‘Controlled crying’ is a term that has haunted parenting books, magazines and blogs for many years. It is overused, outdated and not a term that I particularly like.
But why? I once saw an NSPCC advert on the television that I will never forget; in one shot a little baby was in cot alone and the voiceover stated: “Little Johnny has learnt not to cry because he knows no one will come to him”. There it was, clear as day, the theory that I had championed throughout my career – leaving a child to cry is abuse.
In my opinion, it is astonishing that links have not been established between controlled crying and anxiety in later life.
Some may argue that controlled crying is an effective method, but it is important to illustrate that it only works by attempting to “teach” babies to sleep by removing the thing that comforts the child, which will in turn teach them to self-sooth. However, we are not always talking about simply removing an object. The “thing” that is being removed is you.
My first objection to controlled crying is that there is nothing “controlled” about it. Abandoning your child and leaving them to cry under the pretence that a blissful, stress free sleep will follow is not my idea of a rationalised method for helping to create a healthy sleep pattern. In my clinical career I have seen far too many adults with anxiety who suffer from attachment or abandonment issues and sleep problems – a legacy from the devastating and long lasting effects of an unsettled childhood. What happens to us in our formative years, especially the first two, is so important when it comes to developing the personality, managing relationships and emotional resilience. In my opinion, it is astonishing how links have not been established between controlled crying and anxiety later in life.
The more your child cries, the more stress they experience.
My second objection is that children have no concept of time, so for the moments your child is alone they have no idea when or if you as a parent are coming back. The term controlled crying is not a reassurance for children; it is merely a reassurance and instruction for parents. The method tells parents that it is ‘ok’ to come back in ten minutes and comfort your child, but does the child have any concept of how long ten minutes is?
Crying causes cortisol levels, a stress hormone, to rise in the body and the more your child cries, the more stress they experience. Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of The Centre for Child Mental Health, talks about this in great detail. Essentially, high cortisol levels in babies can damage the emotional development of the brain, which is such an important developmental stage. So, if crying causes stress, and your child’s inability to self-sooth causes damage to the emotional development of the brain, why would I, as a parent first and as psychologist second use or advocate controlled crying? The answer is, I do not.
As controlled crying becomes increasingly unpopular with families, they are now choosing to do things the “gentle way”. Over the last 13 years I have successfully used a method that leverages cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) practices such as mindfulness, the pause method, functional responsiveness and matching your response to your child’s level of distress to help countless families gain better sleep. Every family deserves the right to choose the sleep method they feel is right for them and have it work. For those looking for a more moderate approach, my “Gentle Sleep Solution”, offers an effective alternative to controlled crying and a method that works for the whole family.
THE GENTLE WAY: TOP TIPS
Sleep issues can make parents anxious, but mindfulness can help them stay in the present and remain relaxed and calm. Ultimately, this will mean that babies will pick up on their parents’ calm aura and enable them to mirror this state and be in the right mood for sleep.
Focus on the environment
By grounding your child’s environment in familiar sights, sounds and smells, you can help them to feel safe and secure in their rooms.
Match your response to the level of distress
In my book, I refer to the different levels of intervention that can be applied when your child is upset and which match their level of distress.
Apply the ‘PAUSE’ method
The pause method encourages parents to:
• PREPARE – Plan you next move, have what you need with you and ensure you are in the right mental state.
• ASSESS – Analyse what’s happening what you need to do, what your child’s needs are.
• UNDERSTAND – What your child is trying to communicate to you.
• SOOTH – Comfort your child appropriately
• EXIT – Leave the room and allow your baby to sleep
Use attachment tools
By using attachment tools such as your presence, matching your response to your child’s distress, verbal reassurance, touching and holding, you strengthen the bond between parent and child and help to build trust so that your child can learn to sleep independently with the knowledge that they are loved and cared for.
Psychologist, psychotherapist and mother of four, Chireal Shallow established the Baby Sleep Clinic in 2004. Her unique methodology leverages a previously untapped combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and attachment to encourage positive sleep habits in young children. Chireal has worked for the NHS since 2008 and has a wealth of experience in both the private and public sector. Her first book The Gentle Sleep Solution is available from amazon.co.uk
Catch Chireal Shallow at The Baby Show on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st February at London ExCeL – Tickets via www.thebabyshow.co.uk