When a baby’s not sleeping, parents need alternatives to those tough sleep training methods like controlled crying or cry-it-out. Research shows 63% of parents either wouldn’t use controlled crying or couldn’t continue to use it once they started. Evidence about the effect of controlled crying or “cry it out” techniques suggests that it can have serious negative long term impacts on children’s development. And if parents won’t commit to this approach, what happens is that the baby continues to sleep poorly and parents suffer fatigue, placing them at higher risk of depression, stress and anxiety.
This particular study, where they looked at more than 500 parents, confirms previous findings that parents would not use, or continue to use, cry it out techniques. When mothers tell me, “My baby’s not sleeping,” I know there will also be secondary sleep problems and stress in the parents. These sleep problems in infants are called “behavioural sleep disorders” and classified as ‘behavioural insomnia of childhood’. Characteristics of behavioural insomnia of childhood include difficulty getting to sleep, with frequent night wakings that require significant time and effort to resettle.
When a baby is over six months old, and if they are not sleeping well or having difficulty getting to sleep without the help of someone or something, is a sub-type of behavioural insomnia of childhood called ‘sleep onset association disorder’. When trying to overcome these sleep disorders, many parents try “controlled crying” or “cry it out techniques”. These methods involve leaving the child to cry for varying amounts of time.
The problem then becomes, not only the baby’s inability to sleep, but the crying itself from the baby who needs help to resettle. It’s the crying which is the single largest contributor to the stress of sleep problems in new parents.
IS BABY WAKING NORMAL?
A baby waking overnight is very normal. They need to feed and sometimes, they need comfort. Most babies can resettle after waking momentarily either due to them moving in to the next sleep cycle or from getting a feed, if they are due to be fed. When they can’t go back to sleep, crying for help is a natural, interactive communication. The baby is saying that they need something. It shows that they have connected with you and want you to help them. While it doesn’t feel like it at 2am, this is actually a good thing. The problem of course is when it happens repeatedly and the baby doesn’t seem to be able to settle themselves.
WHAT are THE ALTERNATIVEs TO CONTROLLED CRYING?
Parents are turning more and more to techniques that don’t require them to leave the child alone and crying. These gentle techniques are effective and work with parents’ natural instincts rather than requiring them to do something counter-intuitive like leaving a baby to cry.
Reassuring babies when they’re struggling to get to sleep or resettle and understanding baby sleep cycles can be easier on parents and babies. The idea of letting a child cry alone without support or comfort, is distressing. Just because they won’t go to sleep, doesn’t mean that their cry isn’t serious or that they don’t need to be comforted. An approach which allows a baby time to make a few noises settling, without leaving them to cry can be a very effective technique as well as less stressful.
Depending on a babies age, there are a range of strategies you can use to reassure a baby without picking them up or feeding them. Verbal reassurance, patting, re-tucking them into bed (if they are old enough for a blanket) are all part of a solution which doesn’t involve leaving a baby to cry.
HOW COMMON ARE SLEEP PROBLEMS IN BABIES?
Somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of parents experience baby sleep problems which not only impact on the baby, but on the parents, their wellbeing and productivity. If you are dealing with this, you are not alone and you don’t have to use controlled crying to get through this. You can use other gentler techniques and gradually encourage your child to self-settle. Just because your baby wakes, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your baby.
If you want to read the study: https://www.psychology.org.au/inpsych/2014/april/blunden/