Controlled crying is a sleep training technique that helps babies learn to settle themselves back to sleep again. Controlled crying and controlled comforting can help manage sleep awakening and settling down issues in infants between six months and two years (1).
Good quality and quantity of sleep are needed for growth and development. In addition, it plays an important role in overall health and immunity. However, young babies may have difficulty sleeping through the night and may experience problems while trying to settle down by themselves.
This post provides information on how controlled crying works, if it is safe, and how to teach it to your baby.
What Is Controlled Crying?
Controlled crying is a sleep training technique to help babies learn to settle themselves to sleep. In this technique, parents or caregivers let the baby cry or fuss for a gradually increasing time period before pacifying them. This helps in encouraging the baby to soothe themselves and fall asleep on their own.
This method aims to help babies move away from the habit of feeding, patting, and cuddling to pacify themselves to sleep (2). Do not confuse controlled crying with the cry it out or extinction method wherein babies are left to cry out until they fall asleep. An important aspect of the controlled crying technique is to check if the baby continues to cry for more than a specified amount of time (3).
Is Controlled Crying Safe For Babies?
Sleep training techniques, such as controlled crying, are generally safe for babies. An Australian study of 328 babies aged eight months old with sleep problems found that babies who were managed by sleep training or settling techniques slept better than babies who did not have any sleep training (4).
A 2012 study showed that controlled crying was a safe technique and did not cause long-term damage to the baby, affect their relationship with their parents, or affect their mother’s mental health (5).
The safety of any sleep training technique could depend on several factors, such as the baby’s health and whether they have any limitations. If your baby has a medical condition, speak to a doctor before trying any sleep training method.
What Age Is Right To Start Controlled Crying?
Sleep training techniques, including controlled crying, are recommended for babies who are older than six months (3). Most infants do not sleep through the night by the age of three months. By the age of six months, about two-thirds of babies can sleep through the night regularly (6). Therefore, it is a good time to try the controlled crying sleep training method.
You may have to delay sleep training methods in some cases, such as when the baby was born preterm or has a medical condition. Speak to a pediatrician to know the best age to begin sleep training for your baby.
How Do You Decide If Controlled Crying Is Right For You?
These questions might help you decide whether controlled comforting is right for you and your baby. If you answer “yes” to all these questions, unless mentioned otherwise, you may give this technique a try (2).
- Do you think your baby settles themself to sleep when you are not around? If not, it might be due to separation anxiety, which can make it harder to teach controlled comforting.
- Are you and your baby both well? If you think illness might be the reason why your baby isn’t settling, then it is not recommended because the strategy requires time and patience. Also, it would be unwise to have sleep training when you are unwell yourself.
- Will you be able to manage if your baby cries more while adapting to a new way of getting to sleep?
- Are things stable in your family, with no big changes like a new baby, a house move, or other external stress factors?
- Have you got time for controlled crying? It can take around 3-14 days to train. It requires full attention, and you should avoid important commitments for the initial days.
- Do you have a partner or other close friends who could help you on this journey?
How Do You Use Controlled Crying?
You may follow these steps for a controlled crying technique (3).
- Put your baby in the bed at the time that you want your baby to become accustomed to. You may talk or pat a little for a minute, say goodnight, and leave the room.
- Stay out of the room to allow your baby to settle down by themselves.
- If your baby starts crying, hold back for a couple of minutes before entering the room and comforting the baby.
- Reassure your baby by talking or patting for around a minute or until they are quiet.
- Pat and soothe the baby while they lay in the crib. Do not pick them up.
- Leave the room once your baby is quiet or after a minute. Leave the room and wait for the next bout of crying. In this case, you are allowing your baby to learn to sleep on their own by letting them know that you are around and will later come back.
- You will continue this technique of stepping in and out of the baby’s room when the baby is crying but spending an increasing amount of time outside the room.
- You may try following time intervals, such as two, four, six, eight, and ten minutes.
- Keep following these steps until the baby starts sleeping on their own.
- If the baby wakes up in the night, follow these steps again.
Every baby is different, and the sleep training techniques require patience. Eventually, your baby will get used to sleeping without crying. Some babies need two nights only, while others may require a week.
If your baby is not sleeping after five to seven nights, you may seek advice from a professional. Experts believe that 80% of the babies respond to controlled crying while the remaining may respond well to other techniques (3).
Pros And Cons Of Controlled Crying
The following are the pros and cons of controlled crying sleep training technique (7).
- It is a relatively quick and effective way to help babies get themselves to sleep. If properly trained, babies can learn this technique within a week.
- Babies who learn to soothe themselves tend to sleep well over the course of the first year.
- This skill may also prove helpful when you are not around to soothe your baby.
- Some experts believe that babies who can self-soothe are less fussy as they grow.
- Many believe that it is quite a rigid approach with set feeding and sleeping timings.
- Proponents of attachment theory are of the view that not attending to a baby’s cry immediately may cause the baby to experience a sense of abandonment and insecurity.
- Some parents may find this technique emotionally stressful since it could be difficult for them to resist picking up the crying baby.
- Crying could affect the sleep of other family members in the house.
Tips For Making Controlled Crying Work
- Start at the right time: Controlled crying is not recommended for babies under six months of age. Young babies do not develop anticipatory behavior. However, this technique becomes difficult to teach after they are two years old.
- Expect a lot of crying first: Parents should not be inclined to pacify or comfort their baby just under a minute of crying. They should wait at least a couple of minutes before comforting them and try later based on the subsequent time intervals.
- Get support: Take help from your partner in reducing the urge to pick your baby. Moreover, remember that sleep training techniques can be emotionally and physically difficult for both parents. Do not try the technique when your partner is unwell or when experiencing a life situation that requires your attention.
- Be consistent: Every baby follows a different learning curve. Some babies learn this technique in a few nights, and others require a week. Thus, it is necessary to be consistent while practicing this technique.
- Keep the end in mind: Be sure about the technique and expected outcome. For some babies, the technique may take up to two weeks. However, do consult a doctor if there are no improvements in a week. If your baby is fine, you may continue with the sleep training.
- Know when to call quits: Parents should not neglect their child if crying persists for a long time and should check the reasons for such discomfort. If your baby becomes sick, you and your baby are finding it stressful, or the sleeping pattern hasn’t improved after a couple of weeks, then you should stop practicing it.
- Make sure your baby is sufficiently fed during the day: It is important that your little one is well-fed through the day and no later than an hour before bedtime. Adequate feeding during the day could reduce the baby’s likelihood of waking up at night due to hunger.
- Use a consistent routine for bedtime: Follow a soothing and repetitive night routine. It can include a bath, light music, or reading books. Also, begin controlled crying for nighttime sleep first, and once it works, you could use it for daytime naps, as well.
- Avoid other big changes to your child’s routine: Do not abruptly change the bedtime or the waiting intervals during controlled crying. Maintain the same bedtime each night. Also, make sure your baby is not teething, sick, or experiencing other developmental milestones that may need additional attention, which may make sleep training difficult.
- Provide the right environment: Ensure that the environment your little one is sleeping in is safe, comfortable, and conducive for sleep. It is also important that your baby is getting attention, time, and affection.
What Other Sleep Training Methods Could You Try?
You may also consider the following alternatives to controlled crying (8).
- The pick-up, put-down method: This method involves picking up the baby, pacifying them, and placing them in the crib only once they are calm. This technique may cause the baby to start crying the movement you place them in the crib. It may also reinforce to the baby that they will be picked and cuddled each time they cry.
- Gradual retreat: It involves placing the baby in the crib, sitting next to them without engaging with them, and then gradually increasing the distance from them until you are completely out of the room. It gives the baby enough time to calm themself to sleep while the parent is around. This sleeping technique may not work with older babies who are more likely to spot you gradually retreating towards the door, making them cry immediately.
Frequently Asked Question
1. Is controlled crying cruel?
No, controlled crying is about reassuring your baby every few minutes of your presence, but also to teach that it is time for their sleep. You should not abandon your baby to cry for long and unregulated periods of time.
Controlled crying can help both the baby and parents have a good night’s sleep. Remember, any sleep training technique takes time and patience. Parents often have unrealistic expectations about their baby’s sleep patterns. A baby’s body and digestive system is not designed to sleep for longer hours at a stretch and often a baby rightly demands proximity of a caregiver to feel emotionally secure.
2. Controlled comforting: Baby and child sleep strategy; Raising Children Network (Australia)
3. FAQs – Brief sleep intervention: Controlled crying; Royal Australian College of General Practitioners
4. Hiscock H. et al., Improving infant sleep and maternal mental health: a cluster randomised trial; NCBI
5. Anna M.H. Price et al., Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: randomized trial; American Academy of Pediatrics
6. Infant Sleep; Stanford Children’s Health
7. Is it okay to let a baby cry?; NCT
8. Sleep Training – Sleep Factsheet; West Sussex; NHS