There appear to be two battlefields that divide parents and baby ‘experts’ more than any other.  One is the breast vs bottle debate, the other is “should I let my baby cry it out at bedtime?”

Firstly, let’s start by explaining what we mean by “crying it out” or “controlled crying”.  Here we are talking about leaving your baby to cry for a short period of time, checking back regularly and reassuring your baby if needed. We are not talking about leaving the baby alone and crying, unattended, for indefinite periods of time.

Now that’s cleared up, how does “Controlled Crying” actually work? What do you DO? Well, there’s even disagreement between those who advocate Controlled Crying about exactly how it works (I did warn you it was controversial!).  Between Dr Spock (that’s the childcare guru, not the Vulcan), Penelope Leach, and others the age when you should start Controlled Crying is anywhere from 3 months to 2 years (although most people now agree it shouldn’t be done before 6 months) and you should return to them either almost as soon as they start crying, or leave it 30 minutes.

Fuller explanations of the four expert’s guides are detailed on the BabyCentre website.  In general though, the idea is to follow your normal bedtime routine, obviously including making sure that your little one is nice and snuggled up in their Kiddy Kaboosh baby sleeping bag, pop them into their cot and then leave the room.  If they start crying you leave them a reasonable length of time before heading back, reassuring them and then leaving again.  Jo Frost (aka Supernanny) gives a more detailed version of this basic approach on her website.

A few things to remember are:

  • You know your baby and know what a reasonable length of time is for them, so trust your instincts.
  • Chances are you AND the baby may end up crying.  It’s horrible hearing them upset.  If you can have a partner, friend or relative on hand to help and support then it’ll be easier.
  • When you go back into the room, keep everything very low key and muted.  You are trying to instil the idea that this is quiet sleep time.
  • If your baby is getting extremely distressed, or is ill then stop the Controlled Crying and see to them.  You can try again another day or try one of the other techniques we’ll look at in a future blog post.
  • Anecdotally, most parents say that the first night is the worst, but that within a few days their babies are settling themselves much better.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Controlled Crying as a way to help young children settle themselves to sleep. Some people are uncomfortable with a method that appears to cause their baby distress, feel it teaches babies that love and comfort is withheld if you are upset and, they believe, does emotional harm to young minds. If Controlled Crying isn’t for you or your family then there’s no shame in admitting that and looking at alternative ways of helping your baby settle themselves to sleep – it is a difficult process to go through and if you aren’t committed it will make it even harder. In terms of whether it does long term damage to your baby’s emotional development, this article in the Guardian gives an overview of research into the issue.

Finally, a word of warning. Just remember that all children are different. My eldest (a girl) just needed to shout before going to sleep and Controlled Crying worked a treat. Her younger brother didn’t need help settling until he was older. He HATED to be left alone and all Controlled Crying achieved for him was teaching him how to escape from his cot unaided, leaving us to also tackle the transition from cot to bed, which is a whole future blog post!

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