Sleep training: controlled crying and no-tears methods

Baby waking up

If you're reading this, the chances are your baby's been up all night for weeks and you've got to the point where you'll do anything to stop them crying and get some shut-eye. Taking the bull by the horns isn't for everyone – but if you're wondering whether you can train your baby to develop better sleeping habits, there are a few different options.

What is sleep training?
Controlled crying
No tears – the gentler methods
Sleep train a toddler
Tips for sleep training

Definitive action is usually only considered by parents dealing with long-term wailing in the wee hours. We're not talking about the perfectly normal (but still nerve-shredding) small baby habit of waking up in the night to feed, or a temporary sleep blip, caused by illness or teething or a change of routine. We're talking about the persistent, sanity-shattering, night-waking that's perfected by some babies over six months old who really don't need to wake up (for milk or medicine or reassurance in a strange place) but who do it anyway – a lot.

Many experts will say that your baby has probably acquired 'incorrect sleep associations', which, roughly speaking, means he has got used to waking up in the night and receiving a hug (aaaw, though!)

It's understandable that you want to comfort your baby every time he wakes but, if that continues over a long period of time, it can be difficult to break the habit. This leaves you with a choice: you can soldier on and wait for this phase to pass (it will), or you can make a plan to deal with it.

What is sleep training?

Put simply, it's all about teaching your baby to settle himself back to sleep when he wakes at night, rather than relying on you to get up and feed him or soothe him back to sleep. You achieve this state of bliss either by not going straight to your baby when he wakes, or by responding to him in a particular (and rather lukewarm) way. This is, in effect, the 'tough love' solution to sleepless nights.

Babies don't wake up at night to cause trouble – they do it because they need something, be it comfort, food, pain relief. Just because they can't speak doesn't mean they should be ignored and expected to go back to sleep.

Do I have to sleep train my baby?

Absolutely not! Many parents just muddle through for various reasons. It might be that it seems less stressful (both for you and your baby) to just ride it out than to take the bull by the horns. It might be that your baby has health issues, such as reflux or having been born prematurely, that make you feel they do need that comfort when they wake in the night. Or perhaps you just don't find your baby's slightly chaotic sleep pattern too difficult to deal with and so it's just not worth the hassle. If it ain't broke, after all…

As anyone who starts a discussion on sleep training soon discovers, there are those who think it is cruel, and others who view it as a necessary evil (“It made me feel human again and if that makes me barbaric, then so be it”) and some who simply love it (“It's a miracle. I wish I'd done this ages ago”). For those who need a little extra reassurance, studies have shown that sleep training methods are safe for babies.

What age can you start to sleep train a baby?

Experts suggest that six months is a good time to start, but it's a personal choice. Opinions vary but a baby can't really soothe himself until around three months old, so there's absolutely no point in trying before that stage. Also, if your baby is still at the stage of needing night feeds, there's only so much ignoring him you can do, so many parents wait until weaning is underway. You might feel there would be real benefits to starting early or you may think your baby is nowhere near ready yet and prefer to leave it a little longer.

Which sleep training methods are best?

The plan you choose will depend on your baby's temperament (and yours, too!) If you have a Velcro child, whose lip quivers every time you look like you might be about to nip into the kitchen to make a cuppa, you may want to go for one of the gentler methods. If you're a rip-off-the-plaster-in-one-go type and the thought of spending many evenings moving a chair progressively a few inches further from the cot makes you feel like crying yourself, you might be best advised to try a shorter and sharper plan.

There are many different types of plan but they can be roughly divided into two categories: controlled crying and no tears (there are several methods under the 'no tears' umbrella). Here's a guide to some of the most popular methods.

Controlled crying

Don't make the mistake of thinking that this simply means letting your baby cry himself to sleep (that would be “uncontrolled crying”, otherwise known as hell).

Gurus of the method recommend that you put your baby in his cot, settle him, then leave the room. If he starts crying, wait for five minutes before going in to comfort him. Then leave the room again.

Controlled crying isn't cruel. Sometimes you have to consider your mental health too. If you're sleep deprived and at the end of your tether, it's going to impact on your parenting ability.

If your baby continues crying, repeat the process, waiting two minutes longer each time before you go back to comfort him (so wait seven minutes the second time, nine minutes the third time and so on). The longer intervals are supposed to teach your baby that you won't automatically come to him when he cries. Eventually, the idea is that babies learn to go to sleep by themselves.

Why Mumsnetters like it: “It took me two very stressful evenings and then it worked.”

Why it might not work: “This is a quick fix solution in that it can work after just three days. But the first night is always horrendous and some of you might simply not be able to stand it. It can be heartbreaking listening to your child crying for you.”

Things to remember if you decide controlled crying is for you

The method is not recommended for babies under six months. This is partly because younger babies tend to respond well to the gentler no tears methods, 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 he hasn't needed one for several weeks (growth spurts can make babies super hungry).

Be consistent. This is the golden rule. It's no good doing it one night and then not bothering the next. If you want sleep training to work, you need to keep at it and your partner needs to be signed up to it, too. This is particularly important with controlled crying: the most common reason for controlled crying not working is one or other parent 'cracking' before their child does.

The crying will escalate after you check them. If leaving your child for five minutes is too difficult, start with shorter timings. The key is to increase the length between checking (reassuring yourself and letting your baby know you're still nearby) – if you start with two minutes, then increase it to four minutes, and so on.

You're not just doing it for you. Training your baby to self-settle at night will probably have positive knock-on effects on his general temperament during waking hours, as well as yours.

Your child won't love you any less in the morning. A crying baby can sound full of fury and resentment towards you. Of course, that's not the case and, even when he's screaming, rest assured he loves and depends on you.

Tired mum picking up baby from cot

No tears – the more gentle methods

If you decide that the above is not for you, here are several less stressful methods for you to try. All require you to establish a soothing bedtime routine.

Pick up, put down

I just could not do the pick up, put down method, as it involved lifting a wiggling eight kilo baby over the side of the cot and putting him back a million times. I'm no weakling but my back just could not take it. And it just made my son scream louder.

“No tears” doesn't necessarily mean no stress and this method can be pretty demanding for parents. Make sure you share the load with your partner, as repeatedly picking up and putting down a baby can take a toll on your back. You'll need patience and resilience to crack this one but, at the very least, it's easier on your ears and nerves than controlled crying. You need to adopt a rather businesslike manner with your baby which won't come naturally. But it's worth it if you can make the effort.

In terms of what you do, it's self-explanatory really. First, put your baby in his cot or Moses basket. When he starts crying, pick him up without fussing. You don't have to be brusque but try to avoid sounding like you feel too sorry for him. You need to let him know that this is when he should be sleeping. Soothe and 'ssh' him until he stops crying. Saying something repetitive in a monotonous tone of voice like, 'Night night. Sleep time now,' should help calm both you and him. When he stops crying put him down immediately. If he starts crying again, repeat the process until he settles.

Why Mumsnetters like it: “I couldn't abide the thought of long bouts of crying so we tried pick up, put down with our daughter at five months. It worked well for us. Took a couple of weeks to nail it properly but we got good results.”

Why it might not work: “Tried it with my daughter. Awful. Did nothing except feed her hysteria. And apparently it's quite bad for refluxy babies. Felt terribly guilty when I heard that.”

Gradual retreat

For this method to succeed you need to have already established a regular bedtime routine. Once you have that in place, put a chair next to your baby's cot. At bedtime, put your baby down on his back and sit down on the chair – that way he is in position to fall asleep but will know you're still close. When he starts to cry, go to him and pat him. Make soothing sounds but try to avoid eye contact.

When your baby stops crying, quietly move your chair back from the cot. If he wakes up again then repeat this process, retreating from the cot a little at a time until he falls asleep and stays asleep.

Why Mumsnetters like it: “I have just done several weeks of gradual retreat with good success. For the first few days I sat right by my son's cot with my hand on his back to reassure him and then started moving backwards very slowly each night. Just take it slowly and see what happens!”

Why it might not work: “We did very gradual withdrawal and started holding him until nearly asleep, then cuddling in the cot, patting, sshing, sitting by the cot. If there's more crying than we're comfortable with we move back a step towards the cot. My son can become totally hysterical otherwise and cry for hours.”

Baby sleeping in blue cot

Wake to sleep

For many parents, no sooner does their baby crack the sleep-all-night-long thing than he or she starts the waking-before-dawn thing. This is just another of the phases babies go through but that doesn't mean it doesn't feel incredibly frustrating at 5am.

Possible solutions include cutting down on daytime naps and giving your baby lots of physical play so that, at night, they're tired out and more likely to sleep through. You could also put up blackout blinds, as some babies are very sensitive to light, so prone to waking at the crack of dawn.

I attempted the Wake to Sleep method last night. Set alarm for 4:30 and woke 10 month old son slightly. But he's cried on and off ever since!

If all else fails the wake to sleep method could be worth trying. This potentially gruelling technique involves doing the very thing that most parents are trying to avoid – waking the baby. That's right, if your baby is in the habit of rising early then beat them to it with a pre-emptive wake up.

Say your baby keeps waking up at 05:30. Set your alarm for 04:30. Wake your baby at this time. They will probably be cross and keen to get back to sleep. Once they've done that they might well sleep through to the kind of time – 07:30 or 08:00, say – when the rest of the world is getting up. Repeat the process for the next two nights then, on the third night, don't set the alarm and see if your baby sleeps through to their new, more civilised wake up time. It's a gamble but, according to some Mumsnetters, it works.

Why Mumsnetters like it: “I've been trying the 'wake-to-sleep' method. The last two nights, we have set the alarm for (vomit) 4am – an hour earlier than he normally wakes – and have gone in and gently roused him. He's gone straight back off each time, and then slept on later.”
shous
Why it might not work: “I tried wake to sleep last night, after seven months of my son waking at 5am, but I am finding it very difficult to get back to sleep. He did sleep until 6am though so that's progress.”
I don't think there are that many people who can just plonk their baby in the cot and get them to sleep.

Self-settling

Less a 'plan' than a general outlook, self-settling concentrates on giving your child the tools and skills to learn to settle himself back to sleep. You put your child to bed drowsy but still awake, having made sure his bedroom is a calm and relaxing environment – you might want to get a soft nightlight and invest in a white noise CD or a toy that plays gentle lullabies. The idea is that he will drift off to sleep by himself and therefore do the same if he wakes in the night. If he does cry out, wait a minute or two before you rush in. With a bit of luck he'll settle off to sleep before you go in but if not, the pause before you go in will eventually teach him to go back to sleep by himself. Try to keep this up in the daytime, too, so he goes to sleep by himself for naps and don't rush to him if he cries for a feed during the daytime either. Obviously don't let him go hungry, but a minute or two to give him the opportunity to calm himself a bit will help this plan work at night time, too.

How to sleep train a toddler

You can use most of the methods outlined above but adapt them for an older child. Maybe they can have a story CD on instead of white noise, and perhaps you'll say something a bit more comforting when you pop in – more of a “sweet dreams, see you in the morning” than repetitive sshh-ing. Toddlers might also bring up fears such as monsters under the bed, so talk these through during the day and work out solutions (monster spray – a few drops of lavender oil in a spray bottle of water – works well).

By around 12 months, children are a bit more independent and so might take to a sleep plan more easily. They're also more easily bribed, so get the star charts and marble jars out now. A few Paw Patrol figures are a small price to pay for a decent night's sleep. Remember, though, that toddlers can go through patches of separation anxiety too, so if you're having trouble at nursery drop off or anything like that, it might be best left until they're more settled again.

Why Mumsnetters like it: “We 'taught' our daughter to self-settle at 5.5 months and I am very glad we did as the one consistently good aspect of her sleep has been that I can count on two hands the number of occasions she has made a fuss at bedtime.”

Why it might not work: “I was always amazed at seeing these little puddings being plonked in their car seats awake and just drifting off to sleep. My two were very much not like that. They would find enough interest in any set of surroundings to keep themselves awake forever unless sleep was imposed, by fair means or foul.”

What is 'crying it out'?

This is a slightly more brutal method than controlled crying, which basically means letting your baby cry himself to sleep. It's nerve-shredding for everyone involved so it doesn't tend to get a lot of recommendations, but for older children and the odd child that will only respond to a tough approach, it can work.

Tips for sleep training

Time it right. Whichever method you choose you should try to begin during a period when your calendar is fairly light, as you may find that you lose a little sleep in the first few days. Make sure you and your partner are in agreement about what to do and when before you begin and that you have a clear run of it. If you find your partner is away on a two-night stag do on day four you're likely to want to leave him crying in a dark room by the time he gets home.

Do your prep. Before you begin try and develop a good bedtime routine so your baby knows that if he's had a bath and a story, you're probably going to turn his light out and go downstairs soon. Having a good daytime routine (with regular naps) will also help.

Put it off if factors conspire against you. If your baby suddenly gets a cold, or you there's a force eight gale arriving on your planned starting night, for heaven's sake, put it off until things are on a more even keel. This will be trying enough without any external factors to exacerbate an already tricky time.

Be prepared to stick it out. Many of these methods take two to three weeks to work. If you give up on night six you'll have gone through all that grief for nothing. All the best things come to those who wait.

Expect setbacks. Even once you've cracked it, don't expect your child to sleep through the night forever. Growth spurts, illnesses and various developmental stages can all disturb sleep. If you have a bump in the road, go back to the method that worked before and start again. You should be back on an even keel in no time.