Baby not sleeping? The need for alternatives to controlled crying

When a baby’s not sleeping, parents need alternatives to controlled crying. New research shows 63 per cent of parents either wouldn’t use controlled crying or couldn’t continue to use it once they started.

Earlier evidence about the effect of controlled crying or “cry it out” techniques suggests that it can have serious negative long term impacts on children’s development.

And if parents won’t commit to this approach, what really happens is that the baby continues to sleep poorly and parents suffer fatigue, placing them at higher risk of depression, stress and anxiety

Background to the study

This new research, studying more than 500 parents, by a team including Associate Professor Sarah Blunden, Head of Paediatric Sleep Research at Central Queensland University confirms earlier findings that parents would not use, or continue to use, cry it out techniques.

When mothers tell me, “My baby’s not sleeping,” I know there will also be secondary sleep disturbance and stress in the parents. These sleep problems are called “behavioural sleep disorders” and classified as ‘behavioural insomnia of childhood’. Characteristics of behavioural insomnia of childhood include difficulty getting to sleep, with frequent night wakings that require significant time and effort to resettle.

Over six months old, a baby not sleeping or having difficulty getting to sleep without the help of someone or something is a sub-type of behavioural insomnia of childhood called ‘sleep onset association disorder’. Many people try “controlled crying” or “cry it out techniques” which involve leaving the child to cry for varying amounts of time.

The problem then becomes not only the baby’s inability to sleep, but the crying itself from the baby who needs help to resettle. It’s the crying which is the single largest contributor to the stress of sleep problems in new parents.

Is baby waking normal?

A baby waking overnight is very normal. They need to feed and sometimes, they need comfort. Most babies can resettle after waking momentarily due to a baby sleep cycle or a feed. When they can’t, crying for help is a natural, interactive communication. It shows that the baby needs something. It shows that they have connected with you and want you to help them. While it doesn’t feel like it at 2am, this is actually a good thing. The problem of course is when it happens repeatedly and the baby doesn’t seem to be able to settle herself.

What’s the alternative to controlled crying?

People are turning more and more to techniques that don’t require them to leave the child alone and crying, These gentle techniques are effective and work with parents’ natural instincts rather than requiring them to do something counter-intuitive like leaving a baby to cry.

Reassuring babies when they’re struggling to get to sleep or resettle and understanding baby sleep cycles can be easier on parents and babies.

For me, the idea of letting a child cry when they are upset it horrible. Just because they won’t go to sleep, doesn’t mean that their cry isn’t serious or that they don’t need to be comforted. An approach which allows a baby time to make a few noises settling, without leaving them to cry can be effective as well as less stressful.

Depending on their age, there are a range of strategies you can use to reassure a baby without picking them up or feeding them. Verbal reassurance, patting, retucking them into bed (if they are old enough for a blanket)are all part of a solution which doesn’t involve leaving a baby crying.

How common are sleep problems in babies?

Somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of parents experience baby sleep problems which not only impact on the baby, but on the parents, their well being and productivity. If you are dealing with this, you’re not alone.

Go easy on yourself. You’re doing a tough job. You don’t have to use controlled crying to get through this. You can use other gentle techniques and gradually encourage your child to self-settle. Just because your baby wakes, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your baby. It’s totally understandable if controlled crying is not for you – in fact, you’re in the majority of parents!

All the best


PS: if you got something out of this post, I’d really appreciate it if you could share it with others.

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