old don’t have the ability to self-soothe—to calm themselves down when left alone in their cribs. “The main point for little babies is to hold and love them, and then gently put them down when they are asleep,” says Dr. Niebanck. For that reason, she says, you shouldn’t just walk away and let infants this age “cry it out.” 

If, on the other hand, you’re tempted to take your baby into bed with you, expert advice is simple: Don’t do it. 

It’s okay to have your baby sleep in your room for the first six months—in fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends this practice for up to 12 months, as it can decrease the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by as much as 50 percent. But your baby should stay in her own crib or bassinet. 

“Adult beds aren't safe for babies, period,” says Niebanck. Your little one could suffocate if a sleeping parent rolls over on top of her, or if she gets trapped between the headboard slats, the mattress and bed frame, or the mattress and the wall. Other dangers include suffocation under soft bedding or falling off the bed. 

What about swaddling? 

One long-standing practice to help babies sleep is swaddling, or tightly wrapping them to restrict movement. The technique is believed to help calm infants by making them feel like they’re back in the womb. Expert opinion and research on swaddling are mixed, and there is some concern that swaddled babies who are placed on their stomachs or who roll onto their stomachs have an increased risk of SIDS

If you choose to swaddle your baby, consult with your pediatrician on how to do it correctly and the age ranges when swaddling may be appropriate. Generally speaking, swaddled infants should only sleep on their backs and the practice should be stopped once the baby is old enough to try rolling over. 

You can capture some of the benefits of swaddling—while reducing the potential risks—by using a sleep sack, which partially envelops the baby but allows her hips and arms to remain free, Niebanck advises. 

If you feel like both you and baby are about to lose your minds, a change of scenery may be in order, advises Niebanck. You can take her on a walk in her stroller or drive around with her in her infant car seat. The vibration and movement can help her drift off to sleep. Just make sure that once she’s in dreamland, you move her back into her crib. 

Develop a consistent sleep schedule 

One they’re around 4- to 6-months old, many babies are able to sleep through the night (between 8 and 12 hours) and are ready for sleep training, says Niebanck. “Your baby is starting to recognize their external environment, which means they’re aware of bedroom routines and what room they’re in,” she explains. “If your routine up until now has been to rock your baby for hours with their pacifier and some bedtime music, they’ll get attached to this routine and you’ll be stuck with it.” 

To avoid this tedious fate, set a succinct, repeatable schedule, such as a bath, followed by some cuddles and reading a bedtime story before you leave the room. Make sure bedtime starts early enough that your little one isn’t overtired and agitated. Your goal is to put your baby down when she’s sleepy but awake enough so that she’s able to associate her crib with the process of falling asleep, says Niebanck. 

When do you start letting babies cry it out? 

“It’s really important that they learn to fall asleep on their own, so that if they wake up in the middle of the night, they don’t wake up the rest of the household,” stresses Niebanck. “What you want instead is for them to self-soothe and go back to sleep.” 

If you think going cold turkey will be too traumatic for you—or your baby—you can try sleep training in increments. “Put your baby down, say, ‘It’s time for bed,’ and step out of the room,” advises Niebanck. Set the timer on your phone for two or three minutes and prepare for some protest wailing. 

Once your timer goes off, if your baby is still awake, go back into the nursery. “Keep your interactions short and sweet. Stand over the crib, greet them briefly and tell them it’s time for bed, give them a quick pat, and leave again,” says Niebanck. Don’t take them out of their crib for a cuddle—or burst into tears yourself. “If you make a big deal out of it and show you’re stressed, your baby will pick up on that,” she says. 

Now, set your timer for five minutes. If they are still crying after that duration, repeat your greet-and-go again. And again. And again. 

“Each time, set your timer for longer periods of time until your baby is no longer crying,” says Niebanck. On successive nights, you may gradually extend the time intervals as needed—15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes—with the goal that your baby eventually learns, over the course of a few days or up to a week, to fall asleep on her own without your help. 

If you choose this method, the most important thing is to stick with it and be consistent until they go to sleep. The hardest part for many parents is hearing their baby cry, but keep in mind that it’s not a distress cry. 

“They’re not hungry, or in pain,” says Niebanck. “They’re just mad. Eventually, they’ll get tired enough that they’ll go to sleep.” 

Don’t feel guilty, either. This technique, also called “graduated extinction,” may allow some babies to eventually fall asleep faster, and stay asleep longer, than babies whose parents use other methods, without appearing to cause undue emotional stress over time, suggests one small Australian study published in 2016 in the journal Pediatrics

Just remember that it’s not uncommon for infants who have learned to sleep through the night to start having occasional nighttime awakenings again. 

Practice sound sleep habits 

Along with sleep training, there are other things you can do to help ensure that both you and baby get sounder sleep. 

Eat by day, sleep by night. Make sure you do the bulk of your feedings during the day, so that baby learns that daytime is for eating and nighttime is for sleeping. This is usually feasible by around 4 months of age. The one exception may be breastfeeding working moms, who often find that their babies like to cluster feed at night so that they can be close to mom, says Niebanck. In that case, you’ll just have to decide if you can grin and bear frequent night awakenings. 

Pick your spots. Don’t bolt into your baby’s room at the first sound of a nighttime squawk. In many instances, she’ll settle down and fall back asleep on her own with a little time. 

Bed down earlier to sleep longer. Try pulling bedtime back a bit, say 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., instead of 7:30 p.m. “Working parents often really relish that evening time after they’re home from work. But if you keep baby up too late, they’ll get overtired and have more trouble falling and staying asleep,” explains Niebanck. You can make up that “mommy and me” time in the early morning instead. Note that when setting a bedtime, it often helps to be on the lookout for signs of sleep readiness, which include yawning, fussing, looking away and rubbing eyes. 

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that every child—and every family—is different. No one sleep method will work equally well for everyone, so it’s worth bracing for some trial and error before you find the ideal strategy. Working in consultation with your pediatrician, you can develop a plan that will help your baby establish good sleep habits and help you get (at least some of) the sleep you need.

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