By MONIQUE ROBINSON
It’s pretty obvious that parents who spend the first year of their child’s life (or longer) waking up regularly throughout the night to attend to their child are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety.
It’s therefore understandable that parents want to know what can be done to help babies to sleep through the night. And with that interest comes some very, very strong opinions.
In the midst of this clamour of advice is a good deal of controversy on a sleep technique for babies known as controlled crying. Advocates claim it saved their baby’s sleep and their sanity. Critics liken it to “normalised abuse” and claim it can cause lasting psychological damage.
We need to start where very few critiques on the topic have started – with a definition of what controlled crying is, and what it is not.
Controlled crying (also known as controlled comforting) is when parents respond to their infant’s cries and gently comfort them, then return at increasing time intervals to assist the infant to self-settle while knowing that the parent is still there. The key words there are respond and return.
The recommended implementation of such a technique is after six months of age. By Piaget’s theory of object permanence, this is the developmental stage when babies understand that an object (in this case the parent) still exists even when it is out of sight.
Controlled crying is not “extinction”. The extinction method is a dramatically-termed technique which refers to leaving a baby to “cry it out”. For example, when the infant cries at night, the parent shuts the door to the nursery and does not respond at all. The idea is that eventually the baby will understand that the parent is not returning and will self-settle.
In terms of controlled crying (not extinction), Australian researchers found that when mothers of infants aged six to 12 months used one of two interventions (controlled crying and “camping out”, where parents remain in the room while the infant returns to sleep before quietly leaving), not only was there a significant improvement in infants’ sleep, there was also a significant reduction in maternal depressive symptoms compared with controls.
The research team followed up these mothers and infants at the age of six years, and found no difference in emotional or behavioural problems, sleep problems, attachment, parenting styles or maternal mental health between intervention and control groups.