‘Controlled crying is effectively ignoring your baby’s feelings.’

Last week, I read an article discussing how a sleep midwife advocates controlled crying, and step by step how to go about it.

While I agree with the midwife when she says that it is kinder to the baby to address their sleep issues rather than not, I do not find anything kind for the child in controlled crying, also called passive settling.

Babies work on ‘feelings’ and expectations. The baby knows what they usually feel like when they go to sleep, all of their senses are engaged in the process of going to sleep. This will differ from baby to baby, as each child is unique, therefore, no single approach will suit every baby.  If you choose to apply controlled crying, you are effectively ignoring your baby’s feelings and expectations for a parent led extinction method.

"The baby knows what they usually feel like when they go to sleep, all of their senses are engaged in the process of going to sleep."

If we look at a baby who breast feeds to sleep, the baby will have a list of feelings that are associated with falling asleep, such as :

  • Presence of Mum
  • Smell of Mum
  • Hearing mother’s heartbeat or gurgling stomach
  • Feeling of nipple in mouth
  • Taste of milk
  • Sucking motion
  • Feeling of fullness of milk in tummy
  • Deep touch while being held while feeding

As you can see a lot of ‘sensations’ are involved with a baby settling to sleep like this.

So then imagine how foreign this same baby would feel being put into his cot, wide awake and with none of the feelings he is used to when falling asleep. The baby will only know how to fall asleep with his mother present and a lot of help to fall asleep. Even by going back into the baby's room on a regular basis to reassure the baby, it is still not teaching him how to independently settle.  

This sudden change in settling is very likely to cause distress and uncertainty, reduced confidence around sleep and for some, a worsening of sleep.  For some babies, leaving them alone in their cot at bedtime even for a short time may cause them to be so upset that they vomit. At the very least, they will develop negative feelings around their cot or sleep space that makes it very difficult to proceed and improve things from that point.

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"The baby will have a list of feelings that are associated with falling asleep"

So while I agree that the way the baby goes to sleep has to change, as this is causing the baby to be wakeful and feed all night, there are kinder ways to do so than controlled crying. For example, you might allow your baby to adjust to the change in the way they go to sleep slowly, by offering a feed, keeping your baby awake, then rocking them to sleep.  This way, they have gone to sleep without anything in their mouth, the taste of milk and no sucking, still be supported with deep touch, presence of Mum around and not such a big adjustment.

Then each 3-4 days or as you feel you can, add in another change and allow some time for your baby to adapt to this and so on until you can place your baby in the cot wide awake and allow them to settle themselves, which is the same goal as controlled crying, just a slower and less stressful way to achieve better sleep for your baby.

You will also need to address the timing of your baby’s sleeps, add in a pre-bed wind down period in your baby’s room, to ensure your baby is ready to go to sleep when you offer a sleep opportunity.

I know this first hand, as many years ago when my husband and I were struggling terribly with our first child and his inability to sleep and settle, we enlisted helpEighteen years ago, the only support we could get was controlled crying. At the time I had no problem implementing this to help improve my son’s sleep, as I was desperate.  I was exhausted, frustrated, angry and just existing, not living. My son was whingy and clingy and rarely happy. I would have done anything to improve my son’s sleep, firstly for his wellbeing and development and secondly for my physical and mental wellbeing.

I didn’t feel that I was able to be a very good mother, or even be a shadow of the mother I wanted to be for my son, due to the lack of sleep.  I was up every forty five minutes, day and night, to my wakeful child over an eighteen month period.  On three different occasions over a week long period, we tried controlled crying in a baby sleep support centre. Each time, I returned home with my son’s sleep far worse that it was at the beginning of the week.

I could not believe it. I didn’t think things could get worse, but it did.  Defeated, dejected and overwhelmed, my son and I returned home and tried to cope. I asked the support centre if there were alternatives, as clearly this method did not suit my son. I was told to go home and return in three months to try again. I cried, they sighed and home we went to wait our time out.  

" On three different occasions over a week long period, we tried Controlled Crying at differing ages. Each time, I returned home with my son’s sleep far worse that it was at the beginning of the week."

I started to research and experiment more. The Internet was only just becoming something that I could use, but more of my research was being around other babies and realising how different they were. The dominance of a stronger sense, some more visual than others, stronger auditory awareness, while others more tactile. This made a big difference for each child in what they could cope with and how they managed to go to sleep.

Once I understood this principle of ‘feelings’ being associated with how a baby goes to sleep, it made things so much easier to apply to each baby that I was involved with and assisting them and their parents to find the right ‘recipe’ for them to go to sleep and stay asleep.  I noticed that some babies moved through the phases of change really easily and with little or no fuss, while others struggled at most phases along the way, and they needed a longer time frame to adjust to the changes being offered.

I encourage you to assist your child by addressing their sleep issues, and if Controlled Crying works for you and you are happy to implement changes this way, then that is your choice.  For parents who want to implement change but not with Controlled Crying, there are alternatives that are far more individually appropriate and kinder that will improve your baby’s sleep.

This post originally appeared on Caroline's Angels. You can also find Caroline here at Mumorable Moments.

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