All About the Cry-It-Out Method for Sleep Training

If you're gearing up to start sleep training your little one, you're probably on the hunt for the right technique. You may have heard of the cry-it-out method from fellow parents, but is it a good fit for you and your baby? There are many sleep-training methods to consider and crying it out is just one. We've detailed what this technique is and how it works so you can make the right choice for your family.

What Is the Cry-It-Out Method?

The cry-it-out sleep-training method (also known as the CIO method) is exactly as it sounds—letting your little one cry on their own until they fall asleep, without intervention from you. But in practice, the method can take on a few different forms. In addition to the standard cry-it-out method, there are related techniques that include:

  • "Graduated crying it out," also called the Ferber method (after pediatrician and children's sleep expert Richard Ferber)

  • Bedtime fading.

So, what's the difference between the CIO method and the Ferber method? And what makes those methods different from bedtime fading? It's all in the execution:

  • With the traditional cry-it-out method, you'll let your little one cry themselves to sleep without intervening unless in an emergency. If your baby is crying frantically or excessively, it's best to check in on them and confirm they're not ill or need something like a diaper change.

  • With the Ferber method, also known as graduated crying it out, you work in intervals. You start with letting your little one cry for just a few minutes before briefly checking on them. As the night goes on, you gradually increase those response times until your baby falls asleep independently. Your baby’s intervals of crying should be no longer than 10 minutes.

  • And with the bedtime fading technique, you put your baby to bed a little later each night, shifting bedtime back by 10 to 15 minutes, until your little one is tired enough to fall asleep on their own, even with a bit of crying. Once you hit that sweet spot, you label it as your baby's official bedtime!

Keep in mind that crying is a natural and normal response to being put down to sleep for many babies and older children, and that any standard or modified cry-it-out method will involve letting your baby cry at bedtime.

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When to Start and Stop the Cry-It-Out Method

The ideal age to begin the cry-it-out method, or any other method of sleep training, will vary from child to child but will not be any earlier than 4 months, according to children's health experts. The purpose of sleep training is to teach your little one to fall asleep on their own, and very young babies aren't able to do that, as they are still forming a sleep routine and adjusting to their natural sleep cycles. By about 3 months, many but not all babies may sleep around six to eight hours at night (though not every night). You'll want to wait for these longer stretches to occur regularly, which will take time. Sleep training could start once your baby is close to sleeping through the night on a consistent basis, which may occur about halfway through their first year. Here are a few signs that your baby could be ready for sleep training:

  • crying, being fussy, or appearing overtired in the evenings

  • adjusting nap schedules, such as not needing a third nap

  • difficulty falling asleep at night.

Any of the above could indicate that your little one is falling into a new sleep rhythm that possibly requires fewer naps during the day, longer sleeps at night, and an earlier bedtime—all clues that sleep training could be just around the corner! Again, the goal of sleep training is for your little one to learn to fall asleep on their own. Once they've accomplished this, the cry-it-out method naturally stops. As with any form of sleep training, CIO needs time to take effect. Use your best judgment to decide what’s right for your family, but if your little one doesn’t seem to be responding, you can talk to their healthcare provider about trying a different method.

Why You Shouldn't Let a Newborn Cry It Out

Is letting your baby cry it out at 1 month OK? The answer to this common question is a firm "no." Newborns and young babies are still developing a sleep routine and need comfort, cuddles, and soothing to be able to settle down and get back to sleep. Even at 3 months, an age when some babies could start sleeping for longer stretches, letting them cry it out isn't recommended. It's best to wait until your baby is at least 4 months old before attempting any form of sleep training, including the CIO method.

Newborn to 1 Year: How Sleep Develops and Changes

To help you understand when you might be able to start the cry-it-out method or other sleep-training techniques, here's a basic breakdown of your baby’s first year of sleep:

  • The first month. During their first month, babies sleep A LOT. Infants tend to go back and forth between sleeping and feeding, without any distinction between night and day, so when your newborn awakens, it's important to tend to them. How long should you let a newborn cry? The moment they start to wake up and cry is when you should comfort them. Newborns always need soothing when crying.

  • After six weeks. At this time, you might start to notice the beginnings of a more regular sleep-wake schedule. Babies will gradually begin to sleep for more extended periods at night and may appear drowsier in the early evenings, indicating that they're getting used to a sleep routine.

  • 4 to 12 months. This is the stage when most of a baby's sleep in a 24-hour period occurs at night, so this could be when you initiate some form of sleep training, including the cry-it-out method (if you choose to do so). You may start to notice naps gradually decreasing from three to two, with the late afternoon nap being the first one to drop.

Watch the video below for even more information on sleeping techniques:

How to Do the Cry-It-Out Method

Your first step in implementing the cry-it-out method is preparing your little one for a good night's sleep, which means making sure your baby is comfortable and ready for bed. This can set your family up for success and possibly reduce tears. In the following sections, we’ve included eight steps to help you prepare for and implement the cry-it-out sleep-training method.

Preparing for Sleep

Before putting your little one down for the night, there are a few things you can do to prepare them for sleep. These tactics may help the cry-it-out method be more successful for you and your child.

1. Reduce naps. Before starting the cry-it-out method, consider whether you could cut down on the number of and/or length of your baby's naps. Babies who are 4 months and older need at least two naps each day, usually one in the midmorning (around 9 a.m.) and another at midday (around 1 p.m.), with some napping again in the late afternoon. You could remove this third nap to help your baby feel drowsy as nighttime approaches, especially if they’re fussy at night or have difficulty falling asleep. However, if your baby still needs a third nap, it's OK to keep it! 2. Set an earlier bedtime. As your little one falls into a more regular sleep routine and their third daily nap tapers off, you'll probably need to introduce an earlier bedtime. By 8 months, many babies are able to sleep about 10 to 12 hours in the night, so consider this as you set a bedtime. Even a 5:30 p.m. bedtime works! Just listen to your child's needs and adjust bedtime to when they start to appear sleepy. 3. Establish a bedtime routine. One key tool to sleep training is a calming bedtime routine that you follow consistently. As your baby settles into a sleep rhythm, they'll start to associate nighttime with sleep and daytime with fun. You can reinforce this with a bedtime routine that helps your baby wind down at the end of the day and understand that it's time to snooze. 4. Check your baby's needs. A hungry baby or one that needs a diaper change will inevitably be a fussy baby! Before saying goodnight, make sure your baby is comfortable and doesn't need anything or isn’t feeling ill.

Implementing the Cry-It-Out Method

Now that you’ve prepared your little one for sleep and made sure they’re comfortable, calm, and ready for bed, you can start implementing the CIO method. 5. Keep lights dim. Throughout the entire process, keep the atmosphere of your baby’s room calm and dim the lights. You're reinforcing that nighttime is for quiet and sleep. Even if your baby needs a diaper change in the night, keep your voice, energy, and lights low. 6. Say goodnight. Kiss and hug your little one to say goodnight and end your bedtime routine. If they start to fuss right away, use soothing words and light touch to calm them, but try to avoid picking them up. 7. Allow one response to crying (if you want). If your baby starts to cry, it's OK to check on them and offer some soothing at first, but again, keep the atmosphere calm with low lights and a quiet voice, and just use words. If you pick your baby up, rock them, or walk around to soothe them, you'll set a precedent that will be difficult to break, and they might not be able to fall asleep without you. 8. Respond if crying is prolonged. By this time, it's possible that your baby won't cry much. You took all the steps to prepare them for sleep, so crying it out might not take long, which means it could be a good method for you. Try not to respond if crying does occur unless it sounds extreme (like your baby is in pain) or lasts a long time (what's long to you may be different for other parents but try to give it 10 minutes, but no more). How long to let your baby cry it out will depend on your particular situation. But to fully embrace the cry-it-out method, you'll need to let your little one cry for at least a short period of time. Experts recommend checking on your baby after 10 minutes of crying, and not waiting longer than that. By being consistent and patient, you’re giving the cry-it-out method the best chance to be effective.

Is It Bad to Let a Baby Cry It Out?

You're not the only one out there asking this exact question, as many parents worry and wonder if the cry-it-out method is bad for their baby. It might give you peace of mind to know that it is OK to let a baby cry, as it doesn't harm them. In fact, short periods of crying can be helpful for babies. Crying is a natural way of communication and can actually aid in processing an active day, settling down, and falling asleep. Just as important is knowing that the crying-it-out method does not harm babies or damage their relationship with their parents. But we understand that listening to your baby cry isn't easy and can be very challenging. One way to help you move forward with the cry-it-out method is to give your baby lots of attention and love during the day. This conveys that you love them, and that daytime is for fun and attention, whereas nighttime is for independent sleeping. And when in doubt, remember that babies have ways to self-soothe when needed—not just tears, but also sucking on their hand or fingers, rocking their head, or rubbing the bedsheet. Crying it out can even help your little one learn how to self-soothe.

Alternatives to the Cry-It-Out Method

If you’re wondering how to sleep train without crying it out, there are a few alternatives to consider. But keep in mind that many sleep-training techniques result in at least a few tears, and that some methods are more suitable and effective for toddlers and older kids.

  • Ferber method. As mentioned above, this technique is similar to the CIO method but with checking on your baby in gradually increasing increments, working your way up to 10 minutes of crying at a time.

  • Bedtime fading. We already mentioned this option, too—it's a technique that helps you identify the best bedtime for your little one by adjusting it little by little until your baby falls asleep on their own.

  • Disappearing chair. As your baby starts to fall asleep in their crib, they may be comforted by your presence. You can sit in a chair in their room, but each night, you'll move it a little further away from the crib and, eventually, out of the room completely.

  • Countdown. This method involves determining how long you plan to stay in your child's room and leaving when the time is up. Each night, gradually shorten the time until your child falls asleep independently without your presence. The first night could be 20 minutes, the next 18, and so on until you reach 0 minutes.

  • "Hold on." This method starts during waking hours to get your child used to the idea that you'll leave a room but always return. For example, tell your toddler to "hold on" while playing in a safe spot. When you return a minute or two later, they'll know they can trust that you'll always come back. Increase the time gradually and when you tell them to “hold on” when they're in their crib or bed, they may be calm enough to fall asleep independently.

You can swap CIO with any of these alternatives or use them as a backup if the cry-it-out method is not working well for you and your little one. Every baby and every family are different, so although it's best to give any sleep-training method time to take effect, know that you can choose or switch to an option that makes you feel the most comfortable.

If you need more help with sleep-training techniques beyond the cry-it-out method, take our free 5 Fundamentals of Baby Sleep Class. As always, be sure to consult your child's healthcare provider if you have additional questions or concerns.

The Bottom Line

The cry-it-out method is just one sleep-training strategy. The framework involves you preparing your baby for the night and letting them cry themselves to sleep without any intervention from you (unless, of course, in an emergency). Whether this is the right technique for you and your family will be up to you to decide! The cry-it-out method works best when the timing is right (no earlier than 4 months) and when your baby is fully ready for sleep training. This way, their natural sleep cycle will even out, and they'll start to adopt a more regular pattern and schedule for getting those much-needed Zs. Waiting for the right time and preparing your little one for peaceful snoozes with a calming bedtime routine may help reduce the number of tears as your baby gradually learns to fall asleep independently. Of course, there are other sleep-training methods to try, and you can always swap one for the other if the cry-it-out method is not working well for you. Though it's never easy to hear your baby cry, crying it out isn't harmful to your little one, and won't damage their relationship with you. In time, your baby will be dozing off without any help! Just remember to stay consistent, be patient, and know that you’re doing a great job.