Controlled crying: For or against?

Essential Baby blogger Amity Dry
Essential Baby blogger Amity Dry 

I’m tired. After 5 months of broken sleep the fog of sleep deprivation is firmly setting in. And sleep deprivation can lead you to be a bit snappy. Particularly when people ask you if your baby is sleeping through the night and then express shock that not only is she not even close, you’re still feeding her at least twice. And don’t even start me with those people whose babies sleep through from 6 weeks. Look, I’m really happy for you, but there’s no need to speak of it in my presence. Ever.

Jokes aside, despite the fogginess I’m ok with the fact that we’re not sleeping. Besides, this being my second baby I’m fairly used to being tired. In fact, Poppy is a much better sleeper than Jamison ever was at this age, so it could be worse.

Jamison, bless him, only slept if he was attached to me. Whether it was my arms or my boobs, unless we had body contact he was not sleeping. Which can make having a life a little tricky. But luckily I was so infatuated with him I made sure we stayed attached to each other for the first 9 months of his life. But when he started waking every hour at night to feed I knew something had to give. And it was very likely to be my sanity. Or my marriage.

So we looked at options for getting him to sleep and, of course, controlled crying came up.

Controlled crying is one of those hot button subjects that almost every parent will have an opinion on, usually fervently for or against. It is also a subject that causes heated debates within marriages, friendships and parenting forums, so I am putting on my armour as I brooch the subject here….

But, for the record, I am definitely on the against side.

The premise was certainly alluring. The thought of three bad nights and then a child who sleeps through is going to appeal to any sleep-deprived parent. But in the end it came down to my husband and I asking ourselves, at what cost?

Parents who have done controlled crying and had success swear by it. I am sure not one of them enjoyed the process and was distressed at hearing their child cry, but they will assure you it didn’t have any negative effect on their baby. However, many of the experts are now saying that isn’t necessarily the cause.

Studies have shown that prolonged crying and high stress levels cause a baby’s brain to overproduce the stress hormone cortisol. And an over overproduction of cortisol has been linked to future depression, detachment and aggression. Renowned paediatrician William Sears has claimed that, rather than training a baby to sleep, controlled crying is actually training a baby to shut down the expression of their needs. Which teaches them their cries will not be attended too, so they eventually ‘give up.’

Now, many of you who have done controlled crying will no doubt vehemently disagree and rally against those claims. But they certainly scared me. However, just to confuse us parents further, there are also studies where the findings support the use of CC, in babies over the age of 6 months.

Paediatrician Harriet Hiscock, from The Murdoch Children's Research Institute, followed 225 six-year-old children who had received behavioural sleep intervention as babies to assess their health including emotional wellbeing, behaviour and child-parent relationship. The study showed intervention during infancy significantly reduced sleep problems in children and depression among mothers during the first two years of the child's life and had no adverse affects on the emotional and behavioural development of children or their relationship with parents.

So which one is right? There is no doubt that an overproduction of cortisol can have a disastrous impact on a child’s future emotional and mental wellbeing. But whether a few nights of high stress for an otherwise loved and well cared for child can make a difference is hard to prove. Still, is it worth taking the chance?

I find it interesting the Murdoch study found depression levels in mothers was lower. Because, as many of you will no doubt attest to, sleep deprivation and exhaustion can certainly contribute to PND. Which is why, despite my decision not to do controlled crying, I realise every case is different and don’t certainly don’t judge those parents who resort to it as a last option.

On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder how much the pressure to be a Supermum, continuing on with our lives and work with minimum interruption, is leading us to require our babies to fit within our needs, rather than us working around theirs. I ran into an acquaintance recently and while swapping baby stories she told me her 4 month old was sleeping 12 hours straight. After enquiring how she managed that miraculous feat she told me that she had done controlled crying at 3 months. ‘I had to go back to work’ she said. “I couldn’t afford to be getting up all night.’ I understood her predicament but couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness for what she and her baby had to go through to achieve that ‘success’.

And while she swore it hadn’t changed her baby’s temperament it is impossible to prove whether he was any different, because we can never know how he would have differed later in life had he not gone through controlled crying. Which is why the debate will always rage, because we can never know.

But, for me, even the smallest chance it would have any detrimental effect on my child was enough to prevent me from trying it. On top of that, the thought of leaving my baby to scream for hours on end just went against ever instinct I have as a mother. When my baby is crying every fibre of my being longs to comfort them and ignoring that instinct just felt wrong. Advocates of CC will argue it is teaching them to sleep, a skill they need to learn. But do they really need to learn such a harsh lesson so early in life? And isn’t teaching them we are there for them unconditionally a more important lesson?

It is true, some babies need to be ‘taught’ how to sleep, which is what we did for Jamison, with the help of a wonderful sleep doctor. And after three weeks of gentle consistency and minimal crying he started sleeping through the night. And he has been a fantastic sleeper ever since. So this time, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, I know these sleepy months will fly by and before I know it I will be sleeping through the night again and wondering where my baby went. And until then I will remain thankful for under eye concealer and coffee. On that note, it’s time to put the kettle on……

Are you for or against controlled crying? Have you done it and what were your experiences?

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I will remain thankful for under eye concealer and coffee. On that note, it’s time to put the kettle on……