Crying vs Cry It Out
What’s the difference between crying and “crying it out”?
There’s a big one actually! Just because a child is crying doesn’t mean that a parent is doing something wrong, or that you’re doing damage to your child. Crying can actually be cathartic in some instances. I’m sure you can remember feeling relieved after a good cry.
Crying is a form of communication for babies. They haven’t mastered vocal language yet, and in order for them to get someone’s attention, they cry. In the newborn phase that typically means that something is “off” or uncomfortable, and they want help fixing it (e.g. hungry, cold, hot, soiled diaper, tired, heartburn, etc.). This is also true during infancy, however around the 6 month mark is where babies start to learn cause and effect. You’ll notice yourself thinking “that was a fake cry” because they’ve learned that if they make those sounds, mom/dad will come. Which is a good thing by the way. Learning who your baby is and what their different cries mean, is extremely important when it comes to parenting them while they’re so little. It will also help you if you’re working on independent sleep. For me, I could tell the difference between an “I don’t like this” cry and an “I’m in pain something is wrong” cry. This was critical in making that decision to either run to my girls and see what is wrong, or allowing them to wait a minute before tending to them. If you don’t already know the difference in your child’s cries, spend a few days listening and noticing when each cry is occuring. What does it sound like right before a feeding versus too much tummy time versus riding in the car?
That said, “crying it out” is a different story and I prefer to refer to it as Extinction (behavioral term) because there is a lot of misinformation on what crying it out actually means. Extinction means you no longer provide reinforcement to a behavior and in the sleep world this means no longer nursing / rocking / bouncing / touching / etc. to sleep and withholding these things until baby falls asleep. Essentially it would look like putting your baby in their crib / bassinet awake, telling them goodnight, and walking out of the room. If they cry, they continue to cry until they fall asleep. For some, that looks like 5-10 minutes, for others it can look like an hour or more. Yes the hour or more makes me cringe too!
From a behavioral perspective, extinction is extremely powerful and will work to extinguish most behaviors on most people quite quickly. There can be some side effects and most babies are not set up for success before implementing this method. It’s not right for all babies or parents or family dynamics (just as co-sleeping is not right for all babies or parents or family dynamics) and I would exercise caution before implementing it.
There is also a difference between leaving a baby alone to cry and allowing them to be in your arms while they cry. If a parent has exhausted all of their options, their physical and emotional needs have been met, and baby is still crying in their arms, then it is okay as the baby is being supported. In the middle of the night, new parents tend to rush to the baby at the first sound they hear. It makes sense because as soon as the baby wakes you up, you know they will be due for a feeding soon, so may as well pick them up and feed them than wait for them to cry. But if we can pause, rather than pounce, when a baby cries, we may start to see them work out some of their struggles on their own. Perhaps they will put themselves back to sleep, and perhaps they weren’t even fully awake, in which case you don’t have to tend to them right away. If they continue to fuss and cry then of course meet their needs, but otherwise give them an opportunity to connect those sleep cycles on their own.
Keep in mind that crying from a baby is certainly okay and use your judgment on whether or not they need to be tended to right away. Listen to those cries and really learn who your baby is. Perhaps a few minutes of crying when going to bed is cathartic and the release that child needs to get to sleep. I wouldn’t recommend prolonged crying to “get baby to sleep” unless they’ve been set up for success with all of their physical and emotional needs met. Always trust your gut! You are your baby’s best and only advocate.