What to do when your child cries at night

October 19, 2010 By: erik Category: Musings, Parenting 2,286 views

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Pissed OffOne of the most frustrating parts of parenting for me is the distinct lack of right answers to questions of how to raise a child. Not every issue is as straightforward as “Should I let my child crawl on the ledge of my 7th story window?” (Answer: Only if you’ve double-checked the harnesses.) Like life in general, most issues come down to a judgement call with good arguments in both directions. One issue about which I often feel completely clueless is that of what to do when my child cries in the middle of the night. It seems that there are two opposing strategies.

Intermittent Visitation

In Spain, there is a fairly large movement lately towards the “let her cry herself to sleep” end of the spectrum led by neuroscientist Dr. Eduard Estivill and his very popular book, Duérmete, Niño: Cómo Solucionar Los Problemas del Sueño Infantil (English version: 5 Days to a Perfect Night’s Sleep for Your Child: The Secrets to Making Bedtime a Dream). The basic concept goes like this:

  • Your child needs to understand that night time is for sleeping and that crying won’t make her parents get her up to play.
  • Go and visit your child every 5-7 minutes so that she knows she’s not forever abandoned.
  • Make your visits as boring as possible. Simply state, “It’s night time and it’s time for sleep. Good night,” and leave again.
  • Repeat until the child is asleep.

The computer scientist in me loves the idea of boiling a complex parenting issue down to a simple algorithm like this. It feels so…scientific! Like I should have on a white lab coat and carry a clipboard when I go in to console my wailing child. Many, many parents we know absolutely swear by this method. They say that with their first kid, they used to let him sleep in bed with them and it took years to get him to sleep alone, but with the second kid they were strict with this method the first week and everything has since been wonderful.

The only drawback is having to silence the little voice inside your head screaming, “What a terrible horrible selfish parent you are sitting on the couch watching television while your tortured child is obviously in desperate need of your companionship and touch!!” I have found that I am able to accomplish the emotional distancing feat fairly well (headphones help), but it eats my wife up inside. And I completely understand her point of view; it can really make you feel like a complete failure of a human being.

Selfless Companionship

The alternative is to simply do whatever it takes to get your kid to sleep every night, rocking her to sleep in your arms, holding her hand while she falls asleep in her crib, singing lullabies, letting her sleep in her parents’ bed, whatever it takes. The theory goes that your baby isn’t yet smart enough to manipulate you consciously and she’s just expressing her biological need to be close to a loving parent. This is how it’s been done for millennia and it’s what is most natural for healthy emotional development.

That’s all well and good if you can afford to give that much of yourself to your child. But this is the twenty-first century and the stay-at-home mom family model is out the window. My wife gets up between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning to go to work. She can’t afford to be singing lullabies from 2:00 to 4:00 in the morning just because Junior is bored in her crib. Nor can I.

The Selfless Companionship model might be the quickest short-term solution to getting your kid to bed on any given night, but then she’ll expect it the next night, and the next, and the next. The sooner a child can learn to fall asleep by herself, the better off the whole family will be in the long term.


The problem with human developmental psychology is that our innate morals prevent us from doing any interesting experiments. You can’t place one twin in a loving home and place the other one in a padded white room until she’s eighteen and then compare them. Our sense of ethics prohibits that kind of experiment with anything bigger than a rat. In the end all we have are opinions and gray areas and individual judgement calls; and no irrefutably right answers. You might think your parenting style is better than mine, but you can’t prove it; nor can I prove the contrary.

The wisest move is to simply take a step back and ask yourself if it really matters. Do you know what method your parents used on you? Probably not. I suspect, but obviously cannot prove, that the way your parents put you to sleep every night has very, very little affect on who you are and your adult life. So in the end it doesn’t really matter. Everyone must choose some balance between how much of themselves they can afford to give at two in the morning vs. how much the empathetic heartbreak of a crying child alone in the next room weighs upon them. One thing’s for sure, though… Parenting certainly isn’t easy.

  • My mantra with parenting is “do what works for your family”. Anybody who thinks there is only one right way is delusional.

    • That’s more or less true about just about everything, I think.

  • The rule of thumb I always used was…

    A) Is the baby sick? No. –> Go to B
    B) Does the baby need changing? No. –> Go to C
    C) Is the baby hungry? No. –> Let Cry

    It took a while for Amy to get on board with my flowchart, but it worked out well for our kids. They soon realized that crying was futile and slept peacefully through the night. I know that others haven’t had similar results, but it worked well for us.

    • Yes, your A, B, and C were implicit in the “Intermittent Visitation” scheme above.

      I have another working theory that, perhaps because of the stereotypical masculine and feminine natures of the two methods, fathers are more willing to let the kid cry it out than mothers.

      • Paul Rasmussen

        To me, Alan’s program is substantially different from the Intermittent Visitation model. Alan has glossed over the mental anguish that comes from 45 minutes of crying with no check. Can the child be dangling by her neck, caught upside down between the bars? Fortunately, adult-level sneakiness can allow for undetected observation, but even that has its limits.

        I think you are right, Erik, that it usually does not make much difference in the long run to the child, but both parents owe it to themselves and to each other to maximize the child’s ability to communicate illness or pain effectively. This includes as quickly as possible minimizing the false positives. When you hear your child scream in the night, you want to be able to react and comfort, but before you can do this effectively you have to be fairly sure you aren’t being manipulated. Consciously or unconsciously is immaterial.

        I don’t know much about hormones, but I certainly would maintain that it is usually easier for the father than for the mother to ignore crying for extended periods. I know with our child, it was easier for me (but not easy) to put up with the occasional more-than-an-hour screaming episodes. The fact that I had recently received my Masters in Behavior Modification certainly helped me make my points with my wife, but these decisions are never easy.

        My advice: What Alan says. Even the Intermittent Visitation model results in the child controlling parental behavior. Putting up with more screaming in the short run results in putting up with less screaming in the long run. It is the long run that matters.

        • Paul, you are correct. The mental anguish was glossed over. It’s funny how quick you get a discerning differences in cries though. Although I tried to tune out the crying as much as possible, I was listening for changes… a dangling by neck sound change for instance.

          Now that the kids are getting older, the cry meter is a bit different.

          1. whining cry (they aren’t getting their turn at the xbox) – results in me yelling for them to stop
          2. fake cry – results in me yelling for them to stop
          3. skinned knee cry – results in me saying, “walk it off”
          4. fell off top of the monkey bars cry – results in me running

  • Paul Rasmussen

    Your mother and I combined our memories about this over dinner tonight. As we recollect it (her memory is the better one), we had one 90 minute episode of extreme crib screaming, to which, after the early sick/wet/hungry? checks, we did not respond. I turned up the TV nice and loud, and your mother, vacuumed the house. There were also a few 30 minute episodes, but after that 90 minute non-response, a half-hour seemed easy. This was all while we lived in Nashville, so you were just a little younger than Nora is now. After that, you slept like a baby 🙂 She also confessed that, unknown to me, she crept into your room on many a night and rocked you to sleep in her arms.

    Your mother reminded me that her behaviorist husband enforced a strict 10 minute rule. The rule: she could check on you any time she wanted to unless you had been crying for 10 minutes or more, after which she had to wait for a period of silence before she could enter the room. Damn. Was I really that bad?

  • Barb

    Very interesting topic… I was on the verge of craziness after nine months of having my daughter by in my arms 24/7 because she would cry and scream uncontrollably everytime I tried to put her down. At night was even better: she had to latch on ALL night long. If I tried to unlatch her, screams and cry… So my breast were sore, I wwas unable to move all night, no sleep, no rest…

    Then, I remembered one of my friends from Spain had recommended Estivill months before. I tried on October 12 2009. I was determined to follow the method 100% but I was also scheptical after everything I had gone through. The first night she felt asleep on her own (after following all the steps) in 20 minutes; 2nd day, 16 min; 3rd day 1.5 min. The rest is history and I can only say that one year later, she beggs to go to sleep, alone.

  • Let’s see. We tried the selfless companion thing for a very short time with Carmen because while staying over at my parents-in-laws’ house, my father-in-law couldn’t stand to hear the baby crying. He would feel too sorry for her and ask us why we didn’t check on her, so we ended up staying with her until she slept. Bad move. When we got home again, she refused to sleep on her own. So, we went with the let-her-scream-her-head-off-for-a-couple-of-nights method. We had about 45 minutes of crying the first night, 20 or so the second, and from then on she slept like…well, a baby. She doesn’t remember a thing, and she laughed when we told her about it later. Needless to say, we used this system with the other two from day one. I’d say, for your sanity’s sake, keep watching tv. 😉

    • So we’ve arrived to the “grandparents are softies [that don’t have to live with the kid the rest of the year]” conclusion. But we knew that already.

      Speaking of softies, your kids have no willpower. Mine has made it to the two-hour mark a couple times now. 🙂

      • Mine has made it to the two-hour mark a couple times now.

        That means you’re not running her enough! 🙂

  • Paul

    I take exception to your conclusion that “In the end all we have are opinions and gray areas and individual judgement calls”. Having chosen Applied Behavior Analysis for my graduate education, your conclusion regarding attempts to modify human behavior sounds too much like that old anti-Darwinist escape route. I’ll admit, though, that the science of psychology is infantile compared to the science of evolution.

    Here is an interesting way to look at it. What if you wanted to create a nighttime crying baby? Would it be hard? How would you do it? It is well proven that the hardest behavior to extinguish is that behavior receiving an intermittent variable reinforcement schedule. A program designed to accomplish a goal – let’s say three successive nights of 4-hour crying with no silence lasting longer than 10 seconds – would use a VI (variable interval) schedule. The time interval between each episode of entering the room and touching the baby might start at 3 minutes of crying, then 10, then 4, 13, 9, 16, 1, 24, 13, 20, 7, 35, etc. Maintaining pseudo-randomness, the average interval rises slowly. Piece of cake for a B. Mod graduate student, excluding the mild ethical problem 🙂

  • I’m not oblivious to the humorous tone of your post, but I won’t let that stop me from offering this tin-eared response.

    With a few possible exceptions, your reaction to almost anyone else screaming in your house for no apparent reason would be anger, annoyance, maybe some cursing…. So why are you having these anxious parent feelings about your daughter? The problem is not that you don’t know what to do for her. The problem is that she hasn’t learned to shut the hell up.

    I don’t mean to overdo the de-romanticizing of parenthood, but your kid is basically a guest in your house. All other things being equal, she should probably be the most welcome, best integrated guest you will ever have. But your life belongs to you, not her. Down with the tyranny of infancy! I will not be ruled by anyone who regularly poops her pants! (Or, in my case, anyone who fails to draw a critical distinction between My Little Pony cartoons and war-era Looney Tunes.)