I am a social worker and parent in Australia concerned about the western practice of a method called 'controlled crying' that is used on infants to get them to sleep. This blog talks about the use of this method and other parenting methods. Search all the information on this site to be better informed about the practice of controlled crying. For any comments or questions, my email is

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Sleeping Like a Baby"

An excerpt from Pinky McKay's New Book!

Chapter one
The con of controlled crying

After a week of controlled crying he slept, but he stopped
talking (he was saying single words). For the past year, he
has refused all physical contact from me. If he hurts himself,
he goes to his older brother (a preschooler) for comfort.
I feel devastated that I have betrayed my child.


The ‘science’ of sleep training
Although many baby sleep trainers claim there is no
evidence of harm from practices such as controlled crying,
it is worth noting that there is a vast difference between
‘no evidence of harm’ and ‘evidence of no harm’. In fact, a
growing number of health professionals are now claiming
that training infants to sleep too deeply, too soon, is not
in babies’ best psychological or physiological interests.
Despite the popularity of controlled crying, it is not
an evidence-based practice. What this means is that despite a plethora
of opinions on how long you should leave your baby to cry in order to
train her to sleep, nobody has studied exactly how long it
is safe to leave a baby to cry, if at all.

Babies who are forced to sleep alone (or cry, because
many do not sleep) for hours may miss out on both adequate
nutrition and sensory stimulation such as touch,
which is as important as food for infant development.
Leaving a baby to ‘cry it out’ in order to enforce a strict
routine when the baby may, in fact, be hungry, is similar to
expecting an adult to adopt a strenuous exercise program
accompanied by a reduced food intake. The result of
expending energy through crying while being deprived
of food is likely to be weight loss and failure to thrive.
Paediatrician William Sears has claimed that ‘babies
who are “trained” not to express their needs may appear to
be docile, compliant or “good” babies. Yet, these babies
could be depressed babies who are shutting down the
expression of their needs.’

Leaving a baby to cry evokes physiological responses
that increase stress hormones. Crying infants experience
an increase in heart rate, body temperature and blood
pressure. These reactions are likely to result in overheating
and, along with vomiting due to extreme distress, could
pose a potential risk of SIDS in vulnerable infants.
There may also be longer-term emotional effects.
Babies need our help to learn how to regulate their emotions,
meaning that when we respond to and soothe their
cries, we help them understand that when they are upset,
they can calm down. On the other hand, when infants are
left alone to cry it out, they fail to develop the understanding
that they can regulate their own emotions. There is
also compelling evidence that increased levels of stress
hormones may cause permanent changes in the stress responses
of the infant’s developing brain. These changes
then affect memory, attention, and emotion, and can trigger
an elevated response to stress throughout life, including
a predisposition to later anxiety and depressive disorders.

One of the arguments for using controlled crying is
that it ‘works’, but perhaps the definition of success needs
to be examined more closely. In the small number of studies
undertaken, while most babies will indeed stop waking
when they are left to cry, ‘success’ varies from an extra
hour’s sleep each night to little difference between babies
who underwent sleep training and those who didn’t, eight
weeks later. Some studies found that up to one-third of
the babies who underwent controlled crying ‘failed sleep
school’. A recent Australian baby magazine survey revealed
that although 57 per cent of mothers who responded to the
survey had tried controlled crying, 27 per cent reported no
success, 27 per cent found it worked for one or two nights,
and only 8 per cent found that controlled crying worked
for longer than a week. To me, this suggests that even if
harsher regimes work initially, babies are likely to start
waking again as they reach new developmental stages
or conversely, they may become more settled and sleep
(without any intervention) as they reach appropriate developmental

Want to read more?

Pinky's fab new book is available from your local book store or via her website

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