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For crying out loud: study backs baby sleep strategies

Date

Kate Hagan

Controlled crying helps improve infants' sleep, researchers say.

Controlled crying helps improve infants' sleep, researchers say. Photo: Supplied

CONTROLLED crying improves infants' sleep, reduces mothers' depression and does not cause any long-term harm, a Melbourne study has shown.

Researchers from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute analysed outcomes at six years for children whose parents used behavioural techniques to regulate their sleeping as infants.

The techniques - designed to teach babies to fall asleep by themselves - included controlled crying, in which parents put their baby to bed tired and left them for short periods even if they cried, returning to reassure and settle them if necessary. Another technique adopted by parents in the study was ''camping out'', in which a parent sat next to their baby's cot on a chair while the baby fell asleep and the parent slowly moved out of the room in a gradual process over a few weeks.

Georgie and Paul Girardau used controlled crying techniques with their twins Thomas and Rachel, now aged nine.

Georgie and Paul Girardau used controlled crying techniques with their twins Thomas and Rachel, now aged nine. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Writing in the journal Paediatrics, the researchers said there was strong evidence that the techniques reduced infant sleep problems and associated maternal depression for up to 16 months afterwards.

But they said unproven concerns about potential long-term effects on children's mental health had provoked vigorous debate and limited uptake of the techniques, despite their effectiveness. Their study, the first to follow up children as late as age six, compared outcomes for children whose parents used the behavioural techniques at age eight to 10 months to those whose parents did not.

The researchers found there were no differences in the mental and behavioural health, stress levels, and relationships of children across the two groups five years later.

Lead researcher Anna Price said parents and health professionals should therefore feel confident about the effectiveness and safety of sleep interventions in infants aged six months and older.

The researchers said information currently available to parents about the effects of behavioural sleep strategies was inconsistent and in some cases outdated, and should be updated.

Dr Price said infant sleep problems were widespread and had a significant effect on families. ''It's really important to conduct these studies so you can get the evidence and reassure families that what they are doing is going to help and it's not going to harm,'' she said.

Among the participants in the study was Georgie Girardau, who found controlled crying a highly effective technique for her twins Thomas and Rachel, now healthy nine-year-olds.

''You're a new mother and you don't know what you're doing,'' she said.

''It was something you learnt, that in some respects you almost needed to be a little bit cruel to be kind.

''They were in a great routine and I kept the two of them together, side by side. I'd wake them and feed them four-hourly and then put them back to bed.''

Dr Price said the techniques worked for many families, ''but if you're finding it's not working for you, you might need to try something else or get some extra help from your nurse or GP''.

38 comments so far

  • Nobody cries themselves to sleep on my watch. I think it's a disgusting thing to do to any human being. And I say this as someone who has worked full time while being the breastfeeding parent of a non-sleeping baby. Yes, it's horribly hard, but that's what being a good parent requires sometimes.

    Commenter
    Old bag
    Date and time
    September 11, 2012, 10:02AM
    • Each baby is different. I tried controlled crying with the first but it didn't work but 'camping out' did. No need for anything with the second because he slept whether I wanted him to or not. But the third did not sleep through until the age of six. Tried everything but in the end the only thing to do when she woke in the night was get up walk into her room and then walk back out after just touching her lightly and we all got sleep.
      Finally though after 27 years of being disturbed by babies and then teenager's social lives and shift working children, they have all left home and I am trying to reestablish a decent sleep pattern. Very early but very happy days :)

      Commenter
      dlg
      Date and time
      September 11, 2012, 10:03AM
      • I used a controlled crying technique endorsed by the wonderful Tresillian Family Care organisation when my twins were 7 months old. I was losing my mind via sleep deprivation but after just 4 nights of basically ignorning their cries they slept through the night and have been for the last five months. This technique saved my life!

        Commenter
        misssives
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        September 11, 2012, 10:04AM
        • Correct controlled crying isn't about letting your child cry themselves to sleep.

          Done correctly you are always there to let your child know your around (usually at 5 minute intervals) and if they have not put themselves back to sleep within half an hour, you can pick them up to check there if there are any reasons why they might be crying and start the over.

          Our child use to wake every hour throughout the night and would not sleep unless rocked back to sleep. We used controlled crying to teach him to put himself back to sleep, it took about three nights and now he sleeps right through the night and is happier for it when he wakes in the morning.

          Commenter
          Mark
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          September 11, 2012, 10:10AM
          • At last some rational comment. Anyone who's done it knows its best. The "camping out" is particularly effective for mothers who can't cope emotionally with the crying.

            Commenter
            PMCD
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            September 11, 2012, 10:15AM
            • Controlled crying? It may not be psychologically damaging for the baby but it sure as heck can be for the mother. We had a nightmare first child who wouldn't sleep more than 90 minutes until she was 15 months. Controlled crying was suggested. The only observable result after a month was that the mother was even more distraught, convinced she was the worst mum in the world, and the kid still wouldn't sleep. My wife has never properly recovered in my (non-professional) opinion.
              Conclusion? If you want to try it go ahead, but listen to your own feelings about it and don't be railroaded by 'professionals'.

              Commenter
              A while ago now
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              September 11, 2012, 10:16AM
              • It's pretty obvious really. You need to give babies what they need, when they need it. And if they need to sleep (because they're tired) then you need to leave them to sleep. Picking up a (tired) crying baby might make you feel better, but you're not actually giving your baby what they need - you're just keeping them up later and later while they get more tired. It is strange that a lot of mothers don't seem to think of tiredness as a potential cause of crying and instead do 1 hour long feedings and other desperate things. However, from experience, I do understand that's a much harder concept to stick to when you're exhausted, hormonal and every cry rips your heart out.

                Commenter
                W
                Location
                Brisbane
                Date and time
                September 11, 2012, 10:19AM
                • I often wonder whether maternal depression rates wouldn't be a lot lower if there was a lot less pressure around babies behaving in a particular way. I see so much stress in Mums worrying that their baby is not sleeping enough, or at the right times, or "self-settling". And worrying if they don't learn to self settle they never will. Rubbish! Neither of my children have "slept through the night" with any regularity until they were over two, but I found early on that just accepting that's the way they are and knowing they would wake made a world of difference. That, and having some comebacks for all the comments about whether they were a "good" baby. No, they're inherently evil just because they wake at night! Mostly I told people they "sleep like a baby" without defining what exactly that meant. Both of them (6 and 2.5) go to bed with no trouble and sleep fine now. The little one still needs someone to lay with him some nights and wakes about once a night but resettles easily.

                  Commenter
                  Michelle
                  Date and time
                  September 11, 2012, 10:28AM
                  • The poll question following this article is unfortunately misleading. Controlled crying, as I understand it, and as described in the article, is NOT about letting babies cry themselves to sleep, as the technique involves going back to soothe and settle the bub every few minutes, and leaving increasing gaps till bub has gone to sleep. If you leave a baby to scream and cry by itself. then I think the evidence is clear - that is harmful for your child - cortisol levels got though the roof and baby learns not to trust or depend on its carer's. Controlled crying is different - the baby knows you are still nearby. having said all that, I used the "camping out" method, which didn't have a name back then!

                    Commenter
                    One mother
                    Date and time
                    September 11, 2012, 10:28AM
                    • I have just read the study paper online (I have access through my workplace). The conclusions actually state - and I quote - 'Behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects (positive or negative).' Looking at the results, there were no differences between the controlled crying group and usual care groups on child sleep problems or sleep habits, or on parental depression, anxiety, or stress. Why is the lead author then pushing the agenda that controlled crying can improve a child's sleep and maternal mental health?? Perhaps these findings are from another paper, but the results of this paper are being mis-represented.

                      Commenter
                      Tasha
                      Date and time
                      September 11, 2012, 10:29AM

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