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Controlled crying: Should you let your baby cry itself to sleep?

Article By: Melissa McAlees, News Editor

Controlled crying is an emotive subject that provokes an extreme response amongst parents, leaving many to question whether they should put the settling technique into practice or not?

Advocates claim it saved their sanity and their baby’s sleep, while others compare it to ‘abuse’ which can cause long-term psychological damage.

Controlled crying is a technique in which parents respond to their baby's cries and gently comfort them, returning at increasing time intervals to assist the baby to self-settle.

Mandy Gurney, founder of the Millpond Sleep Clinic, believes controlled crying teaches children from an early age to sleep independently.

“Controlled crying does not mean you abandon your baby,” she said. “Instead you return to briefly check on them at set intervals for reassurance, while the length of time between visits is gradually increased until your baby is asleep.

“A child that cannot self-settle will invariably be a poor napper. Most often they will wake after a short sleep cycle of 30-45 minutes, so teaching your child to self-settle at night will improve the length and quality of their naps.

“The key to this technique is not to stroke, pat or re-position the baby. This type of contact could be seen as a reward for crying and, instead of reducing the crying, could teach a child to cry for a set period before parents go in to cuddle or stroke them, thus inadvertently encouraging them to cry.”

Attending to distress teaches self-regulation

Wendy Hall, a researcher in sleep training, believes that helping babies to sleep is an important investment as it teaches self–regulation.

Crying, she points out, is a baby's only form of communication, so parents will not harm their sense of attachment by attending to their distress and will inevitably help them to develop the tools (both physiologically and emotionally) to ‘self-soothe’.

Yet, according to Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Sleep Book (Piatkus, 2015), babies are unable to self-soothe due to their ‘immature brains’ and physical development.

She said: “All babies can do is to cry to signal their distress, but stopping the crying does not stop the need. In order to 'self-soothe' babies need to be able to fix any physical or emotional problems they experience by themselves and restore to a state of calm, but they cannot do this, all they can do is cry for parental help.

“At best, when a baby is left to cry to sleep they realise their cries will not be responded to. They learn it is hopeless to cry which leaves them stressed.

“Leaving a baby to cry evokes physiological responses that increase stress hormones. Crying infants experience an increase in heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure. These reactions are likely to result in overheating and, along with vomiting due to extreme distress, could pose a potential risk of SIDS in vulnerable infants.

Leaving a baby to cry evokes physiological responses

“There may also be longer-term emotional effects,” she added. “There is compelling evidence that increased levels of stress hormones may cause permanent changes in the stress responses of the baby's developing brain. These changes can affect memory, attention, and emotion, and can trigger an elevated response to stress throughout life, including a predisposition to later anxiety and depressive disorders.

“Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to a good night's sleep, or even a good nap. Babies outgrow their need for adult help as they get older and until then all we can do is mask their need.

“We must ask ourselves, why are we so obsessed with babies sleeping for unnatural lengths of time with unnatural levels of independence?”

Gina Ford, author of ‘Your Baby and Toddler Problems Solved: A parent's trouble-shooting guide to the first three years’, supports the use of controlled crying but advises parents to use the technique with babies aged between six months and one year, who no longer need feeding in the night and have developed the wrong sleep associations.

The former maternity nurse who has cared for over 300 babies during her career, commented: “Before commencing on any form of sleep training, parents should always look closely at their babies’ diet. In my experience nearly 80 per cent of night wakings with babies under a year are caused by the baby not getting the correct balance of solids and milk during the day.”

’Controlled crying may not be harmful’

A recent study conducted by researchers at Flinders University in Australia has revealed controlled crying and bedtime fading are techniques which can improve the sleeping habits of babies and may not cause the known behavioural or parent-child attachment issues many parents and early years experts are concerned about.

A randomised control trial studied three approaches which aimed to improve the sleep patterns of 43 babies, aged between six and sixteen months. These included:

Controlled crying – gradually delaying parents' responses to their babies’ cry each night. Parents were told to put their child to bed awake and leave within one minute. When re-entering the room, they were allowed to comfort their child, but could not pick them up or turn on the lights

Bedtime fading – delaying the babies’ bedtime by 30 minutes each time they took more than 15 minutes to fall asleep

Sleep education – control group – parents were given information on reasons for night wakings, settling tips and sleep cycles in babies

Controlled crying was found to decrease the length of time it took babies to fall asleep, without resulting in any harmful effects. They were reported to fall asleep 13 minutes quicker, on average, and woke up significantly less during the night.

Researchers also found no significant differences in the stress levels of the babies, in parental mood, or in parent and child attachment.

For parents who remain anxious about letting their babies cry, researchers found the bedtime-fading group showed nearly as large a decrease (10 minutes) as controlled crying in the amount of time it took for babies to fall asleep, which also saw no change in the number of night time awakenings compared to the control group.

Lack of sleep is the hardest aspect of being a new parent

Lead author of the study and Flinders University sleep expert, Professor Michael Gradisar, suggests it is natural for parents to worry about their babies crying at bedtime, but avoiding the urge to comfort them could prove more beneficial.

Commenting on the findings, he said: “We found that those children who experienced delayed sleep or were allowed to cry for longer ended up falling asleep faster and were waking up less during the night.

“It’s natural for parents to worry about having their babies cry at bedtime and while it’s well documented that sleep deprivation can cause family distress, including maternal depression, we’re hoping the results from this study will add another element to how parents manage sleep behaviour.”

An Australian survey also recently revealed that of the 57 per cent of mothers who had tried controlled crying last year, 27 per cent reported no success, 27 per cent found it worked for one or two nights, and only eight per cent found that controlled crying worked for longer than a week.

One mother who used controlled crying revealed how challenging the technique was. “I used to walk around the block,” she said. “I'd come back and stand outside the house and if I could still hear them crying, I would go around again.”

Nearly half of mothers with babies over six months say their child has sleeping problems and nearly 80 per cent of parents reveal lack of sleep is the hardest aspect of being a new parent. With these concerns, approximately 60 per cent of parents would like guidance on having a consistent and successful routine to get their child to sleep at night.

There may not be a one-size-fits-all approach in helping babies to sleep and while controlled crying and bedtime fading appear to improve a baby’s sleep, without causing any lasting detrimental effects, researchers believe further studies are required to validate the findings.

For more information on the study and for information on children’s sleep, visit: or

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