The decision about whether to leave your baby to cry is a tough one for many parents. Here we look at controlled crying including the pros and cons.
Controlled crying is a topic that can lead to passionate debate between parents (and the experts). The instinct to go to your baby if they’re upset can be overwhelming. But so can your frustration when they don’t settle – particularly if you’re exhausted and sleep-deprived. This is when some parents start thinking about self-soothing and sleep training techniques like controlled crying for their baby.
What is controlled crying?
Controlled crying is a form of sleep training designed to help your baby self-soothe and settle down to sleep on their own. Once their baby is old enough (this is generally considered to be after six months) and, as long as they’re safe and secure, some parents decide to explore different sleeping techniques. This is a personal choice and will be down to different reasons and circumstances.
What is self-soothing?
Self-soothing is based on the development of emotional self-regulation. This is a baby’s ability to recognise and manage their own emotional responses (Thompson, 1994).
Babies start to develop this understanding from around the age of six months (Murray, 2014). Babies can still experience distress if they are left to cry after this age though. And they do continue to need those caring for them to help ease their distress (Rothbart and Posner, 1985).
Self-soothing gets your baby into the habit of settling themselves, with caregivers gradually reducing the amount of support provided. If your baby self-soothes they are able to fall asleep alone without any other physical or emotional support.
What does the evidence say?
Babies usually begin to understand the 24 hour rhythm of day and night at around three months. At this point, their sleeps get longer but some little ones still wake and cry several times each night for months (Leach, 2015).
Young babies, in particular, might be waking up because they need to feed, not because they are unable to self-soothe. Many experts agree that young babies need the help of their parents or another adult to settle them (Williams et al, 2016).
The evidence is mixed on the use of sleep training. One review looked at 52 studies and found that most were effective at improving an infant's sleep (Mindell et al, 2006). Studies also suggest sleep training can improve how a parent feels (Hiscock and Wake, 2002).
There is little research that looks at the effects of sleep training on babies beyond the effect on their sleep (or crying) though and whether there are any potential long-term effects (BASIS, 2018).
What are the arguments for and against controlled crying?
It can help to think through the pros and cons of controlled crying before deciding whether it’s right for you and your baby.
- Some parents find that controlled crying works relatively quickly, often within three weeks (Matthew et al, 2012).
- Some babies who learn to self-soothe early in life turn into better sleepers over the course of their first year (Mindel et al, 2015; Early Intervention Foundation, 2018).
- Self-soothing could be a useful skill for your baby to have, particularly if you’re not around immediately to settle them.
- Some experts have suggested that self-soothers are less fussy as babies, and have fewer tantrums as toddlers (Mindel et al, 2015).
- Some people believe not responding to a baby’s cries at bedtime has become a part of Western child-rearing, with a rigid approach to feeding times and routine (Maute et al, 2018).
- Some parents and experts believe that not attending to their child immediately if they’re upset creates feelings of insecurity and abandonment (Leach, 2015; Williams et al, 2016).
- Carrying out controlled crying can be stressful. Some parents find it goes against all their instincts to repeatedly not pick their baby up if they appear to be upset.
- Controlled crying can create a lot of noise, worrying about other family members or neighbours can add to stress levels.
How does controlled crying work?
Controlled crying involves first making sure your baby has a clean nappy, and isn’t hungry, thirsty or uncomfortable, then taking the following steps.
STEP 1: Put them in their cot, sleepy but still awake.
STEP 2: Say goodnight and leave the room.
STEP 3: If your baby cries, leave them for two minutes before going back to comfort them. Settle them back down, say goodnight and leave the room.
STEP 4: This time, wait for five minutes, before repeating the process again, adding a couple of minutes each time.
There are different views about how much to comfort your baby each time you go back to see them. These range from just speaking and reassuring to physical contact like stroking.
Are there any alternatives?
There are different methods of sleep training which might be gentler for babies (Gradisar et al. 2016). These include encouraging thumb-sucking or dummy-sucking, pretending to sleep in the room, or having more physical interaction from stroking or hand-on-chest contact through to co-sleeping (Matthew, 2012).
For more information about these methods and others, have a look at our articles about sleep.
Is there anything else I need to think about?
The decision to try controlled crying or sleep training is a personal one for every parent. You might feel that the benefits of controlled crying, for both your baby and you, outweigh any worries; or you might decide that a different approach works better for you.
Also keep in mind that some parents might start controlled crying and then find it too stressful to continue or that it's just not working as they'd hoped. We know that controlled crying can work for some babies but not for others.
The good news is that there is lots of support and information to help you figure out what works for you and your baby. Talk it through with your partner, family, friends and other parents. And remember that our support line offers practical and emotional support on sleep, crying and a whole range of other issues: 0300 330 0700.
This page was last reviewed in April 2019.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700. It’s open 8am until midnight every day.
You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Watch our coping with crying film.
The Purple Crying website looks in detail at the stage in your baby’s life when they cry more than at any other time.
Understanding childhood also have a range of resources available online and to download, developed by child psychotherapists, including a leaflet on crying.
There’s also useful information on the NHS website.
The NSPCC helpline provides help and support to thousands of parents and families.
The Lullaby Trust has lots of useful information and support for parents about safe sleep.
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