• Few parenting topics get as extreme a response as controlled crying. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The emotional debate around controlled crying makes it hard for parents to make an informed decision about whether they should put the settling technique into practice.
Nicola Heath

27 Jun 2016 - 3:21 PM  UPDATED 27 Jun 2016 - 3:25 PM

There are few topics in the world of parenting that provoke such an extreme response as controlled crying. But it’s difficult to have a rational debate about something critics liken to abuse, and make links to long term effects including childhood anxiety.

Does controlled crying harm a baby?

The science is inconclusive. In 2012, Wendy Middlemiss, Associate Professor in the University of North Texas’ Department of Educational Psychology conducted a study into babies’ stress responses to controlled crying by measuring the level of cortisol in their bodies. The researchers found that although a baby may stop crying, its cortisol level could still be elevated, indicating stress. 

The study’s findings have formed the foundation for many opponents’ objections to the practice, but Middlemiss is reluctant to make definitive statements either way. “Not all infants are the same physiologically or emotionally, so blanket statements that it has no harm or it is harmful should be viewed with extreme caution,” she writes in an email. “None of the research to date would support either position.”

Still, Middlemiss favours a gentler, more intuitive style of settling, based on close reading of baby’s sleep cues, and is dismissive of a new study that claims controlled crying has no adverse effect on infants. “The research makes broad claims that when looked at statistically are not well supported,” she says.

Controlled crying vs cry it out

Part of the problem is confusion around the definition of controlled crying. Controlled crying and crying it out – when a baby is left to cry itself to sleep - are not interchangeable, but are often treated as such.

“I would never leave a baby to cry it out,” says Cath Curtin, a maternal and child health nurse. Known as Midwife Cath, Curtin has taught parents – mothers mostly – controlled crying for over 30 years. “It’s the only way to get a baby back to sleep properly when a child is waking up every hour or hour and a half overnight.”

Curtin’s approach, which she used when her 23-year-old son was a baby, requires babies to be older than six months, weigh more than 8 kilograms, and have no underlying medical issues. A parent puts the baby to bed in its cot and then leaves the room. They go back to reassure the baby in slowly increasing intervals, from 2 to 15 minutes.

Controlled crying is for people who want their babies to be in a cot and sleep for a reasonable hour because of maternal distress.

Curtin does not expect even a 12-month old baby to sleep uninterrupted from 7pm to 7am. The baby might have a ‘dream feed’ at 10pm and another drink at 4am, before rising for the day between 6 and 7am.

Controlled crying, which Curtin outlines in her book The First Six Weeks (Allen and Unwin, $29.99), is not a one-size fits all program suitable for everyone. There are so many factors to take into account, says Curtin: the baby, the parents, feeding, and medical issues. “You’ve got to a detailed history with the mother and father to find out what’s going on,” she says. “Controlled crying is for people who want their babies to be in a cot and sleep for a reasonable hour because of maternal distress.”

The midwife doesn’t doubt that the experience is stressful for babies. “It’s stressful for parents too. It’s not fun,” says says. “[But] I’d rather do a short, sharp program overnight to get the baby to sleep, than have a sleep-deprived child that doesn’t sleep properly during the night, that doesn’t sleep properly during the day, is whingey and cranky and doesn’t eat properly.” Plus, she says, you’ve also got a tired anxious mother. “Once you get the baby to sleep, everyone is better. The mother feels better, the baby feels better.”

Controlled crying in practice

The terrible effect which sleep deprivation has on parenting is something I know well. Like many parents, I gauge my fatigue by the length of my fuse. Very tired and the smallest of frustrations will set me off yelling at my kids, something that I normally try to avoid.

I tried sleep training with my first baby, who, I read, was supposed to do something called ‘self settle’ but definitely didn’t. From my experience, controlled crying is a wholly inappropriate name for the method; there was nothing controlled about my baby’s protesting screams. Eventually she learned to self-settle, but it took just one foolhardy holiday to undo months of hard work. She’s now three and sleeps through perhaps one night a week.

Now a veteran of the battleground that is baby sleep and parental sleeplessness, I have so far given sleep training a wide berth with my second baby. We co-sleep, more for convenience than ideology. She wakes numerous times overnight, which makes Curtin’s system – for which she claims a 100 per cent success rate (or you’re doing it wrong) - sound tempting. I ask her, half-amusedly, half-in earnest, if the method would work for a 13-month old, 8.5kg baby.

That’s how they grow. Babies need sleep, and mothers need sleep.

She doesn’t miss a beat. “It would work straight away,” she says. Curtin has complete faith in the technique. “We’re not hurting our babies by teaching them to sleep, we’re helping them. That’s how they grow. Babies need sleep, and mothers need sleep.”

Middlemiss, who is currently researching no-cry settling techniques, believes that the popularity of controlled crying is driven by a desire to fit babies into the parents’ schedules, and not the other way around. “What is needed is more attention on how to support parents in meeting infants’ needs rather than changing infants’ natural sleep, wake, and signalling-for-attention patterns.”

In spite of the approach’s many criticisms, Curtin says she has only ever had positive feedback. “Mothers feel great, they feel empowered.”

This mother is going to hold off on controlled crying for now, but when done appropriately, I think it’s important to respect parents who make the decision to try it.

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