Controlled crying works for me

Image: Getty | Words: Sara Conway

There is a moment – at 1am, when my daughter’s cry cuts through my deepest sleep – that my body makes a decision for me. Before I’m fully awake, a jolt of adrenalin has propelled me to her cot, to lift her up and to whisk her back to our bed. I come to a few minutes later, only vaguely aware of how she got there. Other times, the wake-up is more gradual and I lie there, cocooned in duvet, hoping the cries will run out of steam. Inevitably they don’t. So I slide out of bed for what I know will be an hour of hugging, bouncing, sitting on the floor, pleading – and finally giving in and bringing her to sleep with us. Either is enough to start a bout of 1am wake-ups, which can last for months.

This has been going on for nearly two years. Each time, it reaches a crescendo of “We can’t cope with this anymore!” and then I realise I’ve got to do something about it. And that something is controlled crying. Some people are huge advocates of this method, while others hotly debate the effect it has on the child. But whatever you think of it, controlled crying works for me. And while I’m in the namby-pamby camp who shy away from letting their children cry, I also recognise that we are all much happier when we’re getting a full night’s sleep.

With controlled crying, the crying isn’t controlled, of course. It’s our response to it that is. And it’s not fun for the parent. I lie in bed with my heart racing and guilt roaring in my head, counting the minutes until I can go in, wipe G’s face, give her a kiss, and then – this is the hard bit – walk out again.  5 minutes the first time, then 7, then 10, with my head under the duvet willing her to sleep. But then there’s the moment when all falls quiet. A stillness falls over you – and the house – and the hammer of your heart gives way to relaxation. Finally, you can go to sleep. (But of course you can’t! Not tonight. You’ve been through too much.)

The big test is the next night. In all my experience of trying this method, one night of controlled crying has been enough to break the cycle of wake-ups.

And each time it does, I wish I hadn’t waited so long. If you’re struggling to help your child to sleep, you might want to try these five tips from baby sleep expert Rachel Waddilove. Good luck, and we hope you get some sleep tonight…

1 Be consistent

Whether your child is 2 months or 2 years old, it helps to give them cues each time you want them to go to sleep. Having a bedtime routine, with stories and a darkened room, for example, signals to your child that it’s time for them to settle down to rest.

Rachel says: “Create a nice flexible routine so your baby gets used to going to sleep. The key is catching them before they get overtired. When it’s time, tuck them down into a cot or pram. I always say ‘Night night, Mummy loves you. It’s time to go to sleep.’”

2 Encourage children to settle themselves

Rachel says: “All babies will have a shout at some stage when they go down.

If you leave them to it, it gives them a chance to settle by themselves. The same is true if they wake in the middle of the night. Wait before going in because they might go back to sleep.

If your baby really starts to go for it, then your response will depend on the age of the child. If they’re 6 months plus, they’re on solids, you know they’ve eaten well and they’ve been burped then my advice is not to pick them up. Lie them down, stroke their face or their tummy, tell them you love them, and then go back out. I say ‘night night’ again, because it’s important to be consistent.”

3 Do what feels comfortable

Rachel says: “If the child stands back up, my advice is to leave them to it for another 5-10 minutes. After a while they will go to sleep. The longer you can leave it before going back in, the quicker they’ll learn to self-settle. But you have to own the response, so do what you feel comfortable doing. It’s important that you’re not saying ‘I’m sorry.’ Just ‘I love you. It’s time to go to sleep.’”

4 Keep them in the cot, if you can

Rachel says: “If you have an older child, it’s much better if you can keep them in their cot. If they’re really upset, I hug them over the top of the bars. Then I lie them down, say ‘night night’ and leave the room again.”

5 Set boundaries

Rachel says: “If you know your child is warm, is full of food and isn’t unwell, it’s fine to leave them to settle themselves. You’re just setting boundaries. Sleep is the most difficult boundary to set because you’re tired. But sleep is such an important skill to teach. A well-rested child performs better in school. And a lack of sleep can tear families apart. I believe in happy families.”

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