Sleep training and controlled crying

If you're reading this, chances are you're beside yourself with exhaustion. Your baby's been waking and crying for nights on end and you've got to the point where you'd do anything to stop the crying and get some sleep.

Now, just before we go to the often contentious issue of controlled crying and sleep training - we're talking proper long-term wailing in the wee hours here. Not just a temporary (lack of) sleep blip, caused by illness or teething or a change of routine.

And certainly not the perfectly normal (but nerve-shredding) small-baby habit of waking up in the night to feed. No, this is the persistent, sanity-shattering night-waking perfected by some babies over six months old who really don't need to wake up (for milk or for medicine or for reassurance in a strange place) but who do it anyway - a heck of a lot.

If you're all out of support with this sleeping thing or really at your wits' end (or both), call the Cry-sis helpline on 08451 228669 (9am to 10pm, seven days a week).

What most experts will tell you at this point is that it's likely your baby has acquired 'incorrect sleep associations', which roughly translates as 'I've-just-got-used-to-waking-up-in-the-night-and-having-a-hug' syndrome.

Basically, your baby has (maybe always or maybe only fairly recently) had a succession of nights when you've comforted her every time she woke (because she needed it) and now she'd like the arrangement to continue, thank you very much (even though she doesn't need it any more).

This leaves you with two choices: soldiering on (muttering 'this too will pass', which it will but it's anyone's guess when); or doing something about it. And that something is replacing the incorrect sleep associations with the correct ones - otherwise known as sleep training.

What is sleep training?

Warning: things are about to get controversial. The degree of parental passion this subject provokes makes most other should-you-or-shouldn't-you sleep-related debates (see Co-sleeping) look really rather civilised.

Sleep training is all about teaching your baby to settle herself back to sleep when she wakes at night, rather than relying on you to tip up and help her out. And you do this either by ignoring her completely when she wakes or by responding to her in a particular (and rather lukewarm) way.

It is, in effect, the 'tough love' solution to sleepless nights.

And, as anyone's who started a Mumsnet discussion thread on sleep training soon finds out, there are Mumsnetters who think it's cruel..

"It is barbaric to let a baby cry." Josie

... Mumsnetters who think it's a necessary evil...

"It made me feel human again and, if that makes me barbaric, then so be it." Paula1

... and Mumsnetters who think it's the answer to their (sleep-deprived) prayers...

"It's a miracle! I wish I'd done this ages ago." Lorna3586

There are umpteen different methods of sleep training, all of them varying in their levels of (delete as appropriate) barbarity/necessary evil/responsiveness to prayer. But they can be roughly divided into two (highly unofficial) groups: settle-and-leave (gentle but slow) and controlled crying (hardcore but fast). So, we've drawn you up a little Mumsnet potted guide to each.

The settle-and-leave method

  • What it's all about

"Basically, you put your baby in the crib saying, 'Sleepy time, time to go to
sleep now' etc. When they start crying (which they will), pick them up without fussing or sounding like you feel sorry for them. Talk to them calmly until they stop screaming and put them down immediately. If they start again on the way down, put them right down and pick them up again. It might take 100 goes the first time, but this rapidly decreases." Salbow

"I let her cry a bit, then went in saying, 'Shush, shush' and patted her back, left again, went in again, and so on. I didn't actually pick her up but just lay her back down again each time and left." amidaiwish

  • Why people like it

"I didn't like the idea of controlled crying, and this is great because you never just leave them to cry. You are there with them." flimflammum

  • Why it might not work

"We used it with my daughter when she was six months old. It's great at teaching your child how to get back to sleep but, with my daughter, it still took another three months before she slept right through - she was just a wakeful baby, I think." Travellerintime

The controlled crying method

  • How it works

"You leave your baby to cry for five minutes, then go in to soothe them, then leave. Then you wait 10 minutes before going in again, then 20, then 30 minutes." Binkybetsy

  • Why people like it

"It took me two very stressful evenings and then it worked." notasheep

  • Why it might not work

"Controlled crying is a quick-fix solution in that it can work after just three days, but the first night is always horrendous and, of course, you get the mothers who simply haven't the heart for it. It can be very heart-breaking listening to your child crying for you." Rhubarb 

What to know before you start

Of course, it's up to you which sleep-training method (or variation of method) you use - if any - but, before you start, it's worth noting that:

  • Controlled crying is really not recommended for babies under six months. Partly because younger (and less set-in-their-sleepless ways) babies tend to respond well to the less-hardcore settle-and-leave approach. 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 she hasn't needed one for several weeks (growth spurts can make babies super-hungry).
  • You need to be consistent. It's not good doing it one night (with whichever method) and then not bothering the next. If you want this sleep training thing to work, you need to keep at it. And your partner needs to be in on this consistency deal too. This is particularly important for anyone going down the controlled-crying route: the most common reason for controlled crying not working (look away now if you're in the 'controlled crying is barbaric camp') is one or other parents 'cracking' before their child does. 
  • The crying will escalate after you check them. So if leaving your child for five minutes is just too difficult, start with shorter timings. The key thing 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 five 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 her general outlook during waking hours, as well as yours.
  • Your child won't love you any less in the morning.  

Early waking

Parenting life being as stuffed with harsh ironies as it is, we hardly need tell you that, no sooner does your baby crack the sleep-all-night-long thing than he or she starts the wake-before-dawn thing.

Veteran Mumsnetters will sigh knowingly and say it's just a phase ("Go to bed early yourself, then it's not so bad." emmaagain) but, if you can't just grimace and bear it, you could:

  • "Cut naps down (or out), give your baby lots of physical play in the afternoon and offer a snack (toast or porridge) before bed." Gemzooks
  • "Put up blackouts blinds that would pass a World War Two warden check. Some children are just very sensitive to daylight." Molly1
  • "Treat it as a night-time waking - not turning on the lights, shh-shhing and whispering to her that it is still night-time. No milk. It took a while but she got the message." CoteD'Azur

And one for the truly brave:

  • "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." Tutter


Last updated: 10 months ago