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.
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  • 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.

    We find out what makes the controlled crying method work, how to do it, and tips for stress-free sleep training

    What is controlled crying?

    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. Critics might say controlled crying forces your child to cry themselves to sleep, but this is not true if done correctly.

    However this method may not be suitable for very young babies, if a baby is unwell, or for babies who suffer from separation anxiety.

    How do I start controlled crying?

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

    1. The parent or caregivers puts their child to sleep in their crib at bedtime and leaves the room.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

    EASY baby routine

    Credit: Getty

    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 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.

    READ MORE: The ultimate baby sleep guide: How to get a baby to sleep

    Baby boy in crib crying - controlled crying

    Credit: Getty

    What is spaced soothing?

    Spaced soothing is the same method 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. She shares her top tips for baby bedtime routines:

    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’. Research conducted by the University of Melbourne, Australia and the University of Exeter in the UK was supportive of controlled crying. The report found that behavioural 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.”

    What are the pros and cons of controlled crying?

    Pros of controlled crying

    • It is a relatively quick and effective way to help babies get themselves to sleep.
    • It is a structured, ritualistic and easy to follow way to sleep train your baby
    • You can soothe and reassure your baby at regular intervals.

    Cons of controlled crying

    • Parents find it difficult and against their instinct to listen to their baby crying.
    • It can be noisy. It’s therefore more challenging to implement with close neighbours, shared accommodation, or in a block of flats.
    • Some parents and practitioners feel it leads to children’s feelings of abandonment or insecurity.

    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 used controlled crying for naps. Use the same technique as you would for evening sleep.

    Does controlled crying help with sleep regression?

    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 night time 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.”

    How sleep helps mental health

    As new parents you will be under considerable stress as you get the hang of looking after a little one. Sleep is essential for both you and your baby to keep you feeling strong mentally and physically.

    The Parent & Baby Coach, Heidi Skudder, advises that: “For parents, there are very serious links to postnatal mental health when it comes to missing out on sleep. A good night’s sleep brings an improvement to a parents’ overall well-being and functioning, and also makes you less likely to argue, too.

    “Sleep is hugely important for development, and your little one will usually be happier, calmer and more confident in their day to day life when they have had a good night’s sleep. Immunity and health are directly linked to sleep. This is often overlooked and underestimated when we’re told that “babies just don’t sleep.” They really can, but sometimes they just need a little nudge.”

    How else can I help my baby get to sleep

    You are the expert

    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…

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