How I accidentally CIO-ed my son

_english baby sleep cio cry-it-out extinction ferberizing sleep coaching sleep training Jan 25, 2021

Let me tell you how I accidentally sleep trained my son when he was about 10 months old. It seems that CIO (cry-it-out) sometimes just happens...


Hello everyone. It's Anna. Thank you so much for tuning in today. You are listening to The Baby Sleep Project Show — the place to learn about baby sleep and sleep coaching.

Today, I would like to take a break from answering my listeners' questions, and I would like to tell you a personal story instead. The story is about how I accidentally CIO-ed my son. So, CIO or cry-it-out is a sleep training technique. It is also called standard or unmodified extinction, and sometimes ferberizing.

The technique is basically putting your baby in the crib and then leave them there and let them cry if they want to cry, and let them fall asleep independently. All this, obviously, after creating the right environment and making sure that your baby is, in fact, sleepy at that moment.

The idea behind this sleep training technique is that children will learn to self-settle or self-soothe when we let them try. Obviously, it is very controversial. Opponents of this technique say that it is basically neglect and it is damaging to children, causing long-term stress. It might cause problems with bonding and trust in general.

Others say that it is fine, it doesn't course any harm, and sometimes it is the only way to teach children to fall asleep independently.

I will not go into this debate today, but I have noticed that the most common question before parents buy a sleep coaching program is, "Is it just CIO?" or, "Do you encourage or allow CIO?" And the motivation behind asking these questions is that some parents will not, or wouldn't buy a program that involves CIO; while others would like to do CIO and they are afraid that their sleep coach will not allow that.

If you ask me, you know, that I am quite impartial when it comes to different sleep training techniques. In fact, I tried to describe all the well-known sleep training techniques in my book, including CIO.

My philosophy is that I teach you what you need to know about sleep coaching and sleep training. And I will also teach you how to choose between the different methods so that you can choose the one that best suits your personality, parenting principles, and your unique situation.

I even encourage mix and match because that's what happens most of the time anyway. If you ask any parent who have sleep-coached or sleep-trained their kids, you will realize that most of them will not stick to one particular sleep training method, but they will do a mix of the methods that they liked.

Personally, I never try to convince anyone to do CIO, but this is mainly because many times, parents regret it, especially if it was not their own idea, and that can lead to parents feeling guilty. But I don't think that it is damaging to babies — not in general, anyway.

You know that first and foremost I am a scientist: I have a PhD in theoretical biology. So, of course, I have read the scientific literature behind CIO. Well, let me tell you that I did not find those papers convincing that concluded that CIO harms babies. In fact, I have read several other papers that showed that years later, there were no difference between babies who experienced CIO and those who did not.

So that means that CIO didn't really cause any behavioral problems or attachment problems with the parents. I would be happy to talk about the scientific evidence in a later episode, but today, I would just like to tell you my personal story with CIO.

The story starts when my son was about nine or 10 months old. It was around the time when we transferred him from our room to his sister's room.

So he used to sleep in our room in a baby bay that was attached to our bad, but he outgrew it and his crib didn't fit into our bedroom. With both my kids, I tried to stick to the recommendations, which is that the baby should sleep in your room until 12 months of age. But my son was quite big for his age and outgrew the baby bay.

So I thought that this is the right time to move him to his sister's room. He was always a relatively good sleeper, but at that point, at 10 months of age, he still woke up once or twice per night for breastfeeding. And he didn't fall asleep independently most evenings.

Of course, I tried to put him to bed drowsy but awake, and sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn't. Sometimes he protested, he would start to cry and then I would just rock him to sleep and put him to bed while he was already asleep.

And it was fine for me because it usually didn't take long for him to fall asleep in the evenings, and also waking up in the middle of the night, once or twice — usually, it was just once — I didn't mind it because he just breastfed for 10 minutes and then he fell asleep very quickly afterwards. So it didn't cause any problems. His schedule was great.

At that point, my main concern was that he adapts well to the new room and I wasn't thinking about sleep training at all. So one day I was at home with my two kids. My husband was working late, so he was not there. My daughter was four years old and my son was 10 months old as I already told you.

I used to put my son to bed earlier than my daughter. Usually, when I was alone with the kids, first, I breastfed my son, then I rocked him to sleep, put him in his crib, and then I attended to my daughter. I got her ready for bed. I told her a story in the living room and then we sneaked into the kids' room where my daughter went to bed. And she fell asleep alone.

So on that day, I tried to do the same. I tried to put my son to bed after breastfeeding. He was already quite drowsy, but he started crying. So I started to rock him just as usual, but I was only rocking him for like one or two minutes and he was still awake when my daughter called me because she needed help on the toilet and it was quite urgent.

I quickly put my son into the crib. He started crying. I ran out of the room to help my daughter. I had to help her all the way until she finished because we couldn't find the potty seat or the toilet adapter. So I had to hold her and it took longer than I expected. So I was stuck in the bathroom with my daughter, helping her. Meanwhile, my son was crying in the kids' room in his bed.

I shouted like, "I'm coming! Just a minute!" a few times, but obviously he didn't stop crying just because of that. I couldn't do anything about that. After my daughter finished on the toilet, I ran into the kids' room. I peeked into the crib and I found my son completely quiet, almost sleeping, sucking his finger. He didn't see me, so I sneaked out of the room. And I realized that that was by definition CIO.

So I put my son to bed. He cried until he wanted to, and then he self-soothed, stopped crying, and self-settled because, later, he fell asleep independently. So that was, by definition, CIO. It didn't take long. It was like eight, maximum 10 minutes, I think, and that was it.

I was a bit confused because I thought that if I wanted to sleep-train my son, especially if I chose CIO, that would be a conscious choice. Honestly, I probably would have chosen some more gradual methods. Personally, I'm leaning more towards attachment parenting within reason than towards the parent-led approach. So I breastfed on demand, did a lot of skin to skin when they were little, I carried my babies, et cetera. But this was CIO, and hey, that's life.

This happened; I was a bit confused what to feel about this. So the next night I thought that if it happened yesterday, I might as well do it again today. If it already happened, why ruin the results by taking one step back? So I tried to do the same thing again. I put my son into his crib drowsy but awake, and it worked beautifully. He didn't cry at all. He just sucked his finger and went to sleep independently.

I don't really remember when he stopped waking up in the middle of the night, whether it was that night or maybe a few days later, but it was around that time. So that was it. That was sleep training my son.

So, do I think it caused any harm? Did it change my son's behavior? Not a bit. I didn't see any changes in his behavior then, and if I think about him right now, now he is three years old, and he is as confident and strong-willed as a three-year-old can be. Did he learn that he cannot rely on us or trust us to fulfill his needs? I'm really sure that he did not; not even about sleeping.

In fact, when he started to have nighttime fears — it was like a few months after his third birthday — and he started to be afraid of the dark, he started to refuse to fall asleep alone. So now one of us have to sit in the kids' room until he falls asleep, even though he is in the same room with his sister. And when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he climbs into our bed, every single night.

So he falls asleep, kind of with our help. We are in the room reading or working on our laptop, but we are still there, and we co-sleep with him for the second half of the night. So I don't think that his expectations lowered or that CIO ruined something for life.

In fact, you can see that CIO and sleep training in general is not one and done. So it's not like you do it once and then your kids sleep independently for the rest of their lives. I realize that CIO was very quick and painless for him. It only involved a maximum 10 minutes of crying, and that for many babies, it takes much longer and it involves a lot more crying.

But I have also heard from many parents that they were surprised because it took so much less time and so much less crying than what they expected. So I just wanted to tell you this personal anecdote about my CIO experience, which is part of the reason why I am not against CIO. Still, the main reason is the scientific evidence, and if you would like to hear about that in a later episode, subscribe, so you don't miss it because I will come back to that.