Don’t want to use controlled crying for your unsettled baby?

Swaddled baby cropped

Don’t want to use controlled crying for your unsettled baby? I don’t blame you.

I know it’s fashionable to say, “Whatever works for you, just do it,” when it comes to an unsettled baby. But when I recently read an article by a paediatrician endorsing controlled crying, it didn’t sit right with me. There are some things I just don’t agree with when it comes to a baby not sleeping. Let me stop there and say though, that if you have tried doing this, I am not condemning you or judging you. Having a baby not sleeping is intensely stressful and upsetting, physically exhausting and harrowing. It’s natural that you’d try anything. And if it worked for you, I’m genuinely relieved you’re all getting more sleep now.

But today, I wanted to explain why controlled crying (or cry it out techniques) are not for me and why I choose a gentler approach which I believe is just as effective, if not more so.

Why babies cry

Crying is common for new babies and can usually be attributed to a few things:

  • Is your baby hungry?
  • Is you baby tired?
  • Is your baby’s nappy dirty or wet?

I find these to be the most common reasons for a new baby to cry, and often the problem that is most overlooked is your baby’s tiredness. New babies need an enormous amount of sleep.

Often by the time a baby is three weeks old they have really woken up and discovered her voice and her ability to cry. This is often around the time that I get calls from desperate parents wanting me to give them advice on how to get their baby to sleep.

As babies age, they begin to cry for other reasons. They’re too hot or cold, they’re bored, they’re scared, but still, being overtired is a big factor.

An overtired baby can be really distressed. She will cry until she is red in the face, she can pull her legs up and generally behave like she could be in pain. The cry is pretty distinct though. It starts off like a fuss then builds to a full on scream – a “waa waaaa waaaaaa” scream. You will notice that this cry comes in cycles and she can have three to four of these cycles. So she will fuss, build to the cry – waa, waa, waaaa, then stop, then start to fuss again, build to the waa, waa, waa and then stop and so on.

Well into their first year, babies rouse more frequently  than adults which is partially thought to be related to them having shorter sleep cycles than adults. These short sleep cycles mean babies have more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is an integral part of their brain developing.

Babies cry to get your attention. They cry because they need something – even if that something is just acknowledgment. You can think of a baby as a little person, er, because that’s what they are. You wouldn’t let an adult cry so why would you let a baby cry?

My personal feeling is that when you teach a baby to cry-it-out or to believe that you won’t always come when they cry (or will only come after 2, 4, 6, or 10 minutes), you’re teaching them how to give up. I can’t do it. And I know a lot of mothers who can’t do it.

I know some mothers who have sat outside their baby’s room, crying themselves while the baby cries because they need a break and they just can’t take another minute of crying. It is heartbreaking, but that’s not the same thing as a systematic strategy to have the baby cry until she realises you’re not coming in.

Expectations about Baby Sleep

Some of the problems with parents feeling pressure to do controlled crying are because people try to force onto us unreasonable expectations about how long babies can sleep. Newborns need to feed regularly and can’t sleep more than a few hours without feeding. Things change as babies age and by 12 weeks, if your baby is sleeping five or six hours overnight, this is actually considered “sleeping through”. So take the pressure off yourself and your little one!

Between three and four and half months you can really get your baby and yourself into a nice little routine, especially at night. But I believe that babies of this age still need to be fed overnight if they haven’t naturally started to sleep through. They naturally know what they need to eat at this stage. It’s only around six months, when they’re established on solids, that it’s reasonable to have an expectation that they might be able to sleep for longer periods, up to 10-12 hours.

Problems with Studies on Baby Crying

Sometimes people will come out with a study that shows that controlled crying is absolutely fine and has no harmful effects. The parents of the babies in the study have seen their baby sleep through the night perfectly and everyone is apparently happy.

I’m all for people being happy but I have a couple of concerns about many of these studies. First, most of the evidence is self-reported. If you have subjected your baby to controlled crying and they’re now sleeping, you are hardly going to say that the crying has had a terrible effect. That’s just human nature and I understand that.

Secondly, it is almost impossible to create a “control” group in these kinds of experiments. In most experiments using the proper scientific method, there has to be a group that is a control – it’s the group that’s left alone or takes sugar pills or whatever. A control group is intended to show what would have happened if the technique or drug had not been administered.

How do you account for the various factors that happen afterwards (to both groups) – it’s not as if the subjects of the experiments stay the same. In fact, babies dramatically change as they get older, get sick, get new teeth, get more engaged in their environment. A real control group would be a static blank slate. Babies just aren’t like that.

Thirdly, the subjects of an experiment are supposed to be randomised and the people (or in this case, babies) on whom the experiment is carried out are supposed to be selected at random with no other pre-disposing factors.

But here’s the catch with controlled crying experiments. How can you say to people who wouldn’t otherwise have done controlled crying that they now have to do it? You can’t force them to do it if they wouldn’t otherwise. So the very people who were already pre-disposed to select controlled crying as a method for “sleep training” their babies are the ones that end up being in the controlled crying group. Not very random.

What feels right to you?

Parents who attend to their babies’ crying do not create “unhealthily” attached babies (whatever that means) or create a nasty habit. Creating a strong bond between parents and babies is healthy and normal and it’s highly desirable for a baby to be able to trust that when they are upset, someone will be there for them.

In the end, I don’t condemn people for using the controlled crying method but what I can say is that it doesn’t feel right to a lot of mothers (63% of mothers couldn’t follow through with controlled crying in one study) and it’s not the only way to get a baby sleeping longer. Just as I don’t support cry-it-out techniques, I also don’t think you should just accept every waking patterns in your baby, no matter how stressful and I don’t think it’s ok for babies to be waking 13 times in a night when they’re six months old!

At the end of the day, gentle techniques can be just as effective and are so much less stressful for mothers and babies.

All the best

Jo

xxx

ps – If you’re sick of do-gooders telling you to give controlled crying a go, why not share this article on social media and maybe people will understand that it’s not for everyone.

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