Controlled crying: What is it and is it safe for babies?

Find out if controlled crying sleep training is right for you and your baby.
  • We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.
  • Controlled crying sleep training, or the spaced soothing approach, sets recognisable bedtime cues to help your baby get to sleep. It can be quite divisive, however, as it involves allowing your baby to cry for controlled, short periods of time.

    Controlled crying has been criticised by parents and some practitioners for creating emotional distance or letting a child ‘cry it out’. On the other hand, fans of the approach celebrate its life-changing impact and how effective it is at teaching children how to sleep healthily by themselves. Once you’re past that tricky second night of baby sleep, many parents are willing to try anything to get some rest.

    In this article, we discuss how the controlled crying method works, how to do it, and tips for stress-free sleep training:

    What is controlled crying?
    What are the pros and cons of controlled crying?
    How do I start controlled crying?
    Top tips for controlled crying success
    What is spaced soothing?
    Is controlled crying cruel?
    What age can you start controlled crying?
    Does controlled crying help with sleep regression?
    Is controlled crying right for your baby?
    What real mums say about controlled crying

    What is controlled crying and ‘spaced soothing’?

    baby sleeping peacefully in a cot - controlled crying

    Credit: Getty

    Controlled crying requires leaving your baby to cry for set, short periods of time before offering them comfort. This is why it’s also called ‘the spaced soothing approach’ which many parents prefer. Spaced soothing is basically the same as ‘controlled crying’ but focuses on soothing your baby, rather than crying. It was made popular in sleep expert Jo Tantum’s book, Baby Secrets which includes seven different routines for babies of different ages.

    Critics might say controlled crying forces your child to cry themselves to sleep, but this is not true if done correctly. Bear in mind, this method of helping your baby sleep may not be suitable for very young babies, if a baby is unwell, or for babies who suffer from separation anxiety.

    What are the pros and cons of controlled crying?

    Pros Cons
    • Relatively quick and effective way to help babies get themselves to sleep.
    •  It is a structured, ritualistic and easy to follow method of sleep training
    • You can soothe and reassure your baby at regular intervals.
    • Parents can find it against their instinct to leave their baby  baby crying.
    • It can be noisy, and challenging to implement with close neighbours or in shared accommodation.
    • Some parents and practitioners feel it leads to children’s feelings of abandonment or insecurity.

    How do I start controlled crying?

    EASY baby routine

    Credit: Getty

    Sophia Nomicos, mum-of-three and founder of Mas and Pas, explains controlled crying in three easy steps:

    Step one: The parent or caregivers puts their child to sleep in their crib at bedtime and leaves the room.
    Step two: If the child cries, the parent or caregiver allows them to cry for a short period of time, usually between two and 10 minutes, before they go in and comfort them. When they do it’s important that the parent or caregiver does not make eye contact or lift baby out of the crib. They can stroke or soothe the baby in their bed until they are calm.
    Step three: The parent leaves the room again and if baby cries they repeat the process until baby falls asleep.

    The first time the baby cries you can soothe them after one minute, the next time soothe them after two, three, four minutes and so on until you reach 10 minutes. By which time your baby will most likely have soothed themself to sleep.

    Implementing the routine is relatively simple, but you will need to steel yourself for a difficult first night. 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 five nights.” If you decide to go down the controlled crying route to get your baby to sleep, experts say it should be effective within about two to five nights.

    What age can you start controlled crying? You can start controlled crying from as young as a few months. Many parents start at about six months, as this is when the baby tends to stop waking for a nighttime feed, so you will know they’re not hungry if they wake and cry during the night. You can implement controlled crying with older babies and toddlers, but it becomes more challenging.

    Should you do controlled crying for naps? Yes, you can use controlled crying for naps. Use the same technique as you would for an evening sleep.

    Top tips for controlled crying success

    • Consistency is key. Both caregivers should be on board and follow the same routines and spaced soothing patterns so the baby does not get confused.
    • Commit one week to implementing controlled crying without other distractions. Do not make other social arrangements and avoid a busy week at work.
    • Put your baby into their cot while they’re still awake.
    • Repeat a regular routine or comforting rituals before each bedtime. A bath, singing the same songs, or repeating the same phrases when you close the curtains are often effective. As a result, your baby will pick up cues that it’s bedtime and begin to relax.
    • Make sure the room temperature is comfortable and there’s nothing in the room they could harm themselves on.
    • 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.
    • If your baby is clearly very agitated, then go in before the allotted time is up. This technique is not about traumatising your baby
    • Use a stopwatch (most phone have them) to help you count the minutes between soothing. Otherwise, it can be hard to resist their cry.
    • Prepare to repeat the routine for up to a week before you start to see results.

    Baby sleep expert Jo Tantum, who made the spaced soothing method popular, shares her top tips for baby bedtime routines in this video:

    Is controlled crying cruel?

    No, controlled crying is really spaced soothing. It is about reassuring your baby every few minutes that you’re there, but that it is also time for sleep. You should not leave your baby to cry for long, uncontrolled lengths of time, or let them ‘cry it out’. A recent study by the University of Melbourne, Australia and the University of Exeter in the UK was supportive of controlled crying. The report found that behavioral sleep techniques, including controlled crying, did not cause long-lasting harm to children, the mother, or damage the parent-child relationship.

    Controlled crying can also feel tough on the parents. Heidi Skudder, from The Parent & Baby Coach, says that: “I don’t know any parent that hasn’t found controlled crying difficult. But if done in a safe way, taking into account little one’s health, feeding and overall well-being, as well as emotions impacting its consistency, controlled crying can work really well. I often advise my clients to spend the two to five minutes they leave their baby doing something like putting a washing load on to take their mind off it. It can be even harder to listen to crying whilst standing outside the door crying yourself.”

    Does controlled crying help with sleep regression?

    Baby boy in crib crying - controlled crying

    Getty

    Yes, sleep training from an early age will instill good, independent sleeping habits in your baby. This can help reduce or avoid sleep regressions later on, and helps build consistency.

    The Parent & Baby Coach, Heidi Skudder, advises that: “The only sleep regression based on a real physiological change is the four-month sleep regression. This occurs because baby’s brain becomes more aware of how they transition through sleep cycles. They become more wakeful at the end of one sleep cycle and look for the same conditions they had to fall asleep to move back into another sleep cycle. This can often cause short naps and lots of nighttime waking too. To avoid this, parents can work on helping their little one to fall asleep independently from an early age.

    “Other sleep regressions such as the 8, 12 and 18 month sleep regression are just times that baby starts to learn new skills; crawling, standing, walking and talking. Sleep tends to stay consistent if the parents can be consistent too. They only really turn into full regressions if the parent starts to introduce new sleep habits – such as rocking or feeding baby back to sleep when previously they hadn’t done so.

    “The most important thing to note about regressions is that it is a phase, and it will pass. In the meantime, try and stay as consistent as possible about how you are dealing with it.”

    Is controlled crying right for your baby?

    Only you will know if controlled crying is right for you and your family. Healthy sleep is essential for your baby’s mental and physical health, so it’s worth getting it right and feeling at peace with whichever path you take.

    And don’t forget to look after yourself. Dr Dawn Harper, the television personality, GP and Ambassador for SimplyMe health and wellbeing app, recommends napping when you can: “As a new mum, you are unlikely to get a full night’s sleep so you need to take sleep where you can. It’s the one time I think it’s appropriate to take a nap where possible! If you have a partner who is around, ask them to look after the baby. Even just for 20 or 30 minutes so that you can recharge your batteries.”

    What real mums say about controlled crying

    Mother and her crying baby

    Alamy Stock Image

    GoodtoKnow user Laura tried controlled crying with her six-month-old son, Oliver.

    She tols us, “At the first sign that he was tired I put him in the cot and gave him his dummy. I put his mobile on, stroked his head and said ‘shhh’. Then I 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 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’:

    “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 four catnaps to a two-hour nap in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon. A win all round in my eyes.

    “Since my daughter was born she has never slept through the night. She woke anywhere between two to six times, took short naps throughout the day, and just seemed tired all of the time. Team that with my exhaustion and we had no choice but to ‘sleep train’.

    “As an avid Googler about most things I’d like to think I have done my fair share of research around the topic of how to get your baby to sleep, and we tried co-sleeping, putting down sleepy but awake, the shush-pat method, the pick-up/put-down method before landing on the most controversial sleep-training method of them all.

    “Cry it out or controlled crying. Neither term I am a particular fan of, as it just seems so harsh. Before reading about controlled crying I was under the impression that you just left your child to cry and they eventually went to sleep. This is not the case.

    “You can adapt this method in various ways to suit your comfort level but in every variation of this method, your baby will, inevitably, cry quite drastically. But eventually, they will learn to fall asleep on their own and stay asleep. Ideal!

    “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.

    “She is almost 10 months old and I have never spent any time away from her. I strongly believe that mums should be able to spend some time away from their baby and should do whatever they need to for that to happen.

    “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 around in my eyes.

    “This method may be controversial and it may not work for every baby but I do believe that it’s the best for our situation and has worked wonders for us. She wakes up refreshed and is so much happier in herself. And as for me, well I am like a new woman.

    “Yes, this method may not be for everyone, and yes other mums may not think highly of my choices but that’s ok – I made the best decision for my family and me.”

     

     

    Latest Stories