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. Sleep training 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.

Sleep training 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 your baby 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 try sleep training.

What is sleep training?

The parental passion this subject provokes makes most other should-you-or-shouldn't-you sleep-related debates (see co-sleeping) look pretty tame. Sleep training is 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 help out. You do this either by not going 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.

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”).

There are many different ways to go about sleep training but they can be roughly divided into two categories: controlled crying and no tears. Here's a guide to these two most popular methods.

Controlled crying

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

Controlled crying gurus recommend that you put your baby in his cot then leave the room. If he starts crying then 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 then repeat the process, waiting two minutes longer each time before you go back to comfort your baby (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: “Controlled crying 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 heart-breaking listening to your child crying for you.”

Things to remember if you decide controlled crying is for you

Controlled crying 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 (with whichever method) 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.

Time it right. Whichever method you choose you should try to begin sleep training your baby 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.

The crying will escalate after you check them. So 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 controlled crying is not for you then 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 some Mumsnetters say repeatedly picking up and putting down their babies takes a toll on their 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 controlled 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 frustrating, being woken up by your baby when you could be enjoying another hour or two of sleep.

Possible solutions include cutting down on daytime snaps 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, then 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 you’re baby is in the habit of waking up 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.”

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.”