Midwife Cath- Controlled Crying (lets call it PASSIVE SETTLING)

I am lucky in that I’ve always had good sleepers. I feel that this has been helped by the fact that I tried to implement a routine from birth (I know the word ‘routine’ and ‘newborn’ shouldn’t even be used in the same sentence- it’s almost impossible!). When my babies were put in their cots to sleep, as a result of their routine, they were ready for bed and often fell straight asleep with nothing more than a 20 second grizzle. 

With my son Oscar, once I sorted out his routine from around 6-10 weeks, he would go to sleep and stay asleep (lets not talk about the hellish first 6 weeks though! #torture), so I never had to implement controlled crying with him.

With Billie, she slept fantastically from birth and through the night from very early on, however her issue was 40 minute catnapping during the day. Any mother out there will tell you that it is almost impossible to get anything done when your baby only sleeps for 40 minutes, plus they are cranky, and so I had to implement controlled crying to help her to self settle and put herself back to sleep so she would have longer day sleeps. It worked and she has been having 2-3 hour day sleeps ever since. But the best thing about it is that she wakes up happy and well rested. 

So what is controlled crying and how do you do it effectively? Midwife and Maternal and Child Health Nurse, Cathryn Curtin, explains when and how you can implement it. There are strict rules so read carefully:

Do you want your baby to go back sleep? No time for sleep school? Here is the only way to successfully get your babies back to sleep…there are some strict rules so read on…

Yes it’s called control crying and everyone has a breakdown over it, thinking they are going to cause their child long term harm but believe me…a child waking up 3-7 times a night will do more harm to your parenting and the child than controlled crying.  There have been no published studies to show any evidence that there is any physical or psychological harm to the child if controlled crying is practiced.  More to the point, what is the effect on long-term sleep deprivation to the baby and parents?

So for a start, let’s call it something else…passive settling.  There that sounds better and we don’t feel like we are standing over our child “controlling him” while he is “crying his eyes out”.

Babies need to learn a skill before they can accomplish it.  So they need to learn to go back to sleep if they are waking constantly over night.

I have successfully taught ‘passive settling’ for over 33 years and in fact did it with my own son when he was 8 months old…he was waking every few hours after a bout of gastro.

The aim of passive settling is that the baby goes back to sleep by himself but for that to happen you must follow a strict process. Over the years many people have told me they have tried ‘controlled crying’ many times and it never works…I say if it hasn’t worked, it wasn’t done properly.

Babies change their sleep patterns for a few reasons.  It may be following illness, after a holiday, teething or the use of a dummy / pacifier to re settle the baby. A baby that once slept well, begins waking like a newborn.

So what is passive settling?  It is a way of allowing the baby to go to sleep, having the parent check and reassure the baby at intervals that increase in time until the baby goes to sleep himself.

My rules with passive settling are as follows.  The baby MUST be;

–      over six months of age AND / OR over 8 kgs in weight

–      show NO signs of illness

–     in his own home and cot

–      not about to travel on holidays the next few weeks.

The method:

1.    Ensure the baby has had dinner and bath by 6pm.  I try not to give babies too much milk before bed the first time prior to doing passive settling as some babies may vomit and that will cause distress for the baby and more work for you.  Offer lots of fluids during the day and a small drink prior to bed.  If the baby is teething I give the baby the recommended dose of panadol per weight and age.  This ensures the baby is pain free and also helps you as parents not to stress out the baby may be in pain.

2.    Once the baby is ready for bed, dress appropriately in sleeping bag.  No sheets, pillows or blankets in the cot.  Kiss the baby goodnight, tell him how much you love him and put him into bed and walk out the door.

3.    That is probably the hardest thing, once you’ve left the baby in the cot and you’ve walked out the door.  Remember he is safe.

4.    Then I suggest you get your phone and you turn the timer on and let it tick over for two minutes. They do seem like two very very long minutes when you have a baby crying.  It’s best not to stand outside the door listening to the baby crying have a walk around the house, make a cup of tea do something to distract yourself.

5.    After the two minutes is up, go into the baby and reassure him saying the same mantra “good night darling time to bed, good boy mummy is here and I will be coming back. It’s time to go to sleep that’s a good boy”.

6.    I suggest you don’t stay in the baby’s room for a long time because that will stress the baby and yourself. Stay in for about 15-30 seconds reassuring the baby and then leave the room.

7.    Many years ago we used to pick the baby up hold the baby to settle and then put the baby back down to bed. The process certainly took longer that way and seemed to increase the crying process.

8.    Reassuring the baby in his cot is a lot quicker and more efficient. Once you have left the room, set the timer for four minutes and go through the same process.

9.    The sequence you need to go through is 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 15 minute intervals. If the baby is still crying after 15 minutes go in and reassure every 15 minutes.

10. I must say it’s pretty rare if a baby is crying every 15 minutes in my experience. I find that between the four minute and six minute mark the baby tends to have a lull in his crying, just for a few seconds…this is when you start to feel you’ve nearly achieved your goal.

11. All babies do this process differently.  Some take only half an hour and others it seems take hours.

12.When the baby stops crying and goes to sleep you really won’t believe the silence! High fives all around! When the baby is finally sleep, leave him. If you have a monitor and look at him, don’t worry if he is up one end of the cot, just leave him. Remember to ensure there are no toys, sheets, pillows or blankets in the cot prior to commencing this process.

13.The next time in the evening the baby wakes up, you need to wait for two minutes before going into the baby.  There is a slight chance that the baby may go back to sleep so if after two minutes the baby hasn’t gone back to sleep go in and start the process again.  You do not need to give the baby Panadol. I find during this part of the process the baby may settle quicker. High fives again!

Depending on the baby’s age if the baby goes to bed at 6 pm and has slept through I would definitely feed the baby if he wakes at 4 or 5 o’clock.  Then he will go back to sleep for another few hours.

Passive settling really works and you need to give it a go if you have a child that is waking constantly overnight. Constant patting and shushing of a baby in a cot only distresses both the baby and the mother and in my experience doesn’t work. The intervals between going into the baby can seem long but you need to be prepared. You need to have your partner support you, if you stop the process, feed the baby and “break the rules” you will need to start again. Thus once you start this technique you need to be strong and continue the whole process until the baby is asleep

The next day you need to continue for the daytime sleeps too. At sleep time put the baby down into the cot and start the process again leaving the baby cry for two minutes, four minutes, six minutes etcetera. You will however find very quickly the babies get the message and they learn how to go to sleep.

A few important tips

1.    It’s important that both you and your partner are consistent in doing controlled crying because if one of you isn’t dedicated in doing it, it won’t work. Once you give in you have to start again right from scratch. When you have a baby that is waking constantly overnight is so tiring and I really suggest that if you give this control crying a go and you will find it very successful.  You will sleep better, the baby will sleep better and bingo everybody feels a lot happier!

2.    If the baby has a dummy at this stage and you are still settling the baby with the dummy you need to throw the dummy out and do the control crying without the dummy. It will be more successful. Also if you are feeding the baby to sleep either by the breast or the bottle again you need to put the baby down into bed awake. You will find that the baby will not need to be fed to sleep after controlled crying has been done.

3.    For some babies control crying takes only a couple of days, other babies can take up to 7 days but it’s not the hard crying from the first time that you did the controlled crying. What I find out down the track is that the baby may wake up at say 2 o’clock in the morning and just have a little bit of a grizzle for a couple of minutes and before you’ve got up and out of the bed he’s put himself back to sleep. That is the success of controlled crying.

4.     Remember most babies have a little mantra before they go to sleep some babies grizzle, some roll around, some babies sing, some babies laugh and some babies just have a cry and carry on but they do go to sleep. The baby waking every couple of hours up to 7 to 10 times a night is not normal, for you or the baby and you need to get the baby back to sleep overnight.

5.    As I said earlier some babies may vomit when crying that’s why I really encouraged you not to give a big drink of milk before you put the baby to bed.  If the baby has a good fluid intake during the day a little sip of milk is quite enough before you put the baby to sleep.

6.    If you feel you can’t do it any longer and you want go in and pick your baby up…do it.

Not everyone agrees with controlled crying but not everyone has seen the success I have seen with so many happy babies and even happier and rested parents.

Sleeping issues are an individual situation with varied solutions, but I can at least give you some sensible advice. If you wish to consult with me make an appointment through my website and within an hour of talking to you I can problem solve what the issue is with your baby.

Make a time to talk to me…. www.midwifecath.com.au

Coming up…

Master Class for Grandparents…book here

Master Class on Childbirth education …book here

Master Class on Sleep & settling…book here

Master Class on Toddlers…book here

Leave a Comment

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  2. Lynn M

    Would you still suggest ditching the dummy if baby doesn’t wake up every time it falls out? I let my baby cry it off for maybe 5 minutes and was implementing the cry it out method without really realising it much. However he uses the dummy. I dread to think how long he’d cry for if he didn’t have it. He never cries for much longer than 10 mins in total but I never let him go 10 mins in one go, barely 5 minutes before I go back in to him. He is relying on the dummy to fall asleep however. Should I stick with it?

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  4. Emma A

    I have just come across this article as my Bub is a week shy of 6 months and I would like to make sure he acquires good habits now before the bad ones are harder to break. He has always been a fantastic sleeper. More often than not he sleeps from 7.30pm to 7.30am. His day time sleeps have been more like cat naps but we manage with some perseverance. Now that he has learnt how to roll (only from his back to his tummy), he seems to do this during the night and wakes himself up. This was only once during the night until last night when he woke 6 times – something we have not yet experienced!! That was how I came across this article and we are both on board with the concept of controlled crying and thought we would give it a go. I just have one question with the timings. It says after Bub has slept and rewakes but it’s not time to wake, that you start the 2min, 4min, 6min etc again. What happens if Bub is quiet and calm for say 15-20mins tho but hasn’t actually slept? Do you start the time again or continue where you left off? Thanks ☺️

  5. Bec E

    What pugwash.

    My “not normal” child who was waking 5-7 times at night at 12 months, is a healthy, 2.5 year old. This “not normal” child is calm, well behaved, socially and verbally advanced compared with similar aged toddlers.

    Oh, and this, “not normal” mother who breastfed him through the night wakings is doing the same, “not normal” behaviour with second child.

    Despite what you might believe is “not normal”, frequent night wakings is the biological norm, as is extended breastfeeding.

    1. Bec E

      Well I would like to give an update on our progress of being responsive to my babies night time needs. This is now third baby for me. None have been sleep trained (aka “passive settled” like in this article). First was breastfed to 3.5 years (self weaned) and is now 4, second still is being breastfed at 2 years, and newest is currently four months breastfed. I’ve been doing night time parenting (ie. Responding to child’s needs at night) for all throughout their first 12-18 months.
      Knowing that it is biologically normal to wake at night.

      My four year old who woke multiple (yes 5-7) times at night at 12 months sleeps as solid as a rock, as does my two year old, who also woke at night. I have no concerns about their development. They both are doing well socially, emotionally, cognitively.

      Already I can anecdotally see differences between children who were sleep trained, in social, emotional and cognitive domains. The child who was left to vomit in their cot in the first twelve months of their life at four years has night time phobias and sometimes still vomits at night. The child who was left to settle with intervals of fifteen minutes crying had language delay, and other parental concerns over their development.

      Yes children are resilient and adaptable, but this doesn’t mean sleep training is optimal for their development. Particularly in those first three years where the brain is undergoing such rapid development.