The Truth About The Cry It Out Method

What Is CIO?

Cry it out or CIO is a sleep training method. It's basically as it sounds, you let your baby cry until they fall asleep. This sounds rather cruel, but when you are a tired mom, you will literally try anything just to get some sleep, so it is easy to see why this method would appeal to some.

Besides sounding cruel, is there any harm to the CIO method? Well, that's just it, the science and research behind this method are just not there. Google would tell you otherwise, as you will find tons of articles on this method. The kicker, it's split about 50/50, half of the articles will say it's harmful and half of the articles will say it isn't.

Here is just a list of some articles I found to give you an idea of how varying the information is on the CIO method:

Gentle Parenting & CIO

Gentle parenting or positive parenting is a relatively new idea and thus it's definition tends to vary depending on who you ask. However, the basic idea is that instead of punishment and rewards, you focus on meeting your child's needs and work together to find a solution. By that definition, CIO does not fit into gentle parenting because you are ignoring your child's needs as you are just letting them cry.

Most advocates of gentle parenting are strongly against CIO. Some even called out other positive parenting leaders: Lisa Sunbury, and Janet Lansbury, for encouraging CIO.

I am very pro-Science, so it's hard for me to just outright say CIO is bad, as there just aren't enough studies out there to prove one way or the other. Yes, studies do exist, but for every one study that says it is harmful, another says it isn't. The sample sizes are also so small that it makes many of the studies inconclusive. Plus it is hard to get accurate data on CIO as it would be unethical to divide up babies and be like okay use CIO on this half and don't use CIO on this half, so a lot of it is based on asking the parents what they did, which isn't always reliable.

To date, no studies of CIO have employed objective, observational assessments of changes in infant, caretaker, or dyadic behavior, or biobehavioral outcomes. (source)

However, spanking used to be a common form of discipline and as someone who was spanked and now suffers from long-term, effects of that trauma, it's very hard for me to say CIO isn't damaging or harmful. After all, spanking was treated the same way until studies began being done, and now it's proven to be harmful that countries have even banned the practice and consider it child abuse. This info came too late for me, but not too late for my child. You can read my post on the harmful effects of spanking here. 

In the absence of adequate data on the effects of prolonged crying and extinction on infants, the safety of CIO in the first year cannot be supported. (source

For that reason, I don't think CIO can be ruled out as "safe." I think a lot of people like to think "because it's not proven unsafe, I'll do it," basically the same principle as"innocent until proven guilty," which I think is the wrong mindset when it comes to a lot of things, especially parenting as you are helping shape the mind of a person.

Depression, anxiety, etc, all start in our childhood. Young minds are so impressionable and once conditioned, they are very hard to change. My therapist was honest with me and said I would likely always have anxiety. Yes, I can find ways to help lessen it, but at this point, it's unlikely for me to completely free myself from it as my brain has already been conditioned to react in this way. So it wouldn't surprise me if later on, more studies start showing that CIO leads to mental health or behavioral issues later on in teens and adults. After all, they've proven that spanking does. 

As a gentle parent myself, we found a middle ground as we needed our sleep as well and we didn't feel safe bed-sharing (The AAP does not recommend bed-sharing). Now if it turns out that what we did is later proven to be harmful, I would not advocate for this method at all (unlike many pro-spankers who choose to ignore science). 

When our daughter started having trouble going down on her own, thinking it was a case of separation anxiety, we turned to Google and found what was called a "Gentle CIO Method."

What is the Gentle CIO Method?

Basically, you lay your baby down and if he or she cries, you wait a short amount of time (we did 5 mins). If crying hasn't stopped then, you go in, and rock or hold him or her until they calm down, basically reassuring your child that you will come for them if needed, and then try again. 

In the beginning, this repetition would last a couple hours, but eventually, the amount of time we had to check on her would go down and it eventually got to the point where she didn't cry at all when we laid her in the crib. At one point she started hating being rocked at all and would point to her crib after story time because she just wanted to go straight to bed. 

I think this method gave her the confidence that if she really needed us, we would come, and helped ease her anxiety.

(We were blessed with a fairly easy sleeper. We rocked her to sleep a lot in the beginning before laying her down in her crib. At first I sang lullabies to her, but eventually, we brought the CD player into her room and started playing lullaby CDs (you can my list of recommendations here).

Eventually, she just started needing to be rocked less and would go down on her own. She slept through the night from 4 months (of course there were some nights where she woke up in the middle and needed us, but it maybe lasted a few days or a week at most). It actually wasn't until maybe 9 months when she started having trouble going down on her own, most likely a sleep regression phase, so that's when we started the gentle CIO method.)

What about other methods?

I know many gentle parenting leaders recommend bed-sharing if your child is struggling with sleeping on their own, but I have heard too many horror stories and my anxiety would not let me risk it, especially in our American bed. Bed sharing advocates like to bring up Japan as an example, but the way they sleep is extremely different from how we sleep, so our daughter slept in a bassinet by our bed (co-sleeping) for the first 3 months and then transitioned to a crib in her room. I would have loved to keep her in our room longer, but we had no space for a crib or pack n play. Luckily her room is right next to ours and our walls aren't soundproof. We also had a video monitor with sound.

There was a short while when she was 19/20 months where she started crying again before bed and we did try to bring her into our bed, as at that point it's pretty safe, but she would not sleep at all. She would just sit and stare, probably because she wasn't used to sleeping in our bed, so the whole, bring them to bed with you may not work if your child is already used to sleeping on their own. So it was back to the gentle CIO method. Luckily it didn't take as long as in the beginning, some nights she passed out right away in my arms and I could quickly lay her down and sneak away without any crying at all!

The Takeaway

Though there isn't substantial evidence that CIO is harmful, I still would not recommend it and it definitely wouldn't be considered a gentle parenting technique. I think if you are struggling with getting your baby to sleep, Gentle CIO is a better way to go, as you are still checking on your child and you are letting him or her know you will come when they cry. 


I know the PDF I sourced about how there are no adequate studies is from 2006, but in my research, I couldn't find anything recent that was adequate as well. A lot of the new studies have very small sample sizes, which was a problem with past studies. If you know of any current studies please feel free to send them to me here.