You can solve baby sleep problems with controlled comforting, which is also called controlled crying. It involves comforting, settling and walking away so your baby learns to go to sleep without you. Here’s how to do it.
What is controlled comforting?
Controlled comforting is a behaviour management strategy for dealing with persistent settling and waking problems in young children.
Controlled comforting involves quickly checking and reassuring your baby while he’s learning to settle.
The idea behind controlled comforting is to help children learn how to settle themselves to sleep, rather than you feeding, patting or cuddling them to sleep.
Is controlled comforting safe?
Controlled comforting has been found to be safe and effective. Babies whose parents have used controlled comforting are more likely to sleep better in the short term. In the long term they’re just as well-adjusted as other children their age in terms of behaviour and sleep.
Some parents worry that controlled comforting will hurt bonding and attachment, but when this settling strategy is used appropriately, there’s no evidence it harms babies or attachment. If you’re unsure or you’d like advice about your baby’s sleep, talk with your General Practitioner (GP) or paediatrician.
Controlled comforting, controlled crying, crying it out: what’s the difference?
Controlled comforting is sometimes called controlled crying.
Controlled comforting or controlled crying is different from crying it out, where a baby is left to cry until she falls asleep. Crying it out isn’t recommended by child health professionals because it isn’t safe or effective in helping children learn to settle themselves to sleep.
Before you start with controlled comforting
Dealing with your baby’s sleep and settling problems can leave you very tired and stressed, especially if you’re losing sleep too. Controlled comforting is sometimes tried by parents who feel overwhelmed and unwell.
You should use controlled comforting only:
Ensure your baby is well before you start, and stop doing controlled comforting if your baby get sick during the programme.
How to do controlled comforting:
Important tips for controlled comforting
Use this strategy for daytime sleeps as well – this will lead to less confusion for you and baby. If your baby wakes up from a day sleep after less than an hour, try to re-settle her for another 15-20 minutes, again using controlled comforting. If your baby hasn’t gone back to sleep after that time, get her out of bed and try again later.
Common problems with controlled comforting
Putting a sleeping behaviour strategy into practice doesn’t always go smoothly. Here are some common problems with controlled comforting and practical tips for how to deal with them.
What if your baby vomits?
Some babies tend to vomit more often than others, and about one in five might vomit during controlled comforting. If this happens it can be upsetting for baby and you. Try to calmly clean up any vomit from the bed and put a fitted mattress protector over the sheet. It’s best to keep the lights low, and to only change the baby if you need to – otherwise, some babies can learn to vomit each time they are put into the cot. If your baby vomits during controlled comforting you might prefer to choose a different sleep behaviour strategy – for example, camping out.
What if you’ve had enough?
If you’re too tired, or feeling too distressed or upset, pick up your baby, calm him in any way you wish – for example, with a small drink or a cuddle – and try again next time.
What if your baby is unwell?
If your baby is unwell, you should stop controlled comforting and start again when she’s better. If she has a slight runny nose and cough but no fever, you can still use controlled comforting if you’re happy to do so.
What if your baby is in pain?
You might be concerned about teething causing pain. If you pick up your baby and he settles almost immediately, it’s very unlikely he was in pain – he just wanted to be picked up. You can give paracetamol if you’re concerned. Paracetamol takes about 20 minutes to work, so babies who settle after that might have been in pain. If you have persistent concerns about your baby being in pain, talk to your doctor.
What if controlled comforting isn’t working?
There can be several reasons why a sleep programme doesn’t seem to be working.
Are you using the strategy correctly?
To check, re-read the steps described here. Is there anything you’re not doing, or could do differently? Perhaps check with a professional who understands the use of this strategy.
Are you returning to your baby too soon?
Are you following the time intervals exactly? Are you using a clock? Have you got something you can do to help you cope during the intervals?
Are you going in when your baby is only grizzling, not crying?
Many babies grizzle when drifting off to sleep. By going in when your baby is grizzling, you might be stopping your baby from falling asleep.
Do you really want to carry through with this?
Is the goal of uninterrupted sleep worth it for you and your baby? If you’re convinced that learning to sleep independently through the night is in your baby’s best interests, it’s easier to find the motivation to carry on through the few nights needed to help her adjust to the change. If not, returning to the status quo might be your best choice.
Are the time intervals right for your baby?
Some babies calm down when a parent enters the room. Other babies get more upset. If your baby is getting more upset, lengthen the time intervals to 5, 10 and 15 minutes. This way your baby has more time to go to sleep by himself, and less time to get upset by your return.
Does your support network support controlled comforting?
Not everyone agrees with controlled comforting. You might be able to cope with disapproving family or friends, but if your spouse or other close support people aren’t in agreement, it will be hard to carry through with the strategy. It’s best if at least the people in your home can agree on a consistent approach.
When controlled comforting seems too hard
If things haven’t improved after two weeks, talk to your doctor or paediatrician. They’ll be able to help you develop a programme tailored to the needs of your child.
Working with a trusted child health professional can help you to improve your baby’s sleep. You could think about getting this kind of support before you try controlled comforting.