Ever felt like a bad Mum for trying controlled crying? Or not doing controlled crying, but leaving you and your child constantly sleep deprived? Me too. Here’s what the research says so you can make the decision that is right for you.
How Controlled Crying works
The principle behind controlled crying is that if the crying is not rewarded by parental attention then children will stop crying (called extinction).
It only works if you maintain it. That means not responding to crying at bedtime for at least 3 nights, no matter how long it takes. Imagine listening to 30 minutes to 2 hours of your child screaming, going in on occasion, just to leave again despite the cries of protest and despair.
Often the crying reappears (called spontaneous recovery). It seems controlled crying has worked for a few nights, and then suddenly, there is bedtime crying again (1). If you do controlled crying again, it won’t take as long the second time. If you start responding to crying again, you’ve wasted your time and heartache doing controlled crying in the first place.
Do you have what it takes?
Before you start controlled crying you need to know that you will be able to stick to it. 60-70% of parents are not willing to do controlled crying or tried it and couldn’t follow through (2). If, like me, you are one of these, don’t even try it. There are so many other options that are effective, just a bit slower.
If you think you could withstand controlled crying, here’s the science behind it currently.
Controlled crying improves sleep. It reduces parent-awakenings and making bedtimes easier (child falling silent within 10 minutes) usually within a week (1). It decreases the frequency and length of bedtime tantrums (3). These results are averaged, and tend to include parents with great success, mild success, and a few with no success (up to 30%). Parents who couldn’t follow through are usually not included.
Will it harm my child?
Most experts agree that controlled crying shouldn’t be done until 6 months and older. There is no clear evidence of harm.
One of the main concerns is that controlled crying requires parents not to respond to distress signals from their children. Being responsive to distress is extremely important for developing a secure child-parent attachment and children’s emotional regulation, which are both critical to healthy development (4).
If children learn not to signal distress, or parents learn not to respond, this could be bad. However, researchers have measured the parent-child relationship and found improvements after controlled crying interventions (5).
So what is going on? Having been a sleep deprived Mum, I can guess. When you have been woken incessantly at night, are you at your most responsive during the day? I’m not. Do you respond to your child’s distress with a comforting hug? Or snap “well you should have slept last night!”? I try for the first… but no-one’s perfect, especially not when sleep deprived.
So by doing controlled crying you are stopping being responsive at bedtime only, but if it means you can be more responsive during the day, that’s probably a positive overall.
What about the stress of crying to sleep? Does that cause any damage? That is one of the reasons that controlled crying has gained in popularity over cry it out. You can check for physical damage, pain, or dangers. A 2012 study found that babies had elevated stress hormones during controlled crying. Surprisingly, stress was still high after controlled crying had “worked” and children were silently settling themselves to sleep (6). Recent research found that stress hormones are low by morning, so the stress response doesn’t last (7). Do babies continue to feel distressed but stop communicating their distress? We don’t know yet.
Do you know someone who has successfully tried controlled crying? Does their child still cry when teething? Sick? Jammed in the cot bars? My guess is that they do (I don’t know of too many babies who have learned not to cry altogether).
To controlled cry or not to
Ultimately, if you think you could follow through with controlled crying, it is usually effective, and there is no strong scientific evidence of harm. If you are seriously sleep deprived, a quick fix like controlled crying might even be best. If you don’t think you could follow through, or if you can wait a couple of weeks for a more gradual improvement in sleep, there are many other ways. Personally, I have had a lot of success with alternative, gentler methods, but every child and family is different.
This topic is always controversial. Please share your experiences, knowledge, and ideas below and be respectful of others.
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