I have often heard of families (actually parents) suggesting that leaving their child to cry in the night is not actually that stressful for them. The child/baby is protesting. But really, there is nothing to worry about. I have spent years trying to speak out against this because every single thing I have read, studied, and experienced tells me otherwise (though to be fair, I didn’t always think this way, but that’s a topic for another day). I have thought constantly of ways to get families (actually parents) to really understand what it is they are doing and it’s a hard sell. But I want to try. So if you are a parent who feels that crying-it-out or controlled crying is okay, please have a go at the following and be honest in your response here as this is a perspective-taking exercise.
Step 1: Figure out what you are most afraid of
Link to extinction sleep training: The thing your baby fears most is separation from you. You are your baby’s security blanket, lifeline, sign that s/he is safe, and so on. Separating a baby from its caregiver is the surefire way to elicit stress in any primate and has been used as such a stressor in research for years. Although separation likely won’t cause you the type of anxiety and stress it does for your baby, I’m sure there’s something that causes you panic. It may be spiders, snakes, heights, being alone, being in groups… The goal here is to make sure that whatever we choose is something that really, really causes us fear. The kind of heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, nightmarish fear we don’t want to experience at all.
Note: Some people have suggested that this isn’t fair as babies cry in arms as well; however, research has shown us that there is a distinct difference in the physiological experience of crying out of arms and in-arms with a loving caregiver. I recommend you read here and here if you would like to find out more on this.
Step 2: Figure out how long you will face your fear
Link to extinction sleep training: If you plan on using CIO, plan on 12 hours of this fear. If you plan on controlled crying, have someone come tell you you’re fine, but leave you there, every few minutes, with longer intervals in between. Figuring this out is key to really allowing yourself to try and experience what your baby is experiencing because yes, this is what your baby will experience. This is not “emotional blackmail” or anything of the sort. It is a simple statement that you are putting your child in a situation that causes fear and stress and as such, you owe it to yourself and your baby to first experience that. Remember: being separated from you is that fear for your baby (and for good evolutionary reason). Your baby can withstand a lot when you are there to support him/her, but when you aren’t? You have a vulnerable child whose very survival depends upon being in close proximity to you and so when this separation occurs, every survival instinct going to 11.
Step 3: Face your fear for as long as you set out in Step 2
Link to extinction sleep training: This is the perspective-taking part of it all. For some of you, just the thought of getting here may have changed your mind on extinction methods of sleep training. If you aren’t comfortable doing this yourself, why would you feel comfortable letting your young baby do this? For others, this will be your test to see how comfortable you are letting your child cry-it-out. If you are comfortable trying this and are moving ahead with this step, you will also want to ask yourself: How afraid am I? You want to be at the upper end of fear here to mimic the type of survival fear that your child will experience. Also, if you find yourself able to cognitively change your thinking to deal with your fear, you are moving away from what your child experiences (but this is very good for your own well-being). You see, your child (baby, toddler, or young child) doesn’t have the cognitive capacity or skills to reason through this experience therefore you have to find a way to go back to that visceral fear you would have experienced at the start and try to re-experience that over and over and over for the entire duration. This may involve going a step up with whatever scares you or trying different fears so you regularly get that first surge of adrenaline that goes with being afraid.
Step 4: Fall asleep.
Link to extinction sleep training: Yes, we are actually asking our children to try and fall asleep while terrified. Now some of you will point out that eventually they do fall asleep and sometimes faster after a few nights of hours of howling. Of course they eventually get tired out and just collapse (it’s self-preservation), but this is not the type of sleep we want for them. It’s also not the type of associations with safe sleep we want for them, is it? Now, it’s important to note here that sleeping after trauma is actually an observed, normal reaction to a trauma so just because a baby falls asleep does not mean there isn’t trauma. (You can read more on this phenomenon here.)
Step 5: Evaluate your experience.
Link to extinction sleep training: Now is the time to try and see how your experience would mirror that of your baby’s. Did you learn to feel safe or secure? Would you feel comfortable in that same environment over and over again? If you chose the controlled crying option, how do you feel about the person who checked in, telling you all was okay, that you were safe, then left you again without helping? From what we can gather, children don’t learn they are safe and secure either. They don’t feel particularly comfortable in that environment, and being told they’re safe isn’t the same as making them actually feel safe.
Step 6: Find an alternative. (There are lots.)