When I became pregnant with my first child, probably in the same way all new mums do, I had a lot of naïve assumptions about what parenting would be like.
I vaguely remember thinking that my daughter would slot into our lives. I knew things would change but I didn’t consider the truly monumental impact bringing a child into the world would have on every aspect of everything.
I got used to dirty nappies, the crying seemingly without cause and living on a strict diet of things I could grab with one hand but the sleep deprivation…it hit me hard. There is a reason it’s used as a method of torture.
After a few weeks of fairly reasonable sleep, we hit the four-month sleep regression. It’s apparently a widely known phenomena during which babies adjust from new-born slumber to adult sleep cycles. I genuinely wondered if I would survive it.
The following three months were spent rocking and shushing and pacing. We tried sleeping next to her in an attempt to trick her into sleeping too. I gave extra feeds and fewer feeds.
We ruled out every other cause before finally resolving ourselves to the probability that we would never close our eyes again.
Then at 4am one particularly hideous morning I stumbled across controlled crying whilst googling ‘side effects of living on coffee and wotsits?’
There is a lot of advice on the internet about this subject; some dodgy, some useful. Often controlled crying is confused with the more controversial method of cry it out.
The crucial difference between the two is rather than allowing your baby to cry without comfort, controlled crying involves supporting your infant to learn how to settle themselves; reassuring them at regular intervals with both patience and understanding.
Sleep Advisor Annie Simpson from Infant Sleep Consultants has years of experience in sleep training and believes techniques can only be tried once you can be confident that there are no other reasons for waking.
You’ve first got to eliminate hunger and pain or discomfort as reasons for the wakefulness and make sure that these have been dealt with appropriately.
‘We do not advocate leaving a baby or child to scream so it is important that the parents go in to reassure their little ones at timed intervals and let them know that they are there, that it’s ok but that it is time to go to sleep,’ Annie explains.
Whilst weighing up the pros and cons of embarking on a formalised settling technique we started to consider the impact lack of sleep was having on other aspects of our life, such as our ability to work and strain on our marriage.
Sleep deprivation was really getting us down, although we remained conscious of the fact that stress would probably increase in the short term. Annie agrees that a lack of sleep has a psychological impact on parents. ‘Sleep deprivation affects memory, appetite, behaviour, concentration and your immune system so science says, we need to sleep,’ she says.
A recent report in the press claimed that ‘babies do sleep better if you leave them to cry‘.
The study by Associate Professor Michael Gradisar suggested that “graduated extinction” – better known as controlled crying – increased sleep length and reduced the number of times babies woke up during the night.
We decided to give controlled crying a go but I was wary. I absolutely hate listening to her cry without picking her up. Its instinctual to want to provide comfort to any child in distress, even more so when it’s your own.
On the first evening we fed her and placed her in bed with her comforter before cautiously leaving the room. I hate to admit it but I found it refreshing to just walk out, rather than the ridiculous tiptoe or army roll we had become accustomed to.
Within a few minutes she had realised we were gone and fairly predictably began to scream like a banshee.
To begin with we left for a couple of minutes before my maternal instinct to comfort her cries kicked in and I crept back into the room, rubbed her back briefly and whispered ‘it’s time for sleep darling’ (a phrase we had both agreed on) before leaving again.
We repeated this pattern for 20 minutes before she fell asleep.
The same happened the following 3 nights whilst we gradually extended the periods we left for, however night 4 rolled around and we only had to return to her room once…we had cracked it and she has slept soundly since (barring illness or teething).
I was worried about the impact it would have on my relationship with her; would it effect the bond between us, or leave her with lasting behavioural problems later down the line? There is always something in the headlines criticising parents for using their own judgement.
Annie, however, does not believe that sleep training traumatises children in any way. ‘I feel that critics of sleep training often use arguments which are based either on studies which have been carried out in unnatural surroundings on a small number of infants or use terms which are emotionally loaded and make parents feel guilty for seeking help in the first place,’ she says.
‘When parents have reached their limit after months of exhaustion, it is important that they feel supported through the process, not bullied into something that is no longer sustainable’.
‘I don’t agree that sleep training traumatises children and feel that it is necessary and important that they are reassured repeatedly throughout the process.
‘There have not been any studies on controlled crying that prove long term distress to children. It may not be the right approach for every family but the “bad” reputation often comes with people confusing it with cry it out or not looking at the root cause of the problem’.
Controlled crying has both fans and critics but I’d say that if it seems like a good fit for you, go for it – using common sense and compassion.
For us, the consistency of the approach provided the key to better sleep.
She learned quickly what to expect and that we would always return to her when she needed us. The end result was a happy, well rested baby and rejuvenated parents.