When baby sleep training goes wrong – the risks of controlled crying

“Our first baby was fairly easy going, we had a bit of trouble getting her to sleep when she was tiny, I think because we didn’t realise how much sleep babies need or how quickly they get overtired, but it wasn’t too much of a drama and she slept well at night, which made life much easier. She did wake at night (as you would completely expect), but quickly settled after a feed. At 9 months, after I had returned to work 2 months earlier, we did controlled crying for two nights. It was so tough, but on night 3 and thereafter she slept through and we though “gee that was good,” says Alice, a mum of four.

For so many parents, like Alice, broken sleep can take its toll. With a lack of support and pressure from all sides that it will only take a few nights of ‘tough love’, sleep training starts to sound pretty darn good. But, what if it doesn’t ‘work’? Or, what if it does but there is a huge trade-off for your baby’s longer-term well-being? You see, there is increasing evidence that baby sleep training can have longer-term repercussions that can fill parents with guilt and regret, that awful feeling of ‘if only we had known.’

Although sleep training ‘worked’ for Alice’s first baby, the experience with her second baby was vastly different –and so was the outcome. She says: “he was a challenging baby from the get go, very spewy (turned out he had reflux) and rarely slept day or night. I sat with him sleeping on my chest for eight weeks straight. My bottom was permanently numb. We had feeding issues due to a problem with one of my breasts and I had to mix feed from eight weeks. But the biggest problem was the lack of sleep. He would wake six to eight times a night and was nearly impossible to comfort or get to sleep – day or night.

After three months of hell we had a maternal and child health nurse come out to help settle him and give us some advice moving forward. She couldn’t even get him to sleep! But we did see a little improvement afterwards. By six months things were worse than ever and we were absolutely wrecked. In desperation we sought assistance from a sleep consultant (locally referred to as the Sleep Nazi). She would come out to your home, spend the night with you and would then call daily for a couple of weeks to coach you and follow up. The premise was that your child would sleep through within three nights.

We saw minimal improvement, but she assured us that we were making progress and he’d soon be sleeping. So we kept at it, and at it……. my alarm bells should have been clanging by now, but in desperation and feeling like we had tried everything else and failed, we kept going and going and going. We had previously tried a soothing CD, white noise, light on, light off, sitting next to the cot, co sleeping, an osteopath and more……..so many things! “

Alice says, “I now realise that we let expectations and what everyone else’s babies were doing make us feel like we were failing. That having zero support from family or friends (they live hours away) left us exhausted, defeated and willing to do anything but I had no idea to what extent it would affect my gorgeous golden haired boy.”

Alice’s son is now 6, is suffering anxiety, OCD like symptoms, inappropriate responses to everyday events and situations and difficult behaviour. She says, “he’s not able to concentrate at school unless he’s got one on one attention and is falling behind. He can’t cope at all if he feels we are going somewhere without him or he is being rushed, saying over and over “don’t leave me!” – it’s really difficult to live like this, but more so, to see him live like this. We are currently waiting to have him assessed by a series of medical Professionals who will hopefully equip us with the skills and coping mechanisms to help our son.

“His behaviour affects the whole family, particularly his siblings, but also my husband and I. It’s stressful, embarrassing and difficult to not react to his behaviour. But most of all, it’s heartbreaking! We honestly believe, and our Doctor agrees, that sleep training and the duration of our attempts play a significant part in his temperament and behaviour. It’s really difficult to hear that, to admit it and know it was our choice to do it. I feel as though I have let my son down and I second guess myself whenever I question why it worked so easily for our daughter – were we just lucky? Or did she simply give up trying to get our attention?”

Although many baby sleep trainers claim there is no evidence of harm from practices such as controlled crying, there is a vast difference between ‘no evidence of harm’ and ‘evidence of no harm’.

‘Harm’ as Alice describes cannot be proven but there is research showing that children with anxiety disorders have a higher level of sleep difficulties as infants. Although these studies weren’t about controlled crying and I am making no direct connection, perhaps some of these babies, like Alice’s son, who are presenting with sleep difficulties are infants who need extra help to regulate their emotions or are more sensitive to stress, so it is possible that these little people would be more at risk if they were exposed to controlled crying. Perhaps there was already a problem and sleep training is a neutral factor in the issues Alice’s child is now experiencing. However, it is devastating that any mother has to bear guilt and doubt about her ability to protect her child, especially when she had limited resources and support at the time she was desperately  in need of help.

As well as immediate risks of sleep training such as overheating and vomiting due to extreme distress, there is increasing evidence of potential longer term effects on infant brains, stress regulation mechanisms and attachment. According to Darcia Naevez, Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, “with neuroscience, we can confirm that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term.”

Babies need our help to learn how to regulate their emotions, meaning that when we respond to and soothe their cries, we help set the expectation that when they are upset, they can calm down, with our help. On the other hand, when infants are left alone to cry it out, they fail to develop the understanding that they can regulate their own emotions. This is why ‘self-soothing’ depends on neurological maturity that is achieved through responsive nurturing, not ‘training’ by leaving babies to cry alone.

There is also compelling evidence that increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol may adversely affect the development of synapses and cause permanent changes in the stress responses of the infant’s rapidly developing brain – a full term newborn only has 25% of its brain developed and brain growth will increase about three times as large by the end of the first year.

English psychotherapist, Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, explains that in normal amounts cortisol is fine, but if a baby is exposed for too long or too often to stressful situations (such as being left to cry) its brain becomes flooded with cortisol and it will then either over- or under-produce cortisol whenever the child is exposed to stress. Too much cortisol is linked to depression and fearfulness; too little to emotional detachment and aggression.

One of the arguments for using controlled crying is that it ‘works’. Controlled crying and other similar regimes (under a whole range of more benign labels – controlled comforting, controlled soothing, responsive settling and others that none-the-less ignore or dismiss the baby’s attempts to communicate a need for comfort, food or help to make a transition to sleep), may indeed work to produce a self-soothing, solitary sleeping infant. However, It is the very principle that makes controlled crying ‘work’ that is of greatest concern: when controlled crying ‘succeeds’ in teaching a baby to fall asleep alone, it may be due to a process that neurobiologist Bruce Perry calls the ‘defeat response’. Normally, when humans feel threatened, our bodies flood with stress hormones and we go into ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. However, babies can’t fight and they can’t flee, so they communicate their distress by crying. When infant cries are ignored, this trauma elicits a ‘freeze’ or ‘defeat’ response. Babies eventually abandon their crying as the nervous system shuts down the emotional pain and the striving to reach out.

One explanation for the success of ‘crying it out’ is that when an infant’s defeat response is triggered often enough, the child will become habituated to this. That is, each time the child is left to cry, he ‘switches’ more quickly to this response. This is why babies may cry for say, an hour the first night, twenty minutes the following night and fall asleep almost immediately on the third night (if you are ‘lucky’). They are ‘switching off’ (and sleeping) more quickly, not learning a legitimate skill like learning to swim or ride a bike, for instance. And, even though the baby stops ‘protesting’ (read, crying for help), it does not mean the baby is not stressed.

A 2012 study by Wendy Middlemiss and colleagues  found that even though babies slept after sleep training, they continued to experience high levels of physiological distress, as reflected in their cortisol scores. Middlemiss, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Northern Texas, says, “overall, outward displays of internal stress were extinguished by sleep training. However, given the continued presence of distress, infants were not learning how to internally manage their experiences of stress and discomfort.”

Whether sleep ‘success’ is due to behavioural interventions such as ‘sleep training’ or whether the baby is overwhelmed by a stress reaction, the saddest risk of all is that as he tries to communicate in the only way available to him, the baby whose signals for comfort are ignored in order to teach him to sleep will learn a much crueler lesson – that he cannot make a difference, so what is the point of reaching out. This is learned helplessness.

Pinky McKay is an international Board Certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling author of ‘Sleeping Like a Baby – gentle sleep solutions from birth to three years.’ (Penguin). Pinky also holds regular baby sleep seminars across Australia. Check out venues and dates here.


baby not sleepingbaby sleepbaby sleep self settlingbaby sleep trainingbaby wakingcontrolled cryingPinky McKaysleeping like a baby
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  • Laura

    Pinky…does the Dr Jay method http://drjaygordon.com/attachment/sleeppattern.html falls into the category of controlled crying?

    What about babies who cry in your arms, inconsolably? Or in the car?

    I would really appreciate an answer.

    • Pinky McKay

      There is research (Gunnar) that a baby crying while its being held doesn’t have the same cortisol release that a baby left alone does. Babies cry – and sometimes they do cry in the car or they may cry a few minutes while you peel the last potato because you know if dinner doesn’t happen the whole household will go to hell in a hand basket. This crying them offering comfort that happens occasionally is called rupture and repair by researchers. It isn’t a systematic ‘training’ or abandonment or repeated ignoring of babies’ signals. Sometimes we get it wrong but we can make it right again. Although I personally don’t feel comfortable with dr Jay Gordons protocol, I can understand and I believe by then the bond will be so strong that parents will know if this sits OK with them and what their baby is experiencing. For instance, instead of patting a baby, it may be better for the non breastfeeding partner to cuddle if night weaning is the goal. Or parents can try and share the workload so they each get rest at other times – e.g. relieving each other so they can catch up on sleep at weekends or going to bed early a couple of nights a week. I feel we can all ask, is it safe? is it respectful? and Does it feel right? For us and our baby – each mother and father knows their own baby best. It is a shame there is so much glorification of ‘busy’ and baby training has become the ‘solution’ in so many cases.

  • jo

    It must be really hard to feel you have contributed to this situation. But it is possible your son had inate problems which his sleeplessness was an indicator of and his current behaviours could be those of a child on the autistic spectrum which is definitely not caused by parental influence. Your intentions were the best and that’s what makes you good parents.

    • Ella

      I was thinking the same thing. Must be so hard for this poor Mum to feel as though she’s contributed to her child’s problems, but I also wonder whether babies who have sleep issues from birth could be more ‘highly strung’ could already be demonstrating possible anxiety and/or other problems.
      I didn’t use sleep training or cry to sleep with either of my boys, yet they now exhibit vastly different personalities at primary school age. One is naturally very anxious and stressed about everything and my other son is easy going; in our case this seems to just be their individual personalities rather than environmental or child rearing factors.

      • kat

        I was thinking the exact same thing. We didn’t” sleep train” any of our 3 children and they are all very different. We did co sleeping and had little beds beside our bed for the big one and the 2 little ones slept in our king sized bed. Now our middle child sleeps in her bed in her room and our oldest sleeps in his own room. They are ages 4 and 2. our littlest is still in our bed but he’s only 8 months old. I have a crib that I need to set up as I feel he wants his own space now. It will be most likely set up in our room. Every parent is different, every child is different.

      • Beth

        My son was equally unable to sleep through the night. He would wake several times through the night crying and I was pregnant with my second child almost immediately after having him. So I was about 6 months pregnant and getting NO sleep so we decided to try the sleep training as well with him when he was about 8 mos old. He screamed and cried his head off. It was very traumatic for all of us. We used the Ferber method. It worked for us and I was eventually able to get some rest, but as he developed we realized that his sleep issues were only the first of many problems he had. He ended up seeing occupational and speech therapists and going to special ed classes for autistic kids. Today he’s a very smart and active 13 yr old but he suffers from OCD, Anxiety and attention issues. No one could specifically identify what was going on with him, just a Developmental Delay, not otherwise specified probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Words like Aspergers have been used but he’s just a little different. So where I am going with all this is that it may not be BECAUSE of the sleep training. It could just be that his sleep problems were an early manifestation of whatever is going on with him.

    • Natasha

      I’d just like to thank you with my whole heart for writing this. As first time parents we were bombarded with a range of information especially from Maternal Child Health Nurses on how we should be getting our baby to sleep all of basically meant some form of controlled crying, certainly no holding or heaven forbid, rocking and scrunched up noses at bed sharing. We really had to dig deep and trust ourselves to do what was best for our child even if we were made to feel like we didn’t have a clue. We held our newborn baby for all her daytime naps until she started showing signs that she was less and less comfortable and could be placed in her bassinet. We bed shared until she showed signs she didn’t want to do that anymore. At 5 1/2 months She now sleeps in her big cot from 7pm-7am with a feeding in between which she’s been doing since around 3 months. And yes we still rock her to sleep and no doubt she will show us in HER time that this is no longer effective for her. She has gained her comfortable levels of independence simply by knowing and feeling dependent on us – her parents. I will never understand the absolute obsession there is with having the baby become as independent as possible as quickly as possible. It unnatural not to mention unnecessary and these opinions get thrust upon new parents causing an enormous amount of stress. The best thing we did was be brave and trusted what felt right to us in our gut. Thank you for validating our natural instinct.

  • Felicity

    As a psychologist I am in complete agreement about the possible emotional effects of controlled crying and have never done it with my own children. However, I think the above example is concerning. The child described presents with many traits and characteristics of a developmental delay such as Autism Spectrum Disorder . It mentioned that the parents are seeking further professional opinion but it is misleading to outline this particular child’s behaviour as “generalised anxiety” possibly caused by controlled crying. The facts outlined that the baby could not be settled by anyone including ‘sleep experts’ which is more indicative of other underlying developmental issues. This article raises important issues about not comparing our baby’s sleep habits with others and of course the emotional ramifications of controlled crying but the baby used as an example at its effect on the whole family ‘paints’ a distorted picture of ‘anxiety’. I know how difficult it may be as a parent to realise there may be something ‘wrong’ with their child but there are numerous factors involved in a child’s developmental and it would be impossible to pinpoint one exact cause without ruling out developmental, genetic, and physiological causes. My apologies if I offend anyone but I was quite surprised by the extent of this child’s difficulties being blamed on controlled crying.

    • Pinky McKay

      I too feel that there may have been some underlying problems but my point is that often these babies are the ones who are more vulnerable and there is certainly no benefit in using controlled crying, especially when underlying reasons for sleep issues are not explored e.g. food intolerance, feeding difficulties, medical problems such as reflux and lack of support for mothers. Most of all, that no mother should feel the angst that she has contributed or made any underlying issue worse. This is why the mum asked for her story to be shared. I have also heard from mums whose babies didn’t have any ‘underlying’ issues , in fact their sleep was reasonable – until they read about routines and making babies sleep longer so implemented strict feeding and sleeping routines that meant not responding to their babies. It also reduces stimuli like touch and movement which may then contribute to or exacerbate sensory issues.

      • Jane

        I have to agree with Felicity & Kate. You a knowledge that you realise the child described in your article has underlying issues affecting his sleep. However you have created the misleading impression that his issues were caused by attempts at sleep training, with no mention of any other potential issues. My opinion regarding sleep training aside, this is irresponsible fearmongering. I personally consider that poor practice that undermines what you are trying to achieve.

    • Kate

      I’m with you Felicity. I am also a psychologist and I think this is a very concerning link to be making. Pinky this equates to fear mongering, linking this poor child’s emotional and behavioural issues to controlled crying when there is a much more likely and evidence based explanation available. This mother who has clearly done everything she can to assist her child does not HAVE to take on any burden of guilt or feel that she has done anything wrong. While she might feel that way, a qualified professional would allow her to work through these feelings as well as providing reassurance that it is very unlikely that the use of cc in any way contributed to this outcome.

  • Giulia

    Hi there, thanks for this article. I had problems with making my baby sleep when he was little and I felt bad that now as a toddler (approaching 17 months) he still needs to be on our bed and to be sung a song and shhhhhed to sleep. This article makes me think that maybe we’ve done the right thing not making him CIO. He’s a lovable young tot and he does sleep reasonably well now so I can’t really complain too much about the 15-30 mins it takes him to fall asleep on our bed. Eventually he will fall asleep in his own bed I hope. Big hugs you’ve done nothing wronf don’t bash yourself diwn. You’ve done what you thought was right. Sleepless nights are terrible and it’s not right to make yourself feek guilty for trying to get sone sleep. I hope youe LO problems will be resolved so you will be able to move forward but have you considered the eventuality that these problems might not have been caused by the sleep training but were problems your son was going to have anyway? Xxxx big hugs and take care xxx

  • Maria Jean

    Thank you for an insightful article! My dear daughter is now 5 but I remember all too well when she was a baby and just wouldnt go down to sleep without me holding her and singing to her until she falls asleep… she also did not sleep through the night until she stopped breastfeeding at 17 month old. At that time, I pretty much tried every sleep suggestions there were except controlled crying with no success. I just didn’t have the heart to do it to my baby. In short those are hard nites for almost 2 years. I envied parents with babies who sleep through the nites so easily and I got stressed for thinking that I was a fail as a mother for not being able to manage my baby’s sleeping, if anyone else can do it, why cant I! But then, I stopped reading everything that screamed ‘ideal baby’ articles from the media, I talked to supportive mum who said that every baby is different and I changed my way of thinking as well. I love my bubba and I want to be there for her whenever she needs me, after all she won;t be needing me as much once she turns 20 yo 🙂 ….and I read a beautiful sentence once which says: “You are not a bad mother if you’re actually wondering if you are…the fact that you worry already shows that you are a good caring mother” …and with that I stopped reading baby manuals and raised my bubba the way I thought was best for her…. she is a beautiful independent 5yo girl now, confident and smart (got 2 awards from school the first 3 months in Kindy), very loving and sweet and she’s one that’s not scared of the dark or monsters. Once she was having a bath and I absent mindedly went pass the bathroom and turned off the light and went to the kitchen, this was at about 7pm at night…after about 5 mins, she called out saying: “Mum, do you think you can turn on the light now?” with a giggly tone 🙂 I’m often asked by new mums about how I raise my bubba and I just said to them, I have no advice, babies are different and only you, parents know the best way to raise them. Just shower them with love and do what you think is best for them, the rest will come into place at the right time. Never worry if your baby is different from other babies, they are different persons, personalities and souls… nothing is standard…just do what’s working for you and your family, and don’t think of a perfect ideal way of raising a child, there’s no such thing 🙂

    • Pinky McKay

      what a lucky girl you have! I love that she isn’t scared of the dark. I realised this with my own children . My 3rd child was about 3 and had walked to the toilet in the dark just after I had been reading a book that talked about children and fear of the dark. I had a lightbulb moment and realised ‘why would she be afraid of the dark?’ She had never experienced it as a fearful place. Of course all children are different and there are different factors that may cause fear but its lovely when children are secure and confident. You are doing a great job!

  • Audrey

    I believe that the anxiety has nothing to do with controlled crying, definitely sounds more like being on the autism spectrum. I did control crying with my first daughter at 8 months and she was sleeping through after one week. She is the most easy going 8 year old and I never had any separation issues with her. I have three other daughters who slept through the night pretty early on and they never had many separation issues either, but then I am a very relaxed mum. My 6 year old does have some issues which may be related to being on the autism spectrum and has lots of meltdowns. As for being scared of the dark, that will come when the imagination sets in and after watching scary tv.

  • Chia

    The issue is that anxiety and depression issues don’t really present until later in teen years and in their 20’s when the real stresses of life start to present to individuals….so i think its rather dismissive to say there is no harm…you can’t say for sure….my observation is adults i know who were strict routine, left to cry to sleep etc have tendencies towards anxiety and lack of confidence….its like their start i life has not prepared for what life throws at them…i would not be willing to gamble that on my child’s developing brain..controlled crying is a cultural construction we need to stop referring to it as science and “research based” its not…its the same sleep training invented to suit the industrialised western society 150 years ago….don’t be fooled…

    • Erynn

      The problem with using controlled crying or CIo is that you have zero way of knowing how it will effect the individual child down the road. Sure, some of them may be ok but many of them many end up with anxiety issue, depression, etc . The scientific evidence against CIO is mounting quickly, but parents continue to try to ignore it because of a societal expectation that’s been created that your child should sleep through the night by 4 months of age. That is just BS. Your job as a parent doesn’t end when the sun goes down, and if your child happens to by an infant who requires more comfort and contact to settle to sleep the absolute worst thing you do for them is to abandon them and force this adult expectation on a small baby. It is beyond counter-intuitive and just plain irresponsible.
      It’s grew that it worked for you, but it doesn’t work for some many parents and they keep doing it because the “Sleep experts” tell them it’s ok. My niece has been having CIO forced upon her since she was 3 months old, at over year she still cries every night. Does that sound like it’s working? Not to me, but her parents consulted a sleep duloa (which you need zero training for at all) who told them to not give in to her whims. Again, total BS.

  • Caroline

    This is a really good article. It breaks my heart that so many people do controlled crying or CIO when articles such as this one surely provide enough compelling evidence to take a gentler, safer path. I agree with an above commenter who says that the anxiety may well present itself later in life. There are too many other options to help your child sleep well to even consider doing controlled crying.

    • Tara

      Please fill me in on some other options!! I’m not far from losing it as I have a 10 month old and currently pregnant and surviving on roughly 4 hours of broken sleep a night 🙁

  • sgarazze

    Sounds to me like that couple with the child who now has anxiety, OCD etc… actually have a child who has had a neurological disorder to begin. I wonder if he has had a form of autism.

    Thank you for your article i read it to my husband who likes to dump rules on kids with no nurturing at all. I keep telling him that yes you can say no to giving them a certain object or their own way but you must still nurse them through the emotion and disappointment of it. They need firm structure and discipline but they also need nurturing and tauggt how to regulate. There is no reason why discipline can be applied to a child but still nirse them through the hurt. So mamy parents equate discipline with absolute restriction of emotional support and expecring their child to ‘toughen up princess’

    • Tara

      Please fill me in on some other options!! I’m not far from losing it as I have a 10 month old and currently pregnant and surviving on roughly 4 hours of broken sleep a night 🙁

  • Tanya

    Hi Pinky, I have read a heap of books, I’m trying to work out what is best for my baby. In your book does it advise what to do if you are sleeping with your baby beside you and he still fusses most of the night? Does it also advise on what to do if your bub is only sleeping one sleep cycle through the day and only about two sleeps of half hr through the whole day? If it helps with these two things I will buy your book in a split second!!! I can get him to sleep by feeding and then rocking/giggling in my arms and than it is only for one sleep cycle. I can sometimes get him to sleep walking the pram and it used to be only screaming in the car – that has improved and it’s now hit or miss.
    The first few months I could not put him down, that has also now improved and he will be entertained by toys / play centre. It’s the sleeping, he has no idea on how to self sooth. I have tried everything, white noise, rhymes, rocking, comfort blankie the list is endless. I said I would not do controlled crying – I am now there, I can’t think of what else I can do. This bubba needs more sleep, I don’t know has else to help him with it. Hoping you can tell me your book will help or if there is someone I can go to? I live on the Sunshine Coast Australia xo

  • K Brown

    This horrifies me to think I’ve caused damage to my little one. Me eldest slept brilliantly until 20 months then she started screaming in the night. beingheavily ppregnant I couldn’t hold her all night while she slept soundly in my arms, I had reached a point of non being physically able to cope with no sleep so did sleep on the floor while holding her hand through the cot, it was horrific but very quickly she wenta back tosleeping. My sevond is totslly different, bsrely slept unless attached to me and at 11 months I had to go back to work. I did the sleep training/ controlled crying but I listened to her. She didn’t like the cot so could sleep soundly until I went near it, if she was crying in distress I went in straight away, if the cry was simply her sounding off then I learned to give her a few mins to try and work it out. Now 4 months later she knows I will go in if she wakes through the night, which isnt very often, I leave her no more than the few mins it takes for me to wake up unless she sounds distressed then I jump up straught away. There are different cries and at 11 months I knew when she was distressed or just annoyed I’d put her in the cot. There is no proof its harmless but a baby who isn’t sleeping enough isn’t good for their development or haopy state of mind either.

  • Rebecca

    I’m horrified by the comments made in response to this article to the effect that it sounds like the child in question is on the autism spectrum. There is simply not enough information presented about the child to even speculate on this being the case. I think it’s totally irresponsible (to say nothing of insensitive) to do so. It’s clear from the piece that the family are in the process of having their child professionally assessed. Why anyone here feels the need to provide their own amature diagnosis is beyond me. My heart goes out to this mother for the feelings of guilt and stress she’s feeling.

    • Nan

      I disagree. Considering that the conversation is beyond this one person I think it pays to let parents know that if they are having extended issues with sleep problems that they seek some professional advice. You don’t need a psychology degree to do this – and it can be done with sensitivity. I would hate to think that a parent would continue to struggle because no one had the guts to say to them that they should seek professional advice.

    • Chantal

      Thank god im not the only one that did sleep training! I read this article and wanted to jump off a bridge because of the intense guilt i felt, but then you reminded me of how bad the situation was before i turned to CIO i had a unhappy distressed baby that never slept during the day! I did CIO as a last resort and i thought 3 days of protest crying is nothing compared to weeks of sleep deprivation for my bub! Sleep deprivation is tortutre for babies too! Thankyou for reminding me that i was just doing what i thought best and doing the best i could. If only every parent did not judge other parents actions when we all just want the best for our children.

  • Rebecca

    Whoops…that should have said ‘amateur’! (Sleep deprivation at work)

  • Stace

    Oh no!! I have just woken up after a full night of sleep to find my monitor volume was off! I don’t know how this happened but I’m feeling devastated at the thought that my baby was cold or hungry or generally calling for me and I didn’t come. Have I ruined and undone 7 months of building trust and positive sleep associations and being responsive to my baby at all times? I’m truly upset at the thought of this.

  • Becs

    Interesting points you raise here . I do wonder though if Controlled crying had such effect wouldn’t we quite a few generations of anxious people? It is only recently (last 50 – 80 years) that children have been considered as precious as they are now and not partially an economic instrument to earn money or something you shouldn’t get attached to in case they pass on. I agree that small babies need a solid attachment and responses to their cries but at around 8 months of there aren’t any other issues and the mother and whole family are suffering then controlled crying may be beneficial to a whole family. I think articles like this may also make a mother who was very desperate and used controlled crying feel extra guilt about what she did for the wellbeing of her whole family.

    • Christine

      She never said it would inevitably, every single time, lead to a person with an anxiety disorder. And frankly, that’s not the point. Human beings are resilient and adaptable. Mistakes made with you as an infant can be corrected later, you will heal. But why in the wide world of all things rational and sane would you purposefully cause the harm just because it could be corrected later. I don’t know about you, but I’m not gonna slice my arm with a knife just because stitches and antibiotics exist. That’s insane. And that’s exactly what you’re talking about when you say “but people in general aren’t anxious”. Super, so they got better. Children who are starved and beaten can get better, and become healthy members of society, but that doesn’t make what was done to them any less a vicious and despicable act. See what I mean?

      And to be totally on point, YES, people are getting mentally less healthy. We DO have generations of emotionally damaged and mentally ill people. “An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older or about one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people.” Fifty-seven MILLION people. One in four adults. Tell me that’s not a generation of emotionally crippled human beings, and I will eat my boots.

      • Christine

        Further: Of course a mother shouldn’t feel guilt for using CIO without knowing the consequences. She might feel enraged that she was lied to by so-called “sleep experts”. She might feel cheated because that lie led to hurting her baby. She might feel betrayed by the child’s father, with whose actual assistance (as opposed to not helping because nurturing babies is “women’s work”) might have helped her avoid such sleep deprivation so she could be available for the baby. But guilt? No way. Not her fault. When the game is already rigged, is it really cheating?

        Further again: You note that children have not been considered as precious until the last century. You are correct in acknowledging this, but I think you’ll find it proves the point exactly. Picture a tribal, nomadic culture with nothing but spears and fire. What does a crying infant mean to that tribe? Certainly it means sleep deprivation for anyone near the child. Certainly it means animosity between the mother and everyone who has to hear the screaming. But most importantly it means a BIG NOISE. And the sounds of the young attract predators. Jump forward in time a few thousand years to 1800’s England let’s say. Women gave birth in their own homes, with midwives, not a doctor. Women were rarely employed, but you can be sure the father was. Lower income families were crammed four and five to a single room. In what universe is that woman even capable of CIO? She has neighbors half an inch of plaster away trying to sleep. Her husband, who is literally her only financial support at all, right next to her, and he has to get up at the crack of dawn to go get FOOD so she and said baby can continue to be alive. There is no way she is getting away with leaving that kid to just scream for an hour. It’s not happening. If you have EVER lived in an apartment, you would know this situation is the same today. Two more noise complaints from the people upstairs and they’ll kick you to the curb. Not. Happening. Perhaps the most convincing argument might be that the very poor are the only ones who wouldn’t use CIO because they can’t, but the rich and middle class people of yesteryear hired wet nurses. Women whose job it was to nurse an infant for a wealthy woman, and to care for that infant’s needs night and day. Fast-forward another century, and the wet nurse has been replaced by the Nanny (1900’s).

        Historically, we did not care for children the way we now do, however, that does not mean CIO was ever reasonably employed as a parenting method, and it certainly is not reason to call CIO virtuous when we have plenty of scientific (read: not empirical or anecdotal, which rarely show any reality other than baseless assumption) evidence to the contrary.

  • Sarah

    Citations would be good. I’ll also throw in that if the parent is anxious the baby will be anxious. If the parents continues to be anxious the baby will grow into an anxious child. Hospitals use it, our parents, grandparents and great grandparents used it. It cannot be proven that controlled crying and not other life experiences are what causes anxiety in children.

  • Christine

    You said it all. Leaving a baby alone to “cry it out” is a despicable thing to do. Now, I’m not calling the parents who do it despicable. They are exhausted, desperate people who have been told a damaging and dangerous LIE. It’s not their fault if some lunatic “Sleep Coach” has decided to write off an infant’s obvious display of suffering as “willfulness” or “manipulation. Cry it out, in and of itself , and those who preach it’s false virtues are despicable.

    For anyone who wants the science behind why cry-it-out should be considered abuse, read here the biological, inborn, completely natural reasons why infants and toddlers instinctively panic when we try to leave them alone to sleep. It’s incredibly eye-opening: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201110/why-young-children-protest-bedtime-evolutionary-mismatch

  • Julia

    Pinky – when can I reasonably expect my son to sleep well at night? He is 1.5 years now and has maybe slept thought a whole night five times in his life.

    I have tried sleep training through Tresillian with him when he was one but it didn’t work and I didn’t feel comfortable with it which might has contributed to it not working… However, the more I read up on it the more I think it’s not the right solution.

    The problem is that I’m working three days a week, I’m pregnant again and I NEED SLEEP.

    I have also tried co-sleeping with him. But this doesn’t work either. He wakes, by now usually only once at night, but then stays up for 1-3 hours and nothing (co-sleeping, massages, relaxing music, cuddling, letting him cry) gets him back to sleep. Sometimes he cries a lot (even when he is in our bed or arms) but more often than not he is quite happy as long as he is with me or hubby. He relaxes, is fairly quiet BUT DOESN’T SLEEP. He gets very upset very quickly if left alone.

    He naps well during the day now (on 1 nap) which hasn’t always been the case… and usually is a very happy bubba. But I do feel the sleeplessness affects him. On days where all of us have been awake for hours in the middle of the night (which is quite often) he is more cranky, whiny, won’t do things by himself… So I’m starting to worry the sleeplessness will also affect his development.

    I understand babies are not made to sleep through a whole night and I don’t expect it. But WHEN can I expect him to sleep? I’m pretty much at my wits end and ready to try the so-called ‘sleep experts’ again although deep down I feel it’s not the right approach. Should I just shut up and live with this as this is what a mummy is about? Responding to your child at all times even if it means you are a total wrack? Unfortunately all or our family lives overseas so no help there.

  • Save Our Sleep Book Review

    […] techniques and go with what works for you.  Pinky McKay has written an excellent article on When Sleep Training Goes Wrong the Risks of Controlled Crying.  Pinky says although controlled crying may work and your baby starts to go to sleep quicker it […]

  • Kids Nook

    An individual approach is always needed with parenting in my opinion. Even when it comes to sleep training. We had to sleep train our son while we have almost no problems with our daughter. Whatever works works and whatever needs be done needs be doing 🙂

    When our son was like 8 and a half months old and was waking up every hour to 2 hours we just couldn’t take it and we used the self soothing method from a lifesaving book called “Every child can learn to sleep”. I believe the book is out of print now in English (it’s a German book) but my wife wrote an article about our experiences with it: Every child can learn to sleep.

    Julia, consistency is key. Pick a tactic/strategy and stick to it!

  • clo honey

    My first son is autistic and i never did controlled sleep techniques i think if i had he would not be as high functioning he used to sleep on me as a baby then progressed to cuddling in his toddler bed and now a story and a kiss but he never slept all night until he was 3. Second child iv been persuaded to try the sleep stuff he has severe reflux very demanding clingy (im a single parent too) tried it for about 15 minutes he threw up and sobbed for 3 hours after and clung to me like i was leaving him forever so i am not trying it again too much upset caused to all of us! He likes the safety of being in my arms with his fluffy(my dressing gown i cut a piece off) do whats best for your babies its exhausting but they get there in the end its a learned skill not a forced one.

  • Fiona

    Total nonsense. I have never done cc or cio but suggesting you can trace serious mental health and developmental issues to this? Show me the evidence. Human beings are hugely resilient and it just flies in the face of what we know about the multi factorial nature of brain development to suggest you can prove cio on infancy led to later issues. It is not compelling evidence.

  • Julie

    I ask you’s all to think about parents who have no limbs. Do they automatically fail as mums and dads who are going to cause their child so much issues becouse they cant hold/rock or pick up their child. A parent without arms and legs uses communication through voice not touch. As a nurse who has studied human behaviour it is argued that humans learn touch through nuture and the primal instinct for humans is voice….
    With my first child I was 18 and a single mother I used CC but in very small amounts eg. I wouldnt leave the room and I would talk to him in soothing tones and I wouldnt let him cry to the point of distress, maybe for one minute max. With my daughter who is now 3 and I was 30 when I had her I didnt let her cry for a second and she slept with me at all times. She wouldnt let me put her down at all without screaming the air blue, I was single and couldnt go to the toilet etc. My son is a confident and secure person with no issues who sleeps well and has done since I used CC. My daughter is as I said 3 and wont sleep alone, she still sleeps in my bed, she wont play alone I have to play with her. I am in no way saying one way is right and one way is wrong but what I am saying is maybe look at the bigger picture. The above does not say what type of home life and up bringing the child had eg a strict routine or has suffered a loss, environmental issues shape a person aswell. also the above article I feel is one sided as there is not enough of a balance with regard to studies which are for CC… Also the above article does not state the ins/outs of the studies but merely very lightly brushes with them and uses words to sway the audience, such as stating psychologists a few times.

  • Natalie

    Alice, I want to reassure you that this is not your fault. You say you had 4 children–I’m curious what you did with the other two?
    My belief is that it is more dangerous for an anxious parent to be constantly present with the child–parents need a cooling off period as well. Having no external support available, you did the best you knew with what you had. I can attest that my son was very difficult from the get go. Our doctor told us to let him cry it out, and he never cried longer than 2 minutes, yet would cry in our arms if we continued to hold him. He also had stomach issues–turned out he had laryngomalacia which was causing constant spitting up. Regardless, he sleeps soundly every night since he was 4 months old, and he is nearing 5 years.
    My son suffers from anxiety…but I would nt correlate that with letting him cry it out. I would correlate it with the genetic history in my family, as well as the frequent travels made by his dad for work. I have questioned the crying-it-out method…BUT then am reminded of my own high anxiety, and I was soothed to sleep for any years by my mom and developed an almost unhealthy attachment to her.

    We are all made differently–we see this particularly with siblings, who we would expect to be very similar. Many factors contribute to anxiety, and controlled crying cannot certainly take the forefront as the causative factor. Pregnancies are different, nutrition tolerabilities are different, external circumstances are different. Most certainly, we do see anxiety as common in children who endure gastrointestinal distress.

    Alice, you are a good mom. Your son is 6 now. He needs you to help him through this phase, strong and confident. Rehashing old regrets will further his anxiety as he looks for you now to be his leader and comfort.

    Motherhood is guilthood–but look at what you did do for him. Just one example that struck me was you mixing different foods to try to find what he needed. All the while having another young child to tend to! You are released from your guilt. Now go forth and continue to be the best fanged mother you can be! These children were given to YOU. They only call YOU Mom for a reason.

  • Alexandra

    Hi there, I would love some words of advice on helping my little baby to sleep. My little girl is 4.3 months old and we have always had issues putting her down to sleep. She sleeps well at night (she usually wakes up 1-2 times) and usually have 3 to four 30 minutes cat naps during the day. Putting her to bed is extremely hard for us, sometimes it takes us 1.5 hrs and she wakes up 20 minutes later (during the day). She usually cries a lot she put down. She does this in her cot or in our arm. She basically fights each sleep. We have tried everything from rocking her to sleep to patting her, picking her up, calming her down and putting her down again. We are truly exhausted and I don’t really have anyone but my husband (which works for most of the day) to help. I am currently doing a nice sleep routine at night (bath, change, feed, book) and putting her in her cot awake (if she falls asleep in my arms she always wakes up when put down which seems to make things worst). She usually starts crying as soon as I put her down in her cot, she usually starts trying to get on her tummy and seems to get very frustrated whilst doing this. I am always in the room with her, I always pat her in the back, caress her head, tell her everything is going to be OK. If crying is really bad I pick her up , try to calm her and put her down again (she usually starts crying as soon as I put her down). Being with her in the room and comforting her and picking her up and putting her down seems to be working but she still cries all the time. Am I doing Controlled crying? Am I hurting her? Should I just let her sleep in my arms all night long? I am at a real loss here we what to do. Would anyone shed some light PLEASE. I am starting to doubt of my capacity to be a good mum now and the thought of hurting her by not letting her sleep in my arms is really making me sad and worried 🙁 Thank you!!!

  • jess

    This is actually the biggest pile of crud I have ever read

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