Seriously, How Long Can a Toddler Cry For?

Health & Wellness on 09.30.11
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Photo: Scott Woods-Fehr/Creative Commons

Oh dear. Am I really the same person who wrote that the terrible twos are awesome?

For the last week, my wife and I have been experiencing a serious dose of sleep deprevation thanks to our beautiful daughter Lilia (who happens to turn two today!). Having never been the strongest of sleepers, for the last 6 months or so she has been more-or-less sleeping through the night. Given the importance of sleep for children's development, well-being and even academic performance, we've always wanted to teach her good sleeping habits. So we were more than a little relieved.

Then we took a beach trip. And the new surroundings had her waking up in confusion.

On our return, we found that Lilia now wakes up around midnight, and will do anything (and I do mean anything!) not to go back to bed. We've had screaming tantrums; we've had pleading for hugs (who can resist that particular number!); and we've had the sudden urge to go potty - followed by a long bout of doing not very much on her potty chair. One night she was up for nearly 3 and a half hours before finally passing out exhausted.

Having co-slept for the first 9 months or so, and having always been fairly hands-on in our parenting, the idea of letting her "cry it out" has been a tough one for us. But as she gets older, and clearly demonstrates that free will that I raved about in my post about the terrible twos, it becomes increasingly clear to me that certain crys are less about distress, and more about strategy. We're not quite at the levels of this hillarious overdramatic toddler episode yet, but I can see the warning signs.

So sometimes we now let her cry.

Being the touchy feely parents we are (for better or worse), we never let her cry for more than 20 minutes or so before going in and assuring her that we are nearby, only to hear the wailing start up again as soon as we step out of the room. Bu,t low-and-behold, each night the crying (and bargaining) has gotten progressively shorter, and last night she finally slept through the night once more.

But leaving aside the heart-breaking experience of hearing your little one repeatedly wailing your name in the next room; and the simply irritating fact that as long as she doesn't sleep, nobody sleeps; this all got me wondering about the pure mechanics of crying - how long can a toddler actually cry for? And how long should we let do it?

A quick Google search pulls up many opinions and anecdotes, but very few facts. I'd love to hear from parents on their thoughts on the matter. And I'd also love to know if there is any research into kids and crying. Assuming a toddler is not sick or in physical distress, how long can they keep up the wailing?

I kind of need to know...

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