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What is controlled crying?

Controlled crying is a technique some parents use to help babies settle on their own and develop a sleep routine, by leaving short amounts of time before comforting the crying baby.

This approach has attracted controversy over the years, with critics saying that being left to cry can be stressful and traumatic for the baby, with a risk of it causing psychological problems.

However, some research suggests the approach can be effective and does not cause harm.

The choice of method to settle a crying baby and get them into a healthy sleep routine is for parents to choose. Controlled crying can be distressing for parents but a GP, midwife or health visitor can offer advice.

Controlled crying technique

With controlled crying, the length of time the baby or young child is left before being comforted is gradually increased.

This sleep training approach is sometimes also referred to as the Ferber method, after Dr Richard Ferber, author of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems.

Controlled crying should only be tried as part of a positive and consistent bedtime routine - that may include feeding, bath time and a story - for a baby over 6 months old, or a toddler.

Before deciding to start this approach, make sure the baby can get through the night without a feed. Make sure the child is healthy and well first and the family doesn’t have any special distractions at that time, and there's been a normal loving daytime routine. Check the bedroom is the right temperature and safe. It may help to tell neighbours about the plans in case they worry about the crying.

  • The baby should be drowsy but still awake when they are settled in their cot.
  • After saying goodnight, parents leave the room.
  • If the baby cries, after 2 minutes parents return to the room, reassure their baby by telling them it is OK, but don’t lift the baby up before leaving the room again.
  • If the baby cries again, this time wait 3 minutes, and repeat the previous step.
  • Keep repeating this step up to a 10 minute maximum crying time.
  • The controlled crying may need to be repeated later the same night if the child wakes again later.
  • If babies or older children stand up crying, or get out of bed, lie them down again gently. Not making eye contact can help.

Be patient, it can take more than an hour to settle your baby, with up to a week before the baby gets into a better sleep routine. However, don’t carry on with controlled crying for more than 2 weeks if it is not working.

A variation of the technique is 'camping out' where a parent stays in the room with the crying baby but doesn’t pick them up.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 19, 2017

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