How much will my baby have to cry? Is there any way to avoid crying altogether?
These are the MOST common questions I am asked by families when we are beginning our work together - or when they are trying to decide whether sleep coaching is right for them. And, if you’re here reading this, I know that one of your biggest worries about sleep coaching may be whether your baby will end up crying too much.
I completely understand.
Unfortunately, how much a baby cries during the sleep coaching process is SO dependent on SO many things that it can be quite challenging (if not downright impossible) to guarantee that your baby won’t cry or to say for sure how much your baby will cry.
For instance, I’ve worked with babies who are very adaptable or who have pretty solid self soothing skills in place already and have literally watched as they roll over and fall to sleep on their own within just a few minutes of some light whimpering. But I’ve also worked with babies who are very intense in nature and who had a very hard time self soothing (even during the day) and have seen them take 2-3 hours to finally fall to sleep on the first night (my own daughter included!)
These instances are the outliers though. Although there some babies who will barely make a peep and others who will strongly let you know how they feel for hours, MOST babies fall somewhere in the middle. In fact, the average length is typically takes for a baby to fall to sleep on their own in those first few days of sleep coaching is around 45 minutes to an hour.
However, it's important to consider that a baby’s only way to communicate their negative feelings is through crying - and when a baby cries they are typically trying to tell you that they want or need something. Research done by Australian mother Priscilla Dunston (also known as the Dunston Method), has shown us that babies cry in 5 different ways in order to communicate their needs of hunger, sleepiness, being uncomfortable, being in pain, and not feeling well. So, we can expect your baby to cry in order to communicate any number of these feelings - including being upset with the changes you have made to how they fall to sleep.
Families often tell me that taking a step back and viewing their babies tears from this point of view helps them to feel more confident in their approach and more comfortable with the process. However, many parents will also tell me that they can’t handle the sound of their baby’s cries; that it makes them angry or upset themselves.
I hear you!
For myself, my baby’s cries would cause a very deep feeling of anxiety where I would feel a primal urge to attend to them immediately. I have been known to run up the stairs two at a time at the sound of a wail! So, I am in no way recommending that you leave your baby to cry while you’re helping them learn healthier sleep habits. But crying is a typical part of childhood - and something we parents do have to become somewhat comfortable with in order to set healthy boundaries for our kids. Even my 5 and 7 year old will cry now in order to communicate their desire for a different situation (ie, wanting a toy, extra video time or a cookie) or their particular frustration with a change (my daughter is particularly unfond of changes to her routine).
And since the goal of sleep coaching is to make a change in your baby or toddler’s sleep habits, it is actually quite likely that there will be SOME crying involved. But the range is so widespread - in the amount/length and in the type. With all of this in mind, I want to explore the different kinds of crying you can expect when it comes to sleep coaching - and then I’m going to walk you through the best ways to help minimize your baby’s crying throughout the process.
So, what are the different kinds of crying you may hear during sleep coaching?
This is generally a low level fuss that is associated with a baby winding down and trying to get comfortable to fall to sleep. For babies who are stronger in their self soothing skills - their ability to calm themselves back down when upset or to handle a change - this is the most likely response you’ll see with sleep coaching.
Protesting (Loud) Cry
For most babies and toddlers, the first few nights of sleep coaching will involve some pretty loud protesting cries. This type of cry sounds pretty strong and sticks around consistently - but it doesn’t sound desperate or painful - until it finally winds down into a whimper/whining cry. For most babies and toddlers, this tends to last around 45 min to an hour for the first night or two.
For babies who are more intense or persistent in nature, you are most likely to experience the shrieking/hysterical cry on the first few nights. Because these babies are more likely to need some help in calming themselves back down, I do always recommend that you help them to calm back down periodically before stepping back and trying again.
This cry is a sign that your baby or toddler is starting to learn to self soothe. It often starts on one end (whether whining or loud protesting), but then moves back and forth between the two while your little one really hones their skills and soothes themselves to sleep.
Now, I’m a proponent of beginning every baby with the most gentle low cry method possible and then expanding from there based on their response to the changes, the goals your family has, AND your personal comfort with crying. In fact, you do not need to allow your baby to experience any of these type of cries by themselves in order for you to make progress.
But what you do need is a plan to help you manage the process.
If you’re looking to help your baby or toddler to develop healthy sleep habits, but also want to minimize crying, consider my top tips for achieving success:
Wait until your baby is old enough for formal sleep coaching
My absolute favorite time to sleep coach is around 6 months of age. Babies at this age are firmly in between two regressions and developmental leaps (the 4 month regression and the 9/10 month regression). This is also the age when most researchers agree that baby brains are most likely to have developed some ability to self soothe already. If your baby is younger than this, you can definitely still begin to help them slowly develop healthy sleep habits by slowly removing sleep props and trying to reinforce the “wake to sleep” method. This works really well for younger babies as a way to set the stage for future self soothing.
Set your baby up for success BEFORE you begin to sleep coach
Make sure that you’ve addressed their schedule, and thus can ensure that they are not over or under tired and are primed for sleep. Ensure that you know that they aren’t hungry (because they’re eating enough during the day and they have a full tummy right before bed). And already address other outside factors for their troubled sleeping (like medical issues, sleeping environment and routine). If you have checked off all of these boxes, then you’ve already ruled out multiple factors that could upset your baby during the process and make it harder for them to fall to sleep (thus, resulting in more crying).
I walk you through each of these step by step in my FREE 5 day sleep challenge so if you’d like to learn more about how to set your baby up for success, then I definitely encourage you to sign up. We are launching a new LIVE challenge on March 11th, but if you join now you’ll be in the group in time for my FREE training on handling the upcoming Daylight Savings time change as well.
Plan to stay with your baby - at least at first.
One of the easiest way to minimize tears is to stay with your baby so that you can help them stay calm while they’re learning to fall to sleep without their sleep props. Even though the end goal is for your baby to fall to sleep without you in the room (so that they wake up exactly the same situation as they would wake up during the night), this is a great starting point because it allows you to slowly remove other sleep props from your baby’s routine while also being present to support them through that process. For instance, if your baby needs to be rocked to sleep you can work with them to fall to sleep while just being held or while laying down in the crib. In both instances, you are still there to soothe them, but are not offering them their preferred sleep prop anymore.
Develop a solid plan and be consistent
Being consistent in your plan helps to limit tears all on it’s own. If you’ve done sleep coaching with your baby in the past and have been inconsistent, then you may have noticed that they’ve cried even harder or for longer the next time you try. This is because being inconsistent is confusing for your little one. For older babies/toddlers, inconsistency in approach also leads to more crying over time because they learn that if they cry hard or long enough, you will eventually give in and give them what they want. So, staying consistent with your approach and the new sleep “rules” each night helps a baby or toddler adapt faster - and with less confusion/tears.
Line up support
One of the best ways to ensure that you are able to stay consistent is to line up support. If you have your plan in place, you’ve done all of the prep work and you know your baby is old enough for sleep coaching, then it is much much easier to trade off with your partner after a certain amount of time, than it is to give up and try again the next night! Make sure that everyone is on the same page - and the same plan - before you begin sleep coaching so that you can maximize your support and your success!
Want to learn more about developing a solid plan and being consistent? Make sure you join my FREE 5 Day Sleep Challenge!
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As a maternal mental health and pediatric sleep expert, I am passionate about helping tired mamas thrive throughout the many seasons of motherhood. I'm a Nationally Certified Professional Life Coach and Masters Level Therapist specializing in parental mental wellness, marriage/partnership strength and pediatric sleep and soothing.
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