Let's recap the theory. I think there are a minimum of two kinds of people, hence babies: Those who release tension by crying, and those who increase tension by crying. Which is why some babies seem to need to cry to be able to fall asleep, while others escalate more and more if you let them cry at all.
My first one is a tension increaser, who fell asleep being nursed or rocked, but if I let him cry for even 30 seconds he'd get so worked up it would take hours to calm him down. (Based on my experience with him, I always thought people who "forced" their babies to cry were heartless and selfish, and would pay for it with children with a myriad of emotional problems.)
Then I had my second, who got more agitated the more I rocked him, but when I left him alone to cry he'd scream for a few minutes and then fall asleep. He seemed to need to be able to release tenson by crying, and then once he got it out of his system he fell asleep like it was nothing. (I remember thinking that if he'd been my first I'd have thought people who didn't let their kids cry when they wanted to were selfish and pushing their own agenda onto their kids, and would pay for it with children with a myriad of emotional problems.)
This is absolutely not a binary distinction. My kids seemed to be pretty solidly one or the other, but there's so much variance, and some kids seem to be one for naps and the other for nighttime, or one until one age and then they switch, and personality and culture comes into play, too. So who knows if it's a continuum, or a box-and-whisker plot, or a Venn diagram, or a scatterplot. I'm sure in 40 years parents will be reading this thinking about how cute we are that we were just starting to figure this out, but for now I still find it an interesting puzzle.
FWIW, 10 minutes seems to be about when you can tell. If you let your baby cry for 10 minutes (which is an astonishingly long time), a tension releaser will be petering out and starting to fall asleep or at least winding down and not crying hard, where a tension increaser will be creaming even more loudly and angrily. Try it once, and you'll probably have an idea of which way your child leans.
Today let's talk about tension increasers. Tomorrow we'll talk about strategies for tension decreasers.
As I've said, my older one (who is now almost-9) was a no-holds-barred tension increaser. He would go to sleep easily by nursing or being rocked. Later, when he was a toddler, he needed someone to be in the room with him while he fell asleep, but he always fell asleep. In the middle of the night he could be comforted back to sleep, but he almost always needed some kind of touch.
If I left him to cry, either because I couldn't deal with it anymore, or I had the audacity to need to pee or something like that, or because I bought into the "let him cry" hype, he's keep crying. Louder and longer and more furiously than before, and he'd get more and more worked up. So then, instead of calming down in 5 minutes, it would take 45 minutes to calm him down from the crying. He needed the touch, and he needed to know that someone understood and was specifically paying attention to him.
Contrast that with me. I'm also a tension increaser. On Sunday night when my ankle was killing me and I didn't have a diagnosis yet and one of my friends mentioned "ankle reconstruction surgery" I started crying alone in my apartment, and it made me feel worse, and then I couldn't stop crying because the crying itself was making me feel bad. I cried for two hours, and felt like throwing up.
But my mother reports that when I was a baby I wanted to nurse, then I'd arch my back and want to be put down, and I'd fall asleep. So I didn't want or need the comforting touch that my older son did, but I also could not be left to cry, because it just made me feel worse.
I think there are two takeaways here: 1) If your child is as clear about what s/he needs to fall asleep as my son and I were, you're lucky, and 2) If you can get to a place of no expectations, it might be easier and clearer for you.
What I mean by that second one is that we all bring these ideas into parenting about what babies are like, and also what we're going to be like as parents. I thought that babies needed to be comforted to sleep, and I thought of myself as a mother who comforted her baby to sleep. I was really, really, really lucky that my first child fit into my expectations, and that my expectations of myself happened to be exactly what he needed. If I'd had my second first, we'd have been in for months of confusion, disappointment, and feelings of inadequacy.
If you think that babies sleep a certain way, based either on culture or past experience or something you read in a book (please PLEASE either read no sleep books or all of them) or what your mother-in-law says about how your partner slept as a baby or whatever, then if your child doesn't sleep that way, it may take you a long time to be able to identify cues from your child about what s/he needs because you'll be fighting with your expectations. And you also might have to fight with what you think about yourself, and that's pretty much the last thing you need while you're reevaluating your whole life every night at 3 am anyway.
I initially titled this post "Strategies for tension increasers," but the problem is that all babies are different, so the only thing I can tell you definitively about tension increasers is that it won't do anyone any good to let them cry, so just don't bother.
Other than that, allow yourself to trust that your child won't need help going to sleep forever. You know how people talk about kids needing to "learn to fall asleep"? I think some kids not only need to learn, they need a full apprenticeship of years. And that's ok. The ones who do a full apprenticeship seem to get it with a vengeance, and turn into the kids who fall asleep with no fuss and can sleep anywhere as adults.
Parents of tension increasers and adult tension increasers: What worked for you? Were there tips or tricks that you used to get your child to sleep? How long did it take before your child consistently went to sleep easily alone? Feel free to share stories of waking up in a puddle of your own drool on your child's floor next to the crib.