It seems to me that today’s approach to children often fails to take into account the wishes of the children. The flora of literature and articles dealing with methods to get your child to fall asleep as easily and quickly as possible is symptomatic. If parents saw their children’s needs as being as important and legitimate as their own, we would see a completely different discourse. We would ask other questions and be offered different advice. Even when “How do I help my child fall asleep?” would be the right question, many experts of today present doubtful, indeed directly suspicious, guidance. Among the more dreadful advice, the Cry It Out method stands out as a painfully sad example of how children’s needs take the back seat.
New parents are almost as vulnerable as newborns. The contrast to life before the child couldn’t be starker. You used to have responsibility only for yourself. Now another person’s life, wellbeing, and destiny is in your hands. Now another being is relying on you. Someone whom you love more strongly and completely than anything you have ever experienced, more than anything you could possibly have imagined. With this responsibility and overwhelming love comes a strong and devastating worry. We are simultaneously complete beginners, head over heels in love, and trembling with anxiety. This makes us perfect targets for advice that goes against our instincts.
I remember this uncomfortably clearly, from when our first child was newly born. This was at a time when not only was I a novice as a parent, I also still carried a lot of my reverence to authority and its messengers.
Our newborn daughter had an aversion to sleep. It was making our existence quite unbearable, probably in large part because our expectations on life with a new family member were unrealistic and unproductive, but it’s a bit late to realise that now. Exhausted and devoid of ideas about what to do, my wife and I turned to the communal child care centre, where our nurse suggested, you guessed it, Cry It Out. (Or, actually, a method very similar to this, termed ‘femminutersmetoden’, the five-minute method.)1
In brief, the method involves the parents creating a routine where the baby is put to bed and has company for a short while. Then the parent says that it is time to sleep and leaves the room. No matter how strongly the child protests and shows that it does not like to be abandoned, the parent shall ignore this and only every fifth minute should she enter the room and, without touching the baby, repeat that it is time to sleep and leave the room again. The inventor of the method, the paediatrician Berndt Eckerberg, has said2:
“The child will probably protest strongly by crying, and this is where our parental instinct kicks in.”3
“The instinct tells us to walk in and comfort the child, but by touching the child you ‘reward’ it.”
Yes, you read that correctly, you should suppress your parental instincts! This thing with ignoring the child’s screams and tears is what has given this family of methods the name Cry It Out in the Anglo-Saxon world, where, sadly, methods like this are more common than they are in Sweden. Equally sadly, it is more common in these countries to use violence against children when teaching them about right and wrong.
According to Eckerberg, this method is completely harmless to the children. But how could such a method not cause harm to the child?
The baby knows that mummy and daddy should be with her and give her the closeness, connection and comfort that she needs. The parent is the child’s whole world; the only one she can turn to when she is hurting, or is scared or worried. Without the parent, the child is helpless in the true sense of that word. The child knows this. But there are a lot of things that a child cannot know. For example, when the parent leaves the child’s field of vision, will the parent come back or is the child abandoned forever? The child’s existence can shift from feeling totally safe to being in utter despair from anxiety in a very short time.
Being humans we can use our empathy to understand how other human beings work. And since children are humans we can understand them by imagining ourselves in their situation. Let’s use this tool, our empathy, to examine how a child experiences Cry It Out.
Imagine that you are the baby whose mother puts you down in your bed.
You are overwhelmingly happy, high from your mother’s scent, the warmth of her body, and the smoothness of her skin. You beam at her, coo and expectantly try to lure her down to lie down close to you. When your mother leaves the room you are still happy, you think she will be right back. Even so, you look around you, searching for her. You see your stuffed animals in your bed, colourful toys on the shelf on the wall on the other side of the room. A pile of books. But wherever you search with your eyes and senses you do not find your mother.
A sense of discomfort quickly creeps up on you. You start to wail and whine. That usually brings your mother back to you, calming you with her hands or her face.
Not this time.
You start to cry. Increasingly loudly you cry. Panic grips you, and after a while you are screaming as strongly as your small lungs and throat can muster. Until you are exhausted and can’t bear to scream for a short while. You search the room for your mother again. She is not there! Your panic rises until you find the strength to start screaming and crying again. You scream for an eternity, with ever-rising and all-consuming anguish.
Then, in some way that you can’t understand, your mother is suddenly there! Your relief knows no bounds. She will pick you up. She will put your cheek against her neck and caress you, running her hands over your back. You will feel her breasts, hands and arms, supporting and enclosing you.
Your mother says something. It is probably about all those wonderful things you have just envisioned, and are longing to happen.
Then mum is not there.
You instantly enter full panic. The feeling of being abandoned is new and the most terrifying thing you have ever experienced. All you can do is scream at the maximum capacity of your lungs. Cry, sob, whimper. Then scream again. Even louder this time, even more heartbreaking, even more anguished, even though no one could have believed there was another level.
The cries are from a human being suffering from unbelievable existential anguish. We can know this since we too are humans, which makes it possible, even easy, to understand other humans in distress.
The way Cry It Out is designed, the child can be in this state of bottomless emotional pain and unspeakable terror for very long.
“On average the child cries for about half an hour. The second night this time will be half of that, and within a week the child usually will have learnt to fall asleep all alone without protesting.”
Half an hour! On average!
As I remember things, I did not let my daughter cry for that long. Yes, now it is time for me to confess this horrible thing to you; I put my baby daughter through this! Of course we were two, but I saw myself as the ‘tougher’ of us two parents and took it on myself to be the one to carry it through. I can still feel the cold sweat break out when recalling this memory. She screamed and cried and protested. Called me. Pleaded to me. Appealed. Begged. Despite all this I did not go to her. I didn’t pick her up. Despite all her protesting and begging I did not put her to my chest and caress her. I am her dad. It was my one and only duty in that situation. To be there for my daughter. To be her safe and most reliable platform in her reality. I let her down. Most of all I just want to forget that this ever happened.
In my weak defence, I offer that I did pick her up and that I gave in that first night. And the second night I aborted the whole disgusting endeavour at her first cry when I left the room. Her cries had me and my wife crying as loudly as our daughter was crying. Still, this is an insane thing to put your child through. The excuse that “authorities gave me the advice” seems utterly lame to me today. I pray and wish that I have managed to repair the mistrust I created in her towards me those two nights. Of course I haven’t put my other children through anything like this.
Now, the child does learn to get to sleep on her own, exactly like the method and its advocates promise it will. This might very well be true! I did not investigate that myself, but I find it easy to believe those who tell us that it works. I just do not buy that it works the way it is described. Let’s employ our superpower of being human beings, able to put ourselves in the shoes of other human beings, and we might discover what really happens: How would you react if you were exposed to a treatment like this one?
You would probably deduce that the person you trusted in is not trustworthy.
I think that the reason this method ‘works’ is because the child gives up. She is forced to reevaluate her parents. They are not always there for her. She cannot trust them fully. The child learns to give herself comfort. That thought is dizzying, but in a world where children’s needs are subordinate to those of adults, this is to be totally expected. Unbelievably many children are forced to learn how to give themselves comfort, despite the fact that they are living with their parents. Parents who in plain ignorance deny their children their closeness and their comfort. Their fathership. Their mothership.
For the parent who can ignore their instincts for long enough, this method can probably teach their children to go to sleep ‘in time’, and without waking up all that often during the nights. However, the price is a rift in the child’s trust in their parent. An insane and ridiculously high price for something rather unnecessary.
In fact, a lot of children do not need bedtime routines or help to fall asleep on their own. If you have nice children it is totally fine if they are up and around you into the evening, even quite late. Different children have completely different sleep cycles. I see this very clearly with our own children. Our sons go to bed reasonably early, while our daughters prefer to stay up late and sleep longer in the morning instead. They decide this for themselves. I call it bedtime anarchy. I do not propose it works for all families, but it certainly works for ours. Uncountable are the unnecessary conflicts that we are automatically not engaged in.
If the children’s need is our guide we need to stop listening to authorities and start listening to our parental instincts. Is your child crying? Go to her! Go to her a thousand times! Pick her up in your arms. Rock her and sing to her. Kiss her forehead and her nose. Caress her cheek. Let her fall asleep on your body if that is what she wants. Let her sleep close to you all night. This can lead to poorer sleep for you for several years. But you will have it back. Everything, big or small, that you can do to keep your child’s trust in you unbroken is worth any sacrifice it might demand. So many parents live with permanent agonising regrets for having put their babies through the Cry It Out method. You can’t undo what is done.
As far as sacrifices go, you will probably soon notice that if your child gets to be in control of her own bedtime situation, she will quickly grow to meet that responsibility in a way that will make the evenings pleasant for the whole family.
For someone to develop in security and with trust in her surroundings, the single most important period for every human being is when the individual and her bond to others are formed. That is, our baby years and earliest childhood. Stable individuals form harmonious families, which in turn is the prerequisite for a secure and pleasant society.
By trusting your parental instincts you are contributing to a good society with stable, secure and strong individuals who have their trust and self-esteem intact. It is in all our interest that the needs of our children is what sets the priorities of us adults.
1. The paedatrician, Berndt Eckerberg developed this method during the 1970s and 80s, together with his wife Britta Eckerber, child psychologist, and Gustaf Högberg, paediatrician. The study has been published in English as Acta Pædiatrica 2002; 91: 952-959
This method is known as the Ferber method in the English-speaking world, and there it is said to have been invented by Richard Ferber, whose book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, was published in 1985.
2. From Vi Föräldrar, The Five Minute Method, first published in Vi Föräldrar’s The Baby Book, 2005. In this article Eckerberg also says, on the subject of whether the method would cause harm to children: “In any case, the child needs rested parents more than it needs comfort while falling asleep.”
3. Translations by Peter Strömberg.
Peter Strömberg, 2022, ‘Instead of Cry It Out, try bedtime anarchy’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/instead-of-cry-it-out-try-bedtime-anarchy