After months without continuous sleep, you’re starting to feel loopy. You’re wondering how much longer you can continue on like this and beginning to dread the sound of your baby crying out from their crib. You know something needs to change.

Some of your friends have mentioned sleep training using the controlled crying method to help their baby sleep longer stretches. You have no clue what controlled crying is and if it is for your family (but you’re ready for a change!). Let us help fill in the details…

Sometimes referred to as controlled comforting, controlled crying is a sleep training method where caregivers allow a young child to fuss or cry for gradually increasing increments of time before returning to comfort them, in order to encourage a little one to learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. (Or to put it another way… an approach to sleep training that falls somewhere between attachment parenting and crying it out.)

Controlled crying should not be confused with the cry it out, or extinction method, where children are left to cry until they fall asleep, as an important part of controlled crying is stepping in if the crying continues more than a few minutes at a time.

Controlled crying differs from no-cry sleep training methods favored by attachment parents as part of the goal of controlled crying is for a baby to learn to fall asleep on their own and self-soothe, instead of looking to their caregiver for soothing.

Now that you know what controlled crying is, the next question is how do you actually do it?

  1. Get your little one ready for bed using a sleep routine like taking a bath, reading a book, or having some cuddles while singing a lullaby. Ensure that your baby has all their needs met (fed, changed, warm enough) and is comfortable.
  2. Your baby should be put in their crib, on their back, while they’re still awake, but drowsy. Before leaving your child alone, the area should be checked to ensure that it is safe. (Make sure to check above and beside the crib in addition to inside the crib for any hazards like mobiles or art that they could pull down.)
  3. If your little one cries after you leave the area, return to your baby only at scheduled intervals. Typically this starts at 2 to 3 minutes, increasing by 2 to 3 minutes each time you return. This could look like returning after 3 minutes, then waiting 5 minutes, then waiting 7 minutes, etc.
  4. When you return to your little one, comfort/shush/pat your baby for a minute or so to calm them, but try to refrain from taking them out of the crib unless absolutely necessary.
  5. Once your child has calmed, or after 2 to 3 minutes, leave the area and allow your child to try to fall asleep on their own again.
  6. Continue to briefly soothe your child and then leave the area for a set period of time until your little one is fast asleep.
  7. Continue to use the controlled crying process consistently. Your child should learn self-soothing skills and begin to fall asleep on their own more and more quickly as time goes on.

Controlled crying can be used after your baby is at least 6 months old or with older babies or toddlers. If you decide to try controlled crying, you can implement it for naps, bedtime, and middle of the night wakings.

Ultimately, the decision to use controlled crying (or any type of sleep training) is a very personal one. It depends greatly on parenting styles and philosophies.

Controlled crying is not appropriate in every situation, and there are situations where it is definitely not suggested. For example, it’s not recommended for children under 6 months of age and may not be effective if a child is experiencing illness or other major changes like teething or developmental leaps.

It is important to make sure that controlled crying is supported by all parental figures before beginning. It’s also important to discuss with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns. If you are not seeing positive results from controlled crying in a couple of weeks, it may be time to consider a different method of sleep training or whether sleep training is even the right approach for your child.

Believe it or not, crying can actually help with self-soothing. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your body rest and digest. Although it might not happen immediately, after several minutes of shedding tears your baby may feel ready to sleep.

According to a 2018 review of studies, as many as 1 in 4 young children benefited from controlled crying compared those without sleep training. This review found parent moods also significantly increased and no adverse effects were reported within 5 years.

A small 2016 study involving 43 infants found benefits to controlled crying, including a decrease in the amount of time it takes small children to fall asleep and how frequently they wake during the night. The study likewise indicated that there were no adverse stress responses or long-term attachment issues.

There are however limits to when controlled crying (and sleep training in general) are appropriate. There is research that babies under 6 months of age (and their parents) won’t benefit from sleep training. Because of the complex feeding and developmental/neurological changes that occur in the first half of the first year of life, it’s important that parents be extremely attentive to their infant during this time.

Similarly, it’s important for parents to be extra responsive if their child is ill, teething, or reaching a new milestone. Thus, controlled crying (or another sleep training method) may not be appropriate if a child is seeking extra reassurance or cuddles in these cases.

If you’re looking to get your child on a sleep schedule using controlled crying or want to incorporate controlled crying as part of your sleep training plan, there are a few things that can make the process easier.

  • Make sure that your child is getting sufficient food during the day. If you’re looking for longer stretches of content sleep from your baby, it’s important that your little one take in plenty of calories during their waking hours.
  • Ensure that the environment your little one is sleeping in is safe, comfortable, and conducive for slumber. That means keeping the space dark at night (blackout curtains for the win!), leaving pillows/blankets/stuffed animals/crib bumpers out of the crib to avoid suffocation or risks for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and creating a good sleeping temperature through the use of sleep sacks, fans, heaters, etc.
  • Use a consistent routine to signify that the time for sleep has come. Simple nap routines can consist of singing quiet songs or reading books. Bedtime routines can include bathing, songs, books, or turning on the night-light.
  • Avoid other big changes to your child’s routine when introducing controlled crying. Consider waiting to implement controlled crying if your child is teething, experiencing a significant milestone, is sick, or otherwise might need a little extra TLC to fall asleep.

Controlled crying (or even sleep training) may not be the right choice for every baby, but being knowledgeable about the options and methods available for helping your little one fall asleep can be helpful in finding what does work for your family.

If you have questions or concerns about sleep training, make sure to discuss them with your child’s pediatrician at their next visit. A good night’s sleep can make a world of difference and is hopefully in your very near future!