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

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Independence Learnt?

This article is from Natural Parenting Magazine, and highlights the concerns people have about controlled crying.

Independence Learnt? Issue 3 Winter 2003, Natural Parenting Magazine, Editorials (Free Access) by Susan Stark

A Baby Needs to Have Needs
It is a natural, appropriate and desirable part of development for a baby to be dependent. A baby needs to have needs. A baby who is forced into independence (to become a self soother) before his time misses the needs stage. A baby needs first to learn to bond to people before things. If a baby can’t have needs, who can? If the parents can’t fill those needs, who will? Later in life you may be very distressed to see who or what will be used to fill needs that went unmet in infancy.
Sears, W and Sears, M (1993) The Baby Book; Little Brown and Company; New York; p.314.
A common point of discussion in parenting groups all over the country is sleep. From day one baby’s ability to sleep well is often a measure used by many to indicate a parent’s competency and how ‘good’ or ‘difficult’ the baby is. Parents may feel distressed at their baby’s wakefulness and often feel pressure to have baby sleeping independently through the night at a very early age. Exhausted parents seek advice and support from those around them and may be encouraged to try methods such as controlled crying.
Controlled crying, a well known method of issuing limited comfort to a child in an attempt to get a child to sleep independent of their parents, is frequently explained to parents as a solution to all their night time worries. The appeal of getting quick results and the pressure to ‘perform’ as a parent means thousands of babies across the country are subjected to this method of invoking sleep.
What parents aren’t told however is that controlled crying while it may engender a short term solution comes at a price.
Methods such as controlled crying are devised on the notion that babies can be taught to be independent and that the sooner this training begins the more mature and competent sleeper the baby will be. Independence however is not a skill to be learnt by a child but rather a natural progression that will occur at developmentally appropriate times throughout a child’s life. Independence is best nurtured in the loving arms of an attentive parent.
William and Martha Sears in the Baby Book (1993) warn parents to “watch out for short cuts, especially in nighttime parenting.” They state that methods such as “leaving babies alone or setting them up to devise their own methods – rather than allowing babies to rely on their mother or father, ignores a basic principle of infant development: a need that is filled in early infancy goes away; a need that is not filled never completely goes away but recurs later in “diseases of detachment” such as aggression, anger, distancing, withdrawal and discipline problems” (1993:314).
Methods such as controlled crying assumes that a baby is waking because they are being manipulative and picking them up or allowing them to sleep in the family bed, will only spoil them. How many new parents are told they are making a ‘rod for their own back’ by merely following their natural desire to comfort their child? Nature intended babies to be highly dependent on their parents and gave them the ability to cry in order to communicate their needs. It is the only mechanism at their disposal. To ignore these cries for help goes against the natural instincts of a parent to comfort and console their child. The bond of trust is broken when our baby’s cries for help go unheard. Babies learn that they are helpless to change their situation. Parents learn detachment and distance from their child.
So where does this leave an exhausted and frustrated parent needing a much desired good nights sleep? My son Harrison has shared our family bed since the night he was born. He snuggles happily on our king size mattress on the floor and often asks to go to bed. He does not fear sleep time nor does he cry on waking. We have never paced the floor at night with a crying baby nor have we ever left our bed to meet Harrison’s night time needs. But rather we have enjoyed a very precious closeness with our child and treasure the special memories of waking up beside him. That is not to say however, that there is never a stray kick to the ribs or struggle over the blankets.
While co-sleeping works well for our family, it is not the solution for everyone. Every family is made up of a unique set of individuals with varying needs and expectations. Parents feeling challenged by night time parenting need our encouragement and support. Sometimes all that is needed is an understanding of a baby’s natural sleep cycle and a reassurance that this time is so short and will pass. What is perceived as a problem may be a natural developmental progression that is necessary for a child to reach a final stage of maturity in regards to their sleep. Variations on co-sleeping such as having a baby in their own bed in your room, or baby starting out in her cot and then joining the family bed later, will be workable solutions for some families.
Parents often fear creating a situation whereby their child will continue to be highly dependent upon them to achieve sleep. We can be reassured that in most traditional cultures the custom of sharing sleep is a natural unquestioned part of parenting that has been practiced for thousands of years. Westernised ‘experts’ have labeled the practice as harmful and encourage people to distrust their natural desire to stay close to and comfort their child. It is important to remember the bigger picture and know that the investments made in a baby’s early years will pay off three fold in years to come.
Babies are not a commodity that will fit conveniently into our existing lifestyle. They require constant nurturing and attention. New parents need to be supported in this challenging and at times difficult role so that the vital bond of trust with their baby is honoured and preserved. One of the most precious gifts you can give your baby is a sense of security and belonging and a belief in his ability to meet his own needs. These intimate memories are greater than anything money can buy and will serve your child a life time.
Useful Books:
Sears, W and Sears, M (1993) The Baby Book; Little Brown and Company; New York.
McKay P. (2002) 100 Ways to Calm the Crying; Lothian Books; Melbourne.
Issue 3 Winter 2003, Editorials, Free Access.[pointer]=3&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=30&tx_ttnews[backPid]=229&cHash=280d2744a6

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