Families often ask me, “How much crying is too much crying?” Of course, what they’re really asking is… When I put my baby down awake at the beginning of sleep training, and they protest falling asleep without help by crying, how long is it okay for them to cry? This implies an underlying assumption that there is some finite amount of crying that’s safe and okay. And then if baby cries one second beyond that… I’m not sure what parents fear will happen… But I do know they worry that crossing that line will harm their child. That the damage of crying may be irreparable. I’m here to tell you, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Thankfully, there is no amount of crying that, in and of itself, is “too much.” Now, your child may be crying for all sorts of reasons. And many of those reasons will require you to tend to them. (More on that below.) But, when we are discussing the act of crying, independent of anything else, there is not an upper limit on how long it’s “safe” for a child to cry.*
*In this post I am discussing children 16 weeks of age and older. I do not advise any kind of sleep training for newborns.
Identify Why Your Child is Crying
First and foremost, identifying why your child is crying is vital. If your child is crying because they have a fever of 103 degrees, any amount of crying that is not tended to immediately is unsafe and dangerous. But, if your child is crying because you are…
1) putting them down awake for the first time,
and 2) they’re expressing their displeasure at falling asleep without your help…
Then, they should be allowed to express those feelings as much as they need to in order to figure out how to fall asleep on their own.
Crying During Sleep Training
Obviously the main focus of this discussion is crying for the purposes of sleep training. Assuming your child is…
a) completely healthy
and b) that your pediatrician has approved your approach with sleep training…
There is no arbitrary amount of crying that means a child has cried “too much.” Your child should be given the amount of time and space they need in order to figure out how to fall asleep on their own.
Your child expressing their feelings during sleep training should be honored and accepted. Also, keep in mind that how much they cry has a tremendous amount to do with how parents are approaching sleep training in the first place.
Having a plan is VITAL! I am passionate about sleep training. And I am committed to children learning to fall asleep on their own with the least amount of tears possible. I’ve designed the Baby Sleep Trainer method to help babies get the sleep they need with the least amount of tears possible.
I’ve also designed my online programs to provide hands-on support from me. This way I can support my families emotionally through the sleep training process. I also like to troubleshoot early, so parents can get the help they need to avoid unnecessary tears.
Crying During “Regressions” or Illness
Let’s say your child is already sleep trained. You should expect your child to have disrupted overnight sleep every 1-2 months! Many families are lucky, and literally never experience overnight wake ups unless a child is very ill. But, babies are humans! Some are sensitive to life in general, meaning they may wake up at night for all sorts of reasons.
For example, when they reach various milestones. Or, perhaps your child is crying because they are sick. Thankfully, it’s always okay to tend to your child as much as you need to. I even advise families to room share when their kids are ill. But even during periods of disrupted sleep, children are still able to fall asleep independently. This skill doesn’t go away unless a parent begins to assist their child to sleep again. As long as your pediatrician approves this advice, make sure your child is always putting themselves to sleep on their own.
Crying When Kids Can Speak (Is it going to hurt them now that they’re older?)
It’s one thing when you hear a small infant cry (which is, of course, gut wrenching), but what about when your child can speak! This is such a challenging situation for both parents and children. Here is the truth of the matter…
If your child is crying during sleep training for the reasons outlined above, and they are using words to express their feelings, interacting with you will almost always make them cry more in the long run. They’re more likely to quiet down when you interact with them, and then double their cries once you leave. If your child is 1) healthy and safe, and 2) you have done everything you can to care for their needs… It’s still okay to say, “I love you, it’s time for your body to sleep.” And then allow them to fall asleep on their own.
After almost ten years of working with families, one thing I’ve learned about children and crying is that interaction with parents can increase crying dramatically. Your job as a parent is to love and care for your children, and to meet their needs. Just because a child is expressing their feelings with crying, remember that your job isn’t always to stop the tears. Feeling feelings is 100% okay, and giving your child some space to learn to sleep often means years of healthy sleep as a result.
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