When you become a parent, it can feel like your life completely revolves around sleep, whether that's struggling to sleep yourself or convincing your baby to catch some zzz's. You've probably bought all the sleep essentials on the market, tried light projectors, run out of lullabies to sing and exhausted all the online tips on how to get little ones to drift off.
If you're struggling to get your baby to get some shut-eye, are experiencing sleep problems or are desperate to get her into a bedtime routine at night time, the controlled crying technique may be worth considering.
Using the controlled crying method can be seriously tough – leaving your baby to cry is hard, it's our instinct to respond to a crying baby. So it's heartbreaking to listen to your baby crying and it will probably make you feel like like you're a bad parent.
But the good news is that once it starts working (and you can usually see improvements within a week) your baby will know how to settle themselves, leaving you to catch up on some much needed sleep and that's good for everyone.
What is controlled crying?
Controlled crying is an appealing quick fix. It helps your baby settle themselves, or learn to self soothe, without any significant harmful or long-term effects, experts and researchers have found. Dr Richard Ferber proposed ‘controlled crying’ back in the 80s, also known as the Ferber method, as a way to teach a baby to fall asleep on their own.
The method encourages your baby to settle themselves – so it is a bit of a tough love process but means that they won't rely on you to soothe them whenever they wake. You'll need to wait until your baby is six months old to try this out because young babies often wake regularly as they need to be fed.
How to use the controlled crying method
When it's time for your baby to go to bed, put your baby in her cot, say goodnight and leave the room while she's still awake. If she doesn't cry – great! However it's likely that she will and as much as you want to rush to console your baby when she is crying, following the controlled method means exerting some serious self-control and leaving her to cry on her own for a few minutes.
Try to pass this time while baby's left to cry by rewarding yourself with a nice treat like a giant scoop of ice cream (after all, if you’re avoiding one temptation then it’s only fair you get another) before you give in and go and see your baby.
She may have got herself all worked up but resist the temptation to pick her up for a cuddle and instead soothe your baby by speaking lovingly and softly to her so that she knows everything is fine. Stay just a few minutes and tear yourself away before she falls asleep.
Then repeat this process – extending the time that you leave your tot alone by a few minutes each time – until she falls asleep for the night. The next night, do the same but lengthen the amount of time your baby spends on her own by a few minutes. One night, as if by magic, your baby will fall asleep after just one period of crying. Be patient, it will happen.
How controlled crying works
Your baby learns to fall asleep without you, without the shock of being completely abandoned, but with a reinforcing message that she must do it on her own. There is some disagreement between experts on the question of whether or not you should stroke your baby but it's entirely up to you. Some experts think it could confuse a baby, giving her a mixed message that if she cries for long enough, it will give her some result.
Is controlled crying safe for your baby?
As long as you are sure that your baby is not hungry, thirsty or poorly before you put them to sleep, there is no proven harm in controlled crying. Some experts claim that it may make children feel abandoned which could cause them problems in later life, however there has been no evidence to support this yet.
A follow-up study in 2020 from the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry showed that controlled crying was a safe technique and did not cause long-lasting harm to the child, their relationship with their parent or their mother's health.
How to manage controlled crying
Ideally you should try to keep at controlled crying every night for maximum effect but it’s just not worth trying if you’ve had the day from hell and feel like you’re going to explode.
Make sure you’ve got the support of your partner or a good friend who will answer your calls or come round and restrain you when you feel like you’re about to cave in. And have comfort food or feel-good films at the ready! It's tough, and you'll still be sleep deprived for a time, but it will be worth it in the long run.
How long does it take for controlled crying to work?
All babies and toddlers are different, and for some learning to drop off on their own is a matter of just a couple of evenings. For most children that normally sleep well, it's about 4-5 days which is still not too bad. With children who struggle with sleep, it can be a hard one, lasting up to two weeks.
If it still doesn’t happen, you should stop using this baby sleep method and perhaps switch to something more gradual.
If you find controlled crying just isn't for you and your baby, there are plenty of other sleep training techniques you might want to give a go.