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Cry it out, also known as sleep training or extinction method is a strategy to get a baby to sleep without the parent’s having to intervene (or intervene less). It is typically used with babies as this is when their sleep cycles are at their shortest and generally, sleeping improved over time with or without this method.
Most parents will have probably moved on from cry it out by two years of age, or may never have tried it but are considering it now thanks to a change in bed time behaviour.
Some parents may find that their toddler’s sleep may regress at some point, typically when they’re going through a new life change such as a new sibling, a change of school, moving house and so on. Regression can mean a battle to get them to sleep, broken sleep (waking up and not soothing back) with lots of crying (hence cry-it-out).
Our first born son went through some changes when our daughter was born (he was 2 at the time) which included a trickier bed time, although this period did not last too long.
Two years old is a common age for this to happen and for parents to either revisit or start cry it out for the first time.
This article looks doesn’t just look at whether or not you should leave your two year old to cry it out but what could be the underlying cause and perhaps alternatives to this authoritarian method.
Examine the reasons why their sleep has regressed
There is a big difference between a baby and a two year old, but not so big of a difference that a toddler can suddenly think and feel like an adult.
We would recommend, before doing any sort of sleep training, to look for the reason why their sleep at 2 years old has somehow gone backwards. Generally, by the age of 2 their sleep is significantly better than what it used to be so for them to regress there may be a cause.
When our son’s sister was born his potty training went down hill, despite it appearing like he was used to the new addition. He was completely overwhelmed and it manifested in this behaviour. After some support and of course time, he was able to recover and is now back to being potty trained. He wasn’t acting out, he wasn’t naughty he simply could not control his emotions like we can.
His sleep was also interrupted and there were more wakings and bad tempers than before.
Here’s some examples of other things which can lead to behaviour regression
- A new sibling has entered the family dynamic
- You have recently moved house or they have moved schools
- They’ve recently started pre-school or childminding
- A bereavement
- A change in the family dynamic (divorce etc)
- You are having a tough time and they are picking up on this
Not enough parents and parental forums treat children with the respect that they need. Belly Belly agree with their statement that children are not being “naughty” but normal – it is totally normal behaviour for a two year old to be struggling with trauma which affects their sleep. There is no need to jump to the conclusion that your two year old needs to be left to cry it out.
We’ve seen comments on Netmums and Mumsnet where users are berating their children for “acting up”, “being naughty” or simply “trying to push our buttons”. Children are not capable of doing things like this and are incorrectly labelled with the actual cause of this behaviour untreated and ignored.
This ends up with the reality that children may be left to cry it out, a sort of punishment for just being normal.
Sadly, children’s feelings are still being ignored despite the leaps in child psychology studies. If you, as an adult, have recently suffered a bereavement and you are so upset you can’t sleep are you being naughty or are you simply in need of some comfort.
So, first of all and perhaps most important of all – consider what changes have happened recently and address them – this is more likely to improve your 2 year old child’s sleep than leaving them to cry.
Two year old crying at bed time – what do they want?
Despite what anyone may think, a two year old crying for attention and comfort is nothing any more complicated than that, they are craving to be consoled. They are not being naughty or pushing your buttons or anything like that. They are just too young to think in that way.
They are incapable of self-soothing and to a larger extent they lack the capability of managing big emotions, therefore they need YOUR help to do it. As Raised Good puts it:
Because self soothing is a physical impossibility for babies and young children. The skill of self soothing is referring to the ability to regulate one’s own emotions; a developmental milestone that can’t be rushed. The last part of the brain to mature is the neocortex; it is the rational or analytical part of our brain that enables us to assess a situation and mediate our response.Raised Good
Bed time is quite stressful for children, and feeling alone and abandoned is worse so.
When your two year old is crying at bed time, there is a reason for it and they need some comfort from their parents to deal with it. If this need is not met, they will continue to cry until exhaustion and eventually they may learn to not cry at all because they know comfort is not coming.
Sadly, some may believe that this crying to exhaustion and then a lack of attempts in the future is called self-soothing but it is actually them giving up hope that comfort is coming.
They have learned to stop crying out for their cry-it-out parents because it will not work. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls it ‘toxic stress’.
As a result, throughout infancy and toddlerhood, the brain relies on “co-regulation” – the aid of a soothing caregiver – to calm down.BBC
And lastly, studies have shown that children are unable to regulate their emotions until they are 8 or 9, and even then it is low. At the age of 2-3 it is practically non existent.
When it comes to emotion regulation, the ability to regulate big emotions is largely dependent on your child’s age and development. Before a child reaches 24 months and sometimes even as old as 36 months, their ability to inhibit behavior is typically low.Eisenberg N, Sulik MJ
Should you do cry it out with a two year old?
Parents should do whatever works for them based on evidence and often gut feeling, generally the right answer will come to them. But, it is not always that easy – some parents may work very early mornings, others simply do not want to bed share.
But, before you decide whether you should, consider that your two year old can’t regulate their own emotions and if they are left to cry it out they are not “becoming resilient” they are simply stewing in their own sadness.
There are three schools of parenting and you could ask 100 different parents what they think you should do with your crying two year old. Here are three different answers based on these schools:
An authoritarian parent would more than likely suggest cry it out and not intervene with their crying. Letting them cry it out is an authoritarian act and you other parents who have done cry it out will likely tell you it worked wonders and they got the sleep they needed in the short term.
In the context of a two year old you can imagine what bed time must be like for them.
Rules are strict, with no room for interpretation, compromise, or discussion. Punishments for violating rules are severe. In this kind of household, children are rarely given a say in their own lives and are expected instead to obey whatever they’re told to do without question.Jessup.edu
An authoritative parent is unlikely to suggest cry it out but they may suggest some form of balance such as cuddling them back to sleep but then leaving the room. The parent is responsive but not to the point that they let them dictate bedtime.
An authoritative parent may ensure the two year old is in their own bed, goes to bed at a specific time but unlikely to allow them to cry it out for any longer than it takes to get back to their room.
In this parenting style, the parents are nurturing, responsive, and supportive, yet set firm limits for their children. They attempt to control children’s behavior by explaining rules, discussing, and reasoning. They listen to a child’s viewpoint but don’t always accept it.American Psychological Association
Permissive parents would allow children to sleep anywhere they want which includes your bed. Their home would be set up in such a way that there wouldn’t even be a chance for them to cry it out as they could freely come and find comfort. Permissive parents are on the opposite side of the spectrum but not necessarily the best as children learn much better with boundaries, in our opinion.
A permissive parent would likely suggest to you to let them go to bed whenever and be able to come into your bed as they please if they feel anxious. This is not for everyone.
Permissive parenting, sometimes called “indulgent parenting,” is a style of child-rearing that features two key traits: being nurturing and warm (which is good for kids), and being reluctant to impose limits (which is problematic).Parenting Science
Cry it out seems a measure for parents who are desperately in need of sleep and their evenings to themselves, there is no benefit to the child as we’ve already concluded that self-soothing is not possible at two years of age and can harm them in the long run (Harvard).
Parents should instead look at the causes of the sleep regression and address them and provide the comfort that they are literally crying out for.
If you are an authoritarian parent, who lays down the law and enforces them then cry it out seems to be the only choice out there, if you are unwilling to meet your child’s needs at bed time then the result will be lots of tears. They will eventually fall asleep and if you are committed enough then they will eventually give up crying altogether but it would be an injustice to label this as self-soothing.
Going the opposite way of comfort on demand with the authoritative and permissive parents, though, is exhausting, and quite often really stressful. But, it is in the benefit of the child to have a parent who is responsive.
Do what you feel is best
You should always do what feels best for the family dynamic, in most cases. If responding to them at all times feels right, do it, if you are simply unable to function and work as a result then try a different approach.
If your family depends on your having the sleep that you need to keep everything going, no one is going to judge you for leaving your two year old to cry it out.
It is easy for anyone to judge – stay at home mums and dads are more capable of comforting a crying two year old on demand. Yet, consider a single parent working full time who is turning to sleep training their two year old – who would blame them? Not us.