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The cons of controlled crying

Babycalm director explains why she doesn't agree with leaving a baby to cry

Posted: 13 September 2011
by Sarah Ockwell-Smith
baby crying
How do you stop a tearful baby?

Nearly 60% of babies wake regularly at night at 9months, small wonder then parents are desperate for help with their baby’s sleep. For most it will come in the form of sleep training involving managed crying episodes. “Controlled Crying”, “Cry it Out”, “Pick Up, Put Down”, “Spaced Soothing”, whatever term used by the latest expert to make it sound new or more gentle, these methods are a temporary fix which can cause much more harm than good.

Leaving babies to cry in order to self-settle was introduced by Dr Emmett Holt in 1895 and popularized by Dr Richard Ferber in 1985. Since then many have picked up on the trend of leaving babies to cry in order to get themselves to sleep and not wake at night, the most famous of these being Gina Ford.

Does controlled crying work? In a way it does, however at what price?

A baby’s sleep cycle is hugely different to an adult’s, composed of only two sleep states and half the length. This makes perfect biological sense, it keeps our young more alert should a predator threaten their life, but what predator will come and gobble them up in their nursery I hear you ask? Nature might be clever, but not clever enough to evolve us that quickly, so we still possess the same responses that kept our hunter gatherer predecessors safe. A baby goes through a sleep cycle twice as quickly as an adult, meaning they wake twice as much at night, moving into a light sleep state once every 25 minutes. Meaning they have the likelihood of waking every 25minutes if something alerts them.

Why do we presume babies “should be able to sleep through by 12 weeks”? This is wrong, a baby will not “sleep through”, they will wake, they just may not cry for us (why cry if nobody comes?). Why might a baby wake and cry? Certainly not just hunger as the sleep experts would have us believe, we know from research that human touch is as important to the wellbeing of a baby as food!

So how does controlled crying work? Imagine being upset and crying and your loved one ignoring you, albeit only for two minutes before briefly comforting you and then leaving again, you cry for 3 more minutes, they come in, comfort you for a minute and leave again, this continues for hours. Now, would you bother to keep crying for them? or would you finally give up? Seligman’s Theory of Learned Helplessness explains further, Seligman discovered harnessed dogs learned to be helpless when he rang a bell and gave them an electric shock. Then he took the  harness off and rang the bell again. The dog however didn’t move, it had learned helplessness, not trying to avoid the painful shock, learning it was futile trying to get away, just as babies learn it is futile to continue crying when nobody responds.

Controlled crying can lead to:

•    babies missing out on stimulating touch
•    babies not receiving adequate nutrition,
•    breastfeeding being negatively affected
•    increased cortisol levels and neurological damage
•    increased blood pressure, temperature and chance of vomiting (SIDs risks)
•    persistent crying makes the baby 10 times more likely to have ADHD as a child
•    persistent crying makes the baby less intelligent (IQ 9 points less than average at 5)
•    Persistent crying as a young baby makes the baby more harder to settle by 10mths

The Australian Association of Infant Mental Health states: “Controlled crying is not consistent with what infants need for their optimal emotional and psychological health, and may have unintended negative consequences. There have been no studies that assess the physiological stress levels of infants who undergo controlled crying, or its emotional or psychological impact on the developing child.”

I shall leave the final comment to Dr Paul Fleiss to sum up:

”The idea that babies can and should learn to “self-soothe,” without any physical or emotional interaction with parents, is incorrect. The best and most effective way for a child to learn to lull himself quietly back to sleep after experiencing a night waking is for parents to have demonstrated their dependability and availability when the child was a baby “

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is the director of www.babycalm.co.uk, which runs classes for calmer babies and happier parents

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