If you're struggling with a baby who cries at night – or refuses to drop off at bedtime – controlled crying is one of several ‘sleep training’ techniques you could try.
Put simply, when you use controlled crying (sometimes called 'controlled comforting'), you resist the urge to pick your child up when she cries. Instead, you wait for a short interval of between 2 and 10 minutes.
The idea is that, if you don't rush over to your child every time she cries, she'll learn to self-soothe instead – meaning she no longer relies on you to stroke, rock, sing or feed her back to sleep.
It has to be said that the idea of leaving a baby or toddler to cry, even for a short time, is a controversial one: it seems to go against a parent's instinct to pick up and comfort your baby.
Rachel Waddilove, baby-sleep expert and author of Sleep Solutions, agrees that the technique isn’t for everyone. But she says she has seen many, many instances where controlled crying has quickly helped a baby or toddler learn how to self-soothe – and sleep for longer at night.
Is controlled crying safe for my baby?
Yes, research does seem to show that letting your baby cry for a short, predictable spell has no adverse stress responses and no long-term harmful effects on your child's emotions or behaviour.
But it's really important, says Rachel, to make sure you:
- Don't use controlled crying on a baby younger than 6 months old
- Always make sure that your child isn’t hungry, thirsty, ill or overwrought before you put them to bed and use controlled crying
- Don’t confuse controlled crying with the ‘cry it out’ or 'extinction' method: which is leaving your baby to cry and cry until they fall asleep. "That's pretty much uncontrolled crying," says Rachel, "and no fun for anyone."
"I tried controlled crying with my daughter when she was about 1, and it worked. It is not a case of letting your child just scream their head off. If you are sensible, it can work.”
Controlled crying: how do do it
STEP 1: After your usual bedtime routine, put your baby in her cot, say goodnight to her, and then leave the room while she's still awake.
STEP 2: If she cries, wait for 2 minutes before going in. When you do go in, stay for a few minutes to reassure her (but don't take her out of the cot or be the least bit fun and entertaining), then say goodnight and leave the room while she's still awake.
STEP 3: If she cries again, wait for 5 minutes, then go back in and repeat the reassure-say-goodnight-leave process.
STEP 4: If she cries again, wait for 7 or 8 minutes before going back in – and then extend the time between repeat visits by 2 minutes each time, until she falls asleep. You will be leaving your child to cry for a longer stretch each time.
STEP 5: Repeat the whole process the following night and the nights after. Within a few days, if your response is always consistent, your baby should have learned how to self-soothe and fall asleep by herself without crying.
So you can’t stay with your baby until she falls asleep?
No, the key thing with the controlled crying technique is that it helps your baby learn to go to sleep by herself.
You could still use a soothing method to calm her when it's time for you to come back in to the room: stroking her head, for example, or repeating comforting words. But it's important that you then say goodnight and leave while she is still awake.
How long does controlled crying take to work?
It varies from child to child, says Rachel, but, on average, controlled crying takes 4 to 7 days to work.
"With a baby who used to sleep well and then suddenly starts to sleep badly, you will probably find that, using this method, you’ll crack it in 4 or 5 nights," Rachel says. "But if your baby has never slept well, it might take longer – over a week, perhaps. Be persistent, and persevere."
The mums on our forum report success with controlled crying in varying amounts of time. XXMummyof3XX says, "I did it with my daughter as she was hard to settle to bed, and it worked in 3 days!", while linzo2o9 says, "With our eldest, it took a week. Remember it’s for the best and that it doesn’t last forever. Try not to get disheartened; you are doing the right thing."
What are the pros and cons of controlled crying?
- Your child learns how to get to sleep without help. This should means she will sleep well at night from now on (unless she's ill or her routine changes massively – by going on holiday, for example).
- It can be quick. As our forum mum delly n eva discovered: "I did the controlled crying. It took no more than 2 nights for her to be sleeping like a baby and she has been sleeping well ever since!”
- It's hard to let your baby cry. As forum mum Andrea1972 says, "I used controlled crying with my 7 month old. It was really hard as I felt guilty letting him cry."
- The older your child is, the harder it can be. Some toddlers will cry until they make themselves sick.
- It won't work – or it will take much longer – if you're not consistent. If you're going to do this, you need to commit to it, as does your partner.
- Your neighbours may be disturbed for a few nights.
- There are people, including some parenting experts, who believe that not picking up a crying baby may cause her to feel confused or abandoned, and this may have a negative impact later in life. The latest research doesn't seem to bear this out but it is an opinion that is widely and sometimes passionately expressed, especially online.
What are the best tips for making controlled crying work?
- Start at the right time. However desperate you are for your baby to sleep through, you shouldn't start controlled crying when your baby is ill or when you've got a lot on.
- Expect a lot of crying at first. And know that it's a normal parental to feel your heartbeat faster as a result – and for you to feel an urge to go back into the room straightaway.
- Get support. Make sure you’ve got back-up from your partner or, if you’re a single parent, from a family member or a friend who will answer your calls or text when you need some support.
- Be consistent. If you don't stick to the waiting times outlined in the Step-by-Step Guide (above) before going back into your baby's room, the technique probably won't work. Similarly, if you follow the timings for 1 night but then don't follow them the next night, the technique probably won't work. And that's a lot of wasted effort – and unnecessary upset – all round.
- Keep the end in mind. The technique you're using can feel harsh but it's designed to work relatively quickly. And if your baby learns to self-soothe and sleep for longer at night, you'll feel less sleep-deprived and more.
- Know when to call it quits. If your baby is still very resistant to the controlled crying technique after several nights of trying, you may want to wait a few weeks and then try again. And, if the reality of controlled crying is just too hard to bear – and it really isn't for everyone – there are other gentler sleep-training methods you can try, as we explain below...
What other sleep training methods could I try?
If you don't want to leave your baby to cry (and many parents don't), there are other alternative sleep-training techniques you can try. Here are 2 of the most popular ones...
The pick-up, put-down method
This is the method favoured by Tracy Hogg, author of Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. Each time your baby cries, you pick her up, soothe her with a “sshh” and then put her down again. The idea is to have sufficient contact with your baby for her to feel reassured enough to fall asleep.
The gradual retreat method
Put your baby down to sleep while she’s drowsy but awake. Stay by her cot until she falls asleep, patting and stroking her whenever she needs reassurance. Over the course of a few nights, gradually move further away from her cot until you find that your baby can fall asleep without you actually being in the room with her at all.
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About our sleep expert Rachel Waddilove
Favourite of royals such as Zara Phillips and celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Waddilove has over 40 years’ experience as a maternity nurse and nanny, and is a mother of 3. She trained at a Doctor Barnado’s nursery college in the 1960s and gives advice which she describes as "mother-led, rather than baby-led". She is the author of The Baby Book, Sleep Solutions and The Toddler Book.