If you're reading this, chances are you're terminally exhausted. Your baby's been waking up and crying in the night for goodness knows how many nights now and you've got to the point where you'd do anything to stop the crying and get some sleep.
Now, just before we get to the much debated issue of controlled crying - we should clarify that what you are experiencing is not just a temporary sleep blip, caused by illness or teething or a change of routine. And certainly not the perfectly normal nocturnal feeding habits of a newborn baby. We are talking about persistent, unexplainable night-waking by some babies who really don't need to wake up (for milk or for medicine or for reassurance in a strange place) but who do it anyway - a lot.
At this point, what most experts will tell you is that it's likely your baby has acquired 'incorrect sleep associations', which roughly means 'I've just got used to waking up in the night because I know I'll get a feed and a cuddle'.
Basically, your baby has (maybe always or maybe only fairly recently) had a succession of nights when you've comforted her every time she woke (because she needed it) and now she'd like the arrangement to continue, even though she doesn't need it any more (she's not daft).
How To Combat It
This leaves you with two choices: soldiering on (trying to remember that this is a phase that will pass, but you just don't know when); or doing something about it. And that something is replacing the incorrect sleep associations with the correct ones - otherwise known as controlled crying.
To a caring parent, programmed to respond to her baby's every need, 'controlled crying' may indeed seem a cruel and inhuman punishment especially when the baby's only crime is wanting mummy or daddy in the middle of the night. But it can actually be the best way to respond to a baby's need to learn how to fall asleep on his own.
Still, if you're philosophically opposed to the idea then don't try it. In all likelihood you probably won't stick to the game plan and the mixed signals you send will only confuse your baby and not help him sleep. Instead let him use a back to sleep crutch like a dummy or comforter (but preferably one other than midnight snacking) for as long as necessary. For hardier (or more desperate) souls controlled crying is the 'tough love' option and almost always invariably works.
Controlled crying is all about teaching your baby to settle himself back to sleep when he wakes at night, rather than relying on you to be there and help him out - either with food or cuddles. And you achieve this by responding to him in a very particular way.
How to Use Controlled Crying
Let your baby cry for a few minutes, then go to him, reassure him with a pat or stroke and a gentle I love you or night night (without picking him up) and then leave him again. Don't stay with him long enough for him to fall asleep while you are calming him. Repeat this process, extending the time you leave him alone by five minutes each time, until eventually, he falls asleep. The next night, extend the period he spends by himself by a few more minutes and continue extending them over several nights until he consistently falls asleep after the first period of crying.
There are a number of arguments for using controlled crying. For one, it does help your child to learn how to settle themselves without props (including you as a human dummy if you're breastfeeding). Also, if done correctly, it is a relatively short exercise - which still works in the long term.
Researchers have looked at whether children who went through controlled crying experienced any long-term harms when compared with children who didn't. The study found that controlled crying had no significant harmful or beneficial effects on these sorts of issues.
There are also arguments against the use of controlled crying. Many parents feel it is just cruel and also damaging to let your baby cry. Critics of the technique argue that leaving a baby to cry exposes them to unnecessary stress and trauma that could cause both psychological and physical problems in later life. Although a quick fix solution, it is a horrendous experience for parents and can be very heart-breaking listening to your child crying for you.
In the end, it's up to you which sleep-training method (or variation of method) you use - if you choose any at all. But, before you start, it's worth noting that:
- Controlled crying is really not recommended for babies under six months. Partly because younger babies (who have not yet formed habitual sleeping patterns) tend to respond well to the less-hardline settle-and-leave approach. And partly because, before six months, you can't really rule out the possibility that your baby may be waking for (and needing) a feed in the night - even if she hasn't needed one for several weeks (growth spurts, teething and illness can all make babies hungry or needing extra comfort than normal). Also, premature or babies small for their gestational age may still need to continue feeding longer in night.
- You need to be consistent. It's no good doing it one night and then not bothering the next. If you want controlled crying to work, you need to keep at it. And your partner needs to be in on the deal too. This is particularly important for anyone going down the controlled-crying route: the most common reason for controlled crying not working is one or other parents 'cracking' before their child does.
- It doesn't make you a bad parent and your child won't love you any less in the morning.