Controlled crying: What is it and is it safe to try with babies?

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  • The controlled crying method, or 'cry approach', is all about setting a bedtime routine and teaching your little one to associate sleep with a positive experience.

    For any new parent or caregiver who’s struggling with a crying newborn, the idea of getting the controlled crying method to not only be a success but also not making it too much of a painful process, might sound almost mythical. As for years, people believed that controlled crying could lead to emotional distance between the parent and child as they were supposedly left to ‘cry it out’.

    It’s been an idea rebutted by many experts and parenting associations who have said that letting children just ‘cry it out’ is very different to the controlled crying technique. So one might be unsavoury for many parents and advised against, the other is a well-known sleep training technique that has seen many babies into full nights sleep.

    But as with all these things, it’s a combination of approaches – from having the right type of cot or crib to how parents comfort them when they do come into the baby’s room – that help the technique stand the best chance.

    So once you’re past that tricky second night of baby sleep, if you’re looking to try this generations-old method, work out whether it’s right for you and your baby and learn how to do it well, read on.

    Here’s everything you need to know about controlled crying…

    What is controlled crying?

    baby sleeping peacefully in a cot - controlled crying

    Credit: Getty

    The biggest myth surrounding controlled crying is that it involves leaving a child to cry, and cry for as long as it takes until they fall asleep. In fact, it only involves leaving them to cry for set periods of time – usually short – before offering them comfort.

    As Sophia Nomicos, mum-of-three and founder of Mas and Pas says, “The controlled crying method involves parents or caregivers putting their child to sleep in their crib at bedtime and leaving the room. If the child cries, then they are allowed to cry for a short period of time, usually between 2 and 10 minutes, before the parent goes in and comforts them.

    “When they do it’s important that they do not to make eye contact or lift baby out of the crib. They can stroke or soothe them while they’re in their bed until they are calm.

    “The parent then leaves the room again and if baby cries they repeat the process until baby falls asleep.”

    In short, the technique is used to establish a regular sleep routine for your baby, which might sound all well and good but as the study implies, leaving a baby to cry is difficult. It goes against humans’ natural instincts, but it’s important to remember that the baby is not being harmed as they’re left to cry it out.

    As Sophia tells us, “Most parents report the first night to be the hardest. The key is consistency and doing the same technique, in the same way, every night for 5 nights.”

    If you decide to go down the controlled crying route as a means to get your baby to sleep, experts say it should begin to be effective in about two or three nights.

    How to start controlled crying

    To implement the routine is relatively simple, if a little difficult to listen to your baby crying and not be able to comfort them.

    This method is not suitable for babies under 6 months old and/or for babies who are suffering from separation anxiety.

    • Put your baby into their cot while they’re still awake. Make sure the room temperature is comfortable and there’s nothing in the room they could harm themselves on.
    • When your baby starts to cry, leave a five-minute period before re-entering the room.
    • Comfort your baby using your voice, but don’t pick them up or turn on the light.
    • Gradually lengthen the amount of time you leave the room each time, but never leave for more than 10 minutes.
    • Hopefully, within an hour the message will have sunk in, and your baby will have drifted off to sleep.
    • Prepare to repeat the routine for up to a week before you start to see results.

    Sophia advises, “If you are sure that your child has had enough food, water and is otherwise well, then it is about giving them a few nights to adapt to this change.

    READ MORE: The ultimate baby sleep guide: How to get a baby to sleep

    “You shouldn’t leave them to cry for extended periods of time. The controlled crying method is about reassuring them every few minutes that you are there, but that it is also time for sleep.”

    Baby boy in crib crying - controlled crying

    Credit: Getty

    To help create a safe and reassuring sleep environment for your child, it’s also important that they are sleeping in the right space. A moses basket is a good option for newborn babies, or if you’ve got a little more space in your bedroom then you could also opt for a classic cot or crib.

    Is controlled crying cruel?

    Ultimately, controlled crying is different from letting babies just ‘cry it out’ which some people believe is cruel. Research conducted by the University of Melbourne, Australia and the University of Exeter in the UK found that behavioural sleep techniques, including controlled crying, did not cause long-lasting harm to children or damage their relationship with their parents or their mother’s health. So while it won’t improve any of these things, it’s certainly not dangerous for babies and some parents have found the technique to be hugely successful.

    As Lauren Peacock, a child sleep specialist at Little Sleep Stars tells GoodtoKnow, “I do not advocate a baby or child, of any age, being left alone to cry for as long as it takes them to fall asleep. When a baby or toddler has become overtired, crying may be inevitable, especially with younger little ones. The crying and fighting sleep is due to a child’s threat response having being elevated by the hormones secreted when overtiredness occurs. Babies and young children cannot emotionally regulate and so to avoid the potential of this stress becoming toxic, little ones need the support of a responsive caregiver. Whilst being in a parent’s loving arms might not stop the crying, the parent essentially absorbs much of the stress that their child would otherwise experience.”

    What real mums say…

    GoodtoKnow user Laura tried controlled crying with her six-month-old son, Oliver, and said, “At the first sign that he was tired I put him in the cot, gave him his dummy and put his mobile on, stroked his head and said ‘shhh’ and then left the room. He would scream because he didn’t want to go to sleep. I’d go back in and stroke his head and say ‘shhh’ again, then leave him for maybe 10 minutes tops and then go back in and do the same again.

    “I wish I’d known about it from the start. Now when he wakes up I give him his dummy, put his mobile on and he goes back to sleep.”

    Zoe from Mama.toama also explains why she chose the controlled crying method with her baby daughter – and why she felt she had no choice but to ‘sleep train’.

    “Before my daughter was born, and in the first few months of her life I told myself, and everyone who questioned her sleeping, that I would never let her cry it out but I was reaching breaking point and I knew the exhaustion was getting the better of me. I am also not afraid to admit that I wanted time off.

    “Since using controlled crying she is able to settle herself to sleep and re-settle herself throughout the night. She still wakes twice to feed but I can manage that. Her daytime naps have also exceeded my expectations. She has gone from having three or four catnaps to having a solid one and a half to two hour nap in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon. A win all round in my eyes.”