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.

It works

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.

Main image source: Shutterstock



Biostime


  • It worked for me! My 10 month old daughter had been waking up every night for the past 5 months sometimes every hour I was exhausted to say the least. I had some advice on wake windows and other techniques but nothing worked. It took 4 nights each night she gradually woke up less and I didn’t go in once. It wasn’t easy but She has now slept through for over a week and im now getting some well needed sleep too!

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  • Ten minutes is the most I would do, 2 hours is insane but that is just my opinion.


    • There is a different rationale for each. 3-10 minutes you could argue is good for checking whether your child will manage to calm himself without needing intervention. 2 hours, which cry it out and controlled crying schedules call for, is designed to teach your child it is no use crying, it won’t get you anything, so you might as well stop trying. If you crack after 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, you are instead teaching that you will respond eventually, therefore encouraging your child to amp it up next time. I’d rather not teach children that it is no use crying. I prefer approaches that ask “Why is my child crying” not just “How can I stop my child crying”.

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  • I never did it, and found my children usually dropped off easily to sleep and slept well through the night. One thing I did was to only give water a night in their bottle – they decided it wasn’t worth waking up for.


    • That is interesting, I’ve heard that before. My 2 year old did not take to substituting water for milk kindly. Did yours? And at what age did you try?

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  • It definitely works – I’ve done it with both of my kids (aged 3 and 1) and we can just put them in their beds and walk out the room and they just go to sleep with no crying or complaint and have been doing so since quite a young age too. You will save yourself a lot of heartache if you take this method. It might be hard listening to them cry at first but you need to think ahead to the greater benefit for all of your lives.


    • So glad it worked for you! Out of curiosity, how long did it take at the different ages? And did you need to repeat it often?

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  • All I can say is it works. For my sanity, my marriage, my family… it just got to breaking point and something had to give. Hubby and I did a session at Tweddle that didn’t work. I was then able to get into Sunshine’s overnight stay program. It worked. You have to be strong, persistent, and not let anyone in that door to ruin the routine you’re trying to put in place. And yes it is tough love, but it works. I got my sanity back, my sleep back, my hubby and happy family back. And I had a happy child in a sleep routine. Happy baby, happy house. It worked.


    • That is great! Sometimes families get to breaking point, and just need that quick fix. I’m glad it worked. Out of curiosity, did you have to use it repeatedly? Or that one quick stint, and sleep problems were over?

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  • I’m not a fan of controlled crying at all. I have worked with many stressed out families in the child protection system and leaving a baby to cry is the last thing the child needs when the relationship is struggling. There is nothing more worrying than seeing a baby not respond or cry for their needs to be met. I always worry when I hear that mum has such a placid baby.


    • That is really interesting feedback. I know there are concerns that controlled crying teaches babies not to communicate their distress even when they feel it. That is what the Middlemiss study alluded to. The behaviour of children during controlled crying interventions also looks a bit too similar to learned helplessness for my comfort. You’ve seen evidence that if children’s needs are rarely responded to, they learn not to signal. This is the avoidant attachment style I guess, which I learned more about in a recent podcast on my site (Practical Research Parenting 024 What is attachment? http://www.practicalresearchparenting.com/2016/08/13/prp024-what-is-attachment/).

      I do trust in baby’s abilities to differentiate situations though, and learn that parents are only ever unresponsive when in the cot (not ideal, but still a minority of the time and unlikely to impact attachment). What does concern me is how readily the approach is recommended by pediatricians and GPs. I understand why – it is the most robustly supported. I just feel it is a shame that the many more gentle approaches aren’t given a look in.

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  • I did controlled crying with two of my children, and it worked!! If they became unwell or something different was going on they would regress, but when they were well again I would start it again and it only took a night or so for my babies to remember the procedure and they would be sleeping perfectly again. I am a believer!!!


    • That’s great that it worked for you! I think this is the ideal. One or two hard nights, then good sleep all around. Indicates that it was a good fit for your kids. Unfortunately it can sometimes take a lot longer, and that is when I’d begin questioning whether it is the right time and right technique for the situation.

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  • not a fan of controlled crying,i would feel i was abandoning my baby and I just can’t do it

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  • I’m not a believer of this strategy either. At 10 months my son was still breastfeeding every 2,5 hour, it was tiring but I found it important to be there when our kids need you. Still think so. Controlled crying feels for me like ignoring their need for you and with that we might well cause feelings of insecurity, unsafety and maybe loneliness.


    • Babies and children do need contact, it is as valid a need for their mental development as food is for their physical development. But parents and kids also need sleep. So I guess it is about setting the boundaries to best meet all of those needs for parents and child. If the parent is severely sleep deprived, it can be associated with depression, more difficulty controlling anger, and decreased responsiveness. When this is the case intervention is better than waiting it out. I’m not completely against controlled crying just because it is the fastest method we know for regaining sleep, and sometimes this really is critical to the health of Mum, Baby, and the relationship. But if the situation isn’t critical I would certainly start with gentler methods. It sounds like in your case, you were functioning well enough not to need to intervene. I completely support that approach too, that’s why I only just weaned my 2 year old off night feeds – it was working for both of us, so there was no need to change it.

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  • A minor correction. The study #7 found no difference in stress levels across the groups in the morning as I said BUT, given the small number of participants, it would only have detected a massive difference in cortisol levels (it’s a stats thing). In this case no evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of no harm.

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  • I personally think controlled crying is a bit brutal. But each family is different.


    • It didn’t feel right to me either, but it really depends. For some parents it’s 2-3 nights of hell and then everyone is so much happier. Any longer than that and I’d begin questioning whether it is a behavioural issue (and therefore somewhat suited to a behavioural intervention like controlled crying).

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  • Personally I never used it. It isn’t something for me. I never let my daughter cry. I was always by her side as soon as she started to be unsettled. I found it very comforting for her and for me too. And the night before turning 2 months old she started to sleep ten hours in a row at night. I think it was a win-win. :-)


    • That’s great that it worked out that way for you! It doesn’t always. I intervened with my son when he was 6 months and still waking 3 times a night, and with my daughter when she was 2 years old and still waking 1-2 times a night (using gentler methods). I was also very responsive when they were babies – it just feels right.



      • Yes, I guess that everything depends on the kids too. With some kids some methods function better than with others.

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  • Fortunately I never had to try controlled crying.


    • That’s great! I believe no one ever HAS to do controlled crying, there are so many gentler options.

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  • I tried it once, and ended up crying myself. My instinct told me to go to my child

    Reply

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