We need to calm the hell down about controlled crying.

Holly and her son Billy.


On the hour. every hour.

Imagine being woken up every night, at hourly intervals, by the call of the person you love the most in the world.

It sounds like a great privilege. And it is. Comforting your baby when they’ve woken in fear, or hunger, or pain, is a parent’s job, and it brings profound satisfaction.

But every single hour of the night, for months and months, maybe years and years?

It stops being a beautiful, nurturing moment. It starts to become dangerous.

Everybody needs to sleep. It sounds ridiculous. It sounds elementary, but when it comes to the politics of babies and what they do at night, it becomes the most emotive debate of all the baby debates (and that – that’s really saying something).

Dr Brian Symon aka The Babysleep Doctor.

This week the argument about whether or not we should try to “teach” babies to sleep is back. It’s back due to newspaper coverage of a Doctor from Adelaide who calls himself the The Babysleep Doctor. He’s really called Dr Brian Symon, and he advocates that after six months of age, you should be able to prepare your baby for bed, put them down, reassure them and then walk out and close the door at 7pm, not reopening it until 7am.

Anyone who has ever met a six-month-old baby will tell you that this is the sort of crazy, impossible dream that once sent educated men riding of on camels in search of the inland sea.

But Dr Symon is not suggesting this happens instantly, but rather after a period of comforted “training”. He is certainly not alone in that.

Still, after the article about his methods appeared in a weekend newspaper, he has pulled out of the Melbourne Baby and Child Expo this weekend, as his presence was deemed so controversial that it would disrupt the whole event. You see, a lot of people are really, really angry at what Dr Symon insists is possible, and scientifically justifiable – a good night’s sleep.

Sydney-based Dr Howard Chilton is one such person. The well-respected baby doctor’s philosophy is basically the exact opposite of Dr Symon, as he wrote on his Facebook page:

It is a method of pure abandonment… but it can be effective to silence babies at night. The reason it ‘works’ is that evolution has developed within humans a mechanism that, if the baby feels (s)he is abandoned, crying ceases to protect the baby from attracting predators. It’s called ‘extinction’. Stress remains high (hence it can induce vomiting) but the baby falls silent. This, unfortunately, is precisely at a time when the baby is developing his long-term brain wiring about whether he is loved, valued and safe.

And so, here we are, in a familiar place. Parents caught between duelling philosophies about how to do the most high-stakes job of their lives – raise a decent, happy, well-adjusted little person.

For the most part, parents who seek out the wisdom of baby doctors are Trying To Do The Right Thing. A truly neglectful or deliberately cruel parent is unlikely to be trawling baby books and shelling out the kind of money and time required to enlist the services of a sleep expert. So let’s assume that all the parents advocating for and against sleep-training are well-meaning, and love their children. Let’s get that out of the way.


But why would any parent choose to leave their baby crying alone in a closed room for 12 hours?

Only for one reason – because they’re desperate, and they need to sleep.

I get it.

He looks so innocent. But my gorgeous son is the sleep monster.

 My second child, my little golden-headed boy, is a terrible sleeper. He is almost two-and-a-half, can run and dance and talk and decimate tidy rooms within minutes. But he still can’t sleep through the night.

He wakes up at least once, sometimes more, every single night, and he wants someone to settle him back to sleep.

Why do my partner and I put up with that, when he’s old enough to put on his own shoes?

Because compared to where we’ve been, it is heaven.

Billy was never a good sleeper, apart from a blissful few months when he was a tiny baby. He was in a cot in our bedroom for almost a year. Some nights, often, he woke every single hour.

Every single hour. And cried. Any parent will tell you that your baby’s cry is the most stressful noise you can hear. And one of us would settle him, and tiptoe back to bed, steal some fevered sleep, and then he’d wake up and scream some more.

And yes, of course we saw doctors, and we asked is-it-colic and is-it-reflux, and we tried every strategy we could find online and in sleep books (including this one). Yes, yes, all that.

But he just screamed.

We moved out of our room, two grown adults sleeping on a camp bed in our lounge room while we tried to sleep-train him (his big sister is in the other bedroom). We moved out for four nights – it ended up being six months. And still he woke, and still he cried.

Holly and her family. They look happy. But they’re tired.

During this time, I went back to work. Despite the state of my head at that time, I clearly remember the exhaustion.

It was like nothing else. The kind of tired that you feel in your bones, that blurs your vision like a pea-soup fog, that makes you want to cry.


Most parents know that feeling. And after months of that, months and months of that… well, it’s not good. Everything suffers, including your relationship with your child.

You feel that you’re trapped in a dark place, and that can the only thing that can rescue you is the one thing you can’t have – sleep.

We tried many things to try to get Billy to sleep, but  letting him cry for prolonged periods was not going to work for us.

The reasons are not necessarily the ones you imagine – by then we were desperate for him to sleep for his own sake – but they’re realistic ones: We live in a small place, we have close neighbours, we have a preschool-aged daughter who needs to sleep, too.

And so we got up to him, and settled him. And slowly, slowly, he began to sleep for longer. Perhaps as a result, he still needs one of us in the night.

But from my now almost-clear-eyed place, the judgement being flung at parents who choose ‘sleep-training’ (also, more harshly, known as ‘controlled crying’) this week angers me.

Labelling parents as selfish for trying to salvage their health and some sort of sanity, and rest for their child, is not helpful.

For working parents, and for parents with older children, it is not realistic to continue to preach a line of sleeping when the baby sleeps.

Caring only for one baby, and putting them and their broken sleep patterns at the centre of everything is not a luxury afforded to most families.

Most sleep-training programs are not as headline-grabbing hardline as Dr Symon’s. Most involve letting your baby cry for short periods, with regular reassurance that you are there for them.

Calling out all ‘controlled crying’ as cruel and harmful dismisses the experiences of thousands of people who knew they would be better parents if they Just. Got. Some. Sleep.

So let’s calm the f- down.

How about you? How did you survive the sleepless times?

Yes, Mamamia publishes a sleep-training book, The Gift Of Sleep. Is it controlled crying? Listen to the author, Elizabeth Sloane, answer that question.

Come and Like Holly on Facebook. She’s tired, so she needs friends. 

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