I think one of the reasons that so many people are uncomfortable with crying during sleep training and specifically cry-it-out (CIO) methods of sleep training is because they are unfamiliar with the parameters of letting a child CIO. Leaving a child in her crib all day long or even for several hours in hopes of getting her to nap is simply awful, so if someone thinks that's how CIO works, I don't blame them for being against it!
However, we also have to give the child a fighting chance to fall asleep, and 5-10 minutes is simply not enough time for most babies to learn the skills of falling asleep and self-soothing on their own for the first time.
At bedtime, you leave your child (using your chosen training method) as long as it takes her to fall asleep. Babies and children have the most sleep pressure at bedtime, so hopefully that means the crying won't last too long (though some babies definitely put up a long, hard fight!). However, at naptime, there are specific constraints on the crying period. I suggest using what I call Crib 60 and Crib 90.
When a baby takes two or more naps, I recommend leaving Baby in her crib for at least 60 minutes for her first two naps. No matter the training method you choose (chair method, timed checks, or extinction), Crib 60 is applicable.
- If Baby never falls asleep (or sleeps fewer than 10 minutes), get her up 60 minutes after putting her down. When the 60 minutes are up, go into her room (if you are using the chair method, first leave the room for a minute or two before returning) and cheerfully announce, "Good morning!" or "Nap time is over!" Let Baby know that you are getting her out of bed because nap time is over, not because you're giving in to her protests.
- If Baby falls asleep for longer than 10 minutes, Crib 60 begins when she falls asleep. This means if she falls asleep but wakes after 33 minutes (like my daughter did for four solid months before I worked with a sleep consultant), she still has 27 minutes left in her crib. Hopefully she'll find a way to return to sleep in what's left of Crib 60 so that she can get a long enough nap in. But if she doesn't return to sleep, she's at least gotten more rest from visual stimulation (at least if her room is dark enough).
- If Baby sleeps 60+ minutes, that is considered a full nap. At this point, I advise waiting 10 minutes before going in to get her up. These 10 minutes give Baby the opportunity to go back to sleep if she wasn't quite done sleeping yet, and they also teach Baby to wake happily and wait contentedly for Mom or Dad to come get her. Plus, they're really handy for a parent who's trying to finish something up real quick! Win-win-win!
- Crib 60 does not mean that you get baby out of the crib after 60 minutes no matter what -- if Baby is sleeping, let her sleep! But if Baby is awake at the 60 minute point (either from laying her down or from her falling asleep), get her out of her crib.
The third nap, for ages 4 months to 7-9 months, is usually more of a cat nap (30-45 minutes) to help carry Baby to bedtime. Crib 60 is not necessary for this nap, so instead just use the 10-minute rule described above.
When Baby makes the big transition to just one nap, Crib 60 becomes Crib 90. As she only gets one chance to take a nap, we want to make sure to give her plenty of time. The parameters are not exactly the same though, so read carefully.
- If Baby never falls asleep (or sleeps fewer than 10 minutes), get her up 90 minutes after putting her down. When the 90 minutes are up, go into her room (if you are using the chair method, first leave the room for a minute or two before returning) and cheerfully announce, "Good morning!" or "Nap time is over!" Let Baby know that you are getting her out of bed because nap time is over, not because you're giving in to her protests.
- If Baby falls asleep for 10-50 minutes, Crib 90 still begins when you lay her down. So if she takes 23 minutes to fall asleep and then sleeps for 41 minutes, you can leave her in her crib for an additional 26 minutes to complete Crib 90. She still has a chance to return to sleep, and she still gets a 90 minute break from visual stimulation (if her room is dark enough).
- If Baby sleeps 60+ minutes, you can go ahead and just follow the 10-minute rule. As I said above, 60+ minutes is considered a full nap, so if that's all she takes, that may be all she needs that day. However, if she seems to be doing okay in her crib and you want to leave her for the full 90 minutes, that's fine, too.
- Crib 90 does not mean that you get baby out of the crib after 90 minutes no matter what -- if Baby is sleeping, let her sleep! But if Baby is awake at the 90 minute point, get her out of her crib.
Children drop naps completely between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, and at that time, I advise replacing nap time with quiet time. Quiet time should be at least 45 minutes, but children who are accustomed to using Crib 90 may continue to do well with 90 full minutes of quiet time. You can judge how much quiet time your child needs by how she acts between quiet time and bedtime. If she is often throwing tantrums and having meltdowns, try a longer quiet time.
Crib 60 (and Crib 90) is great for babies and parents alike -- it gives Baby plenty of opportunity to take the sleep and/or rest she needs, and it gives parents a solid 60-minute break. It's so important for parents to have breaks they can count on; I can attest to the stress that accompanies worrying about whether a nap will be short or long, so I find knowing that you'll get a long break either way to be very helpful. So go enjoy your 60-90 minutes of freedom at nap time today!