If you’re here then it’s likely because your baby or toddler is not sleeping well, and you are beginning to struggle as a result. There comes a time when lack of sleep takes its toll to such an extent that parents may begin to consider employing a sleep training technique, such as controlled crying. If you’ve reached that stage you’ll likely have a lot of questions before you get started, and this article is designed to help you decide how to proceed.
Before we begin I’m going to be completely upfront about the fact that I do have an opinion on sleep training – obviously or I wouldn’t be writing about it. BUT – despite my personal feelings about it, I’m going to do my best to keep this article as factual as possible. The bottom line is that every parent reading this will be feeling desperate. I’ve been there and I don’t judge, I merely want to help you be informed about your options.
This is a highly emotive subject, with many experts weighing in with their advice. I’ll be citing and linking to various research to show arguments both for and against sleep training babies and toddlers.
It’s worth noting that erratic sleep in babies is not only biologically normal, it also has vital benefits, including being a natural protector against SIDS.
Often, parents (and breastfeeding mothers in particular) reach a point where they are struggling badly with sleep-deprivation and feel taking action is their only option – but are not actually comfortable doing so. If this describes you, please refer to my post describing a practical way to safely maximise your sleep without using any form of sleep training.
What Is Sleep Training?
Sleep training is when a specific technique is used to enable your baby to sleep better, ie. for longer stretches of time, and/or to be able to self-soothe so that they don’t require your help or presence to go back to sleep after waking (unless – age dependent – they require a feed).
There are a variety of methods used, some more gentle than others, but what they all have in common is that their application will cause your baby to cry; if this were not the case then they would simply not be necessary.
Depending on whose research you believe, the induced tears can be interpreted as protest or distress. Recognised sleep training techniques are outlined below, and you may draw your own conclusions.
Cry It Out Sleep Training Methods
There are several recognised techniques, including controlled crying which we’ll be looking at more closely in this post, as well as others which are known to be less gentle:
Dr Marc Weissbluth’s extinction method is the one most often associated with the dreaded ‘Cry It Out’, or CIO; it sounds brutal, and that’s because it is (unless your baby is unusually placid and quick to fall asleep without comfort – rare and negates the need for sleep training)! It’s simple and does what it says on the tin:
- Put your baby in bed.
- Return the next day.
Few parents are emotionally equipped to carry out the steps in the highly controversial Extinction Method. However, there are logical reasons for its extreme nature: it’s argued that this technique is the equivalent of ripping off a plaster – it’s quick, largely because there are no mixed signals from the parent.
Graduated Extinction / The Controlled Crying Technique
Controlled crying (sometimes referred to as controlled comfort, controlled checking, or graduated extinction) is the term used to describe a specific sleep training method which differs to CIO in that you do not leave your baby to cry alone as you do with the extinction method.
What is Controlled Crying?
The controlled crying technique involves laying your baby down whilst drowsy but awake, and then leaving the room. This technique does not involve leaving your baby to cry with no comfort; instead you return to offer reassurance, but without engaging with them directly.
There are disputed pros and cons to this method: it’s less distressing to the parent and child, however it’s also argued to send mixed messages to the baby which can prolong the agony.
Recognised controlled crying techniques include:
In this technique you first follow an evening routine to prepare your baby for bedtime, which may include a bath, nursing, and a book. Once your baby is in bed you leave them to self-soothe, returning at predetermined intervals to comfort them, but without picking them up.
- Lay your baby down whilst still awake and leave the room.
- On the first night you return to comfort the baby (without picking them up) after three minutes, then leave the room again.
- Repeat the process after a further five minutes, and then at intervals of ten minutes until the baby is asleep.
- Intervals should be progressively lengthened on subsequent nights.
The Ferber Method is recommended from four months of age, though it’s accepted that night feeds may still be necessary until six months.
Controlled Timed Crying Technique
Jo Frost’s technique is similar to the Ferber technique, but is recommended from six months of age:
- Follow your usual nighttime ritual to put your baby to bed. After a bath, book, kisses and cuddles, lay your baby in bed and leave the room.
- Your baby will likely cry; take no action for two minutes.
- After two minutes have passed, return to your baby, lay a hand on their tummy, look at the bridge of their nose, shush them and then leave the room.
- After each episode of comfort, double the time before your next return. Continue until your baby is asleep.
I was privileged several years ago to have the opportunity to interview Ms Frost about her method. I (very diplomatically) asked the former Supernanny to defend controlled crying, and I wrote about our conversation.
When to Start Controlled Crying
Note that you should not attempt any form of sleep training before 4 months of age or if your baby is unwell, and you should only do so if it is the right action to take for your family, and not because you feel pressured into doing so.
If you’re not comfortable with the idea of implementing any of the above techniques, take a look at my post describing a practical way to safely maximise your sleep without using any form of sleep training.
Does Controlled Crying Work?
Firm and consistent application of these methods often leads to better reported sleep, with baby learning to ‘self-soothe’ after waking if a feed is not required.
It’s important to take into account that teething, illness, developmental leaps and sleep regressions affecting your newly strict routine may disrupt progress – meaning the technique will need to be started afresh.
Achieving your desired goal is no guarantee against further erratic patterns of sleep which are a biological norm for babies, and therefore easily returned to.
How Long Does Controlled Crying Take to Work?
With meticulous execution and no disruptions to the new routine, you can usually expect your baby to begin to ‘self-soothe’ within a week, and often just a few days.
Self-soothing implies that your baby is soothing himself back to sleep. Whilst it’s true that he is learning to return to sleep without your comfort and assistance, what’s actually taking place is learned helplessness. Let’s take a look at the reality of what’s taking place:
Is Controlled Crying Cruel?
Allowing a baby to cry without offering them adequate comfort results in a flood of the stress hormone, cortisol, being released in their body. While a little cortisol is normal and doesn’t cause problems to the developing brain, the consequence of too much may be undesirable problems now and later in life, and could even contribute to SIDS.
It’s argued that some of the resulting problems may include anxiety, stress, depression, and even learning difficulties.
Yet we know that even if a baby is crying, the mere action of holding them throughout their bout of upset reduces their levels of cortisol – cuddling literally soothes their hormonal response to stress.
What Does the Science Say About Sleep Training and Controlled Crying?
If only it were that simple… Alas if you look hard enough, you will find evidence to support your personal agenda, whatever that may be. Because the bottom line is that despite opinion, recommendations, and research assuring you both ways – we can’t be absolutely certain as to the precise effects of sleep training.
While there are some studies making bold claims for or against controlled crying, many can be discredited and there’s simply not enough evidence to make definitive statements.
Should I Sleep Train My Baby?
With the above in mind, you will have to assess the available information and weigh up the potential cost of sleep training against its potential benefit.
Even once you’ve formed a logical decision, if it doesn’t marry up with your instincts, you’ll probably discard it and revert to what feels right. As a mother of poorly sleeping children, I feel authorised to tell you that your gut should be your guide.
Further reading to help you make up your own mind as to whether sleep training is best for your family:
- Cry It Out – 6 Educated Professionals Who Advise Against It
- Dangers of “Crying It Out”
- The Con of Controlled Crying
- What Science Says About Letting Your Baby ‘Cry It Out’
- Critics of Cry-It-Out Fundamentally Misunderstand How Stress Affects the Brain
- Controlled Crying ‘Safe for Babies’ – NHS
Are There Gentle Alternatives to Sleep Training?
The research paper I found most interesting whilst writing this article is one that suggests parental resistance in uptake of interventions which are perceived by the parents to be unethical.
This is a big concern because sleep-deprivation is a very real problem facing the majority of new parents. Seeking help should be a viable option – and not one parents are afraid of because current recommended interventions do not align with their personal values.
The paper I mention above state explicitly that alternatives to harsh sleep training do exist and are successful. So why are these not more widely discussed and recommended? Instead, parents are seeking help online which, while perfectly legitimate, suggests a failure in support to those very many parents who need help.
Non-Extinction Based Sleep Interventions
There are a few different options if you refuse to leave your baby to cry. Some are sleep training techniques, while others don’t involve any training at all, and are simply solutions to help maximise your family’s sleep whilst allowing you to respond to your baby.
Camping Out Sleep Solution
Camping out is when you remain in the same room as your baby while they fall asleep, offering comfort when required, but without engaging too much. Over time you gradually move away from the cot, but only as your baby adjusts, so that crying is avoided.
- Follow your usual nighttime ritual to put your baby to bed. After a bath, book, kisses and cuddles, lay your infant in bed and sit beside their cot.
- Stroke your baby until he falls asleep, but avoid picking him up.
- Leave the room once your baby is sleeping, but return when he wakes and repeat the process.
- For the next few nights, gradually reduce the time you stroke your infant.
- Once your baby is able to fall asleep without being stroked, move a short distance away from his cot. Return to this post each time your baby wakes, until they return to sleep.
- Gradually be able to further away each night, until you’re able to leave your baby in bed alone without tears.
Does the Camping Out Sleep Solution Work?
I’ve tried this myself with limited success.
Every baby is different and mine have been high needs, meaning this didn’t work for us in the end. However, I’m sure it could work for some and if you’re keen to try gentle alternative to controlled crying then it’s worth a shot.
For our family, we moved to this one as our eldest was much older, and it eventually worked when she was four years old. Prior to that, she liked the comfort of a hand on her head while she drifted off, and we were happy to provide it.
Bedsharing – Often Referred to as Co-Sleeping
Whether for practical or personal reasons, this is not always an option. I’m a relatively gentle parent, but still – for the sake of my marriage – I did not wish to bedshare. With our first, it didn’t happen.
With baby number two, in the end, we had little choice. Elfin was a monster at night – she suffered with CMPA which caused hideous colic and reflux – and out of desperation I had to give in. It was a case of needs must, and it allowed my husband and I to survive that first year.
Bedsharing has received a lot of bad press over the years, but opinion appears to be shifting. If this sleep option appeals to you, following the guidelines can mean it’s a viable and safe option for your family. It can work especially well for breastfeeding mothers.
My Gentle Sleep Solutions
My solution is perfect for gentle families who don’t wish to bedshare. I tried every possible no-cry sleep solution you can think of including gentle night weaning – incidentally, that worked with one but not the other – they’re all individuals! Out of desperation I developed my own trick which I ended up using with both babies, and allows you to maximise your sleep without any form of sleep training.
The biggest problem we have in relation to babies and sleep is that our expectations of them fall outside of biological norms. We may not like it, but their undesirable behaviours are perfectly normal and perfectly designed to keep them safe and promote a healthy breastfeeding journey.
All healthy babies will sleep eventually. In the meantime the best thing we can do is be accepting of our situations and trust our instincts. And eat all the chocolate.