Why you should do it.
Every evening, parents across Australia hope their babies will sleep through the night. Many won’t. That’s where controlled comforting, or controlled crying might help. Contrary to some claims, this is a safe and effective method for settling babies.
Sleepless nights are not uncommon. A 2001 study of 700 Victorian mums of seven-month-old babies found sleep was a problem for nearly half. This can cause serious problems for some parents: women who said their baby’s sleep was a problem were twice as likely to experience symptoms of postnatal depression.
Sleep happens in cycles. We start out awake, then fall into light sleep and then deep sleep, before moving into wakefulness and so on. For adults, one of these cycles lasts around 90 minutes. For babies and children, it’s around half this time. This means babies and children naturally stir and wake a lot more than their parents.
We have to learn the skill of falling asleep on our own. If a baby develops a habit of needing a parent to be with them to fall asleep (such as being rocked to sleep), that’s often when parents say that their baby’s sleep is a problem. From around three months of age, one of the most helpful things parents can do is to start a positive bedtime routine that can help their baby settle.
Once babies are about six months old, if they have trouble falling asleep by themselves, they can be taught this skill so they don’t cry out for mum or dad when they wake up naturally. One of the fastest and most effective ways to do this is called “controlled comforting” which is also known as “controlled crying”.
In controlled comforting, parents put their baby to bed tired but awake, and leave them to settle for short, increasing periods of time, even if they cry. Parents choose which time intervals are best for their family. Examples are: two minutes, then four minutes, then six minutes, then eight minutes; or two, five, ten minutes; or two, five, five, five minutes.
A more gradual method called “camping out” might be the way to go for some families. This is where a parent lies on a camp bed or sits in a chair next to their baby’s cot to settle the baby when he or she cries. Over a couple of weeks, the parent gradually moves the chair or bed away from the cot and out the door, until the baby is falling asleep without the parent in the room.
In 2004, Melbourne researcher Harriet Hiscock tested these two methods with more than 300 mums and babies in the largest and longest study to evaluate infant sleep strategies.
Half the families were offered positive bedtime routines, “controlled comforting” and “camping out”, with parents free to choose the strategies they wanted to try. The other half weren’t. This study design – a randomised controlled trial – provides the “gold standard” or highest level of evidence about whether a program works.