Several weeks ago I asked the Facebook community their opinion on controlled crying. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the response; mostly negative, as I discovered that it is not only a controversial subject but also a very sensitive one for a lot of people. There is a strength of feeling that "leaving your baby to cry" is cruel. One person even suggested it was neglect and should be a criminal offence. Others simply expressed that they personally would not or could not do it, whilst others still defended the practice and said that it had literally saved their sanity, as well as made their babies happier as a result of being more well rested.
First of all, for those who don't know, let me explain how controlled crying is supposed to work. There are variations depending on the method, but the basic idea is that when your baby begins crying, you go to them and comfort them for around one minute and then you leave, regardless of whether or not they have stopped crying. After three minutes you go back, stay for a minute, then leave them. You then begin to extend the time between visits until, eventually, your baby falls asleep on their own.
Let me tell you my experience.
Since the age of about six months, Pearl was demanding a feed almost every hour through the night. Keeping up with her was exhausting; whereas she could go straight back to sleep, it would take me a lot longer; I guess my body clock may have been to blame for keeping me up as it waited keenly for that cry from the bedroom next door.
I was very miserable during the day, snapping at my husband, unable to keep up with household chores and getting angry with myself for being unable to cope very well. But it wasn't all about me. Pearl was suffering, too. As a result of my constantly depleted energy I was unable to be the mother I wanted to be, the mother she deserved. I couldn't play with her for long, I broke down relatively easily when I encountered difficulties getting her to sleep for her daytime naps, and worst of all, I was starting to get angry with her. It wasn't her fault, of course, but that didn't stop me blaming her.
In a previous blog entry I discussed how I bought a tin of Good Night formula milk so that my husband could help me during the night and so that we might try filling Pearl up enough so that she didn't need as many nighttime feeds. I introduced dream feeds, I started her on solids. I put something with my scent on it in her cot. I did more breastfeeds in the evenings. I didn't try co-sleeping as I knew that wouldn't work; Pearl was used to being in her cot and I knew that as well as being terrified I would roll over and suffocate her, I wouldn't get any sleep anyway as every tiny sound she made would wake me. I'm not against co-sleeping, in fact I think it's lovely, and my fear of suffocating her is largely irrational as this is rarely a cause of infant death. Still, co-sleeping has just never been for me.
Needless to say, nothing I tried worked. I looked online for solutions but nothing I found was helpful. In the end, I turned to my own personal Baby Encyclopedia - my very own mother. I am just one of four children she has raised, and her help has been invaluable since Pearl was born. I understand that some mothers can be overbearing and bordering on interfering, but my mother has been nothing but the utmost help to me. Why should I try to reinvent the wheel when I can just ask her for help? After all, she has done it four times!
When my mum was in the business of having babies (1981 - 1988) mothers were told to leave their babies to cry when they were unable to sleep through the night. Today's recommended method is very structured, so I'm unsure if my mum's generation were given some specific way of doing things or if they simply left their babies to cry inevitably (which is, incidentally, what my friend's mother told me she did!). I was apparently quite a crier in my infancy and my mother had no choice but to leave me to get on with it - I'm not sure how many alternative techniques existed or were widely publicised back then, but she certainly didn't have the benefit of the internet for research and so she asked a nurse, and that's where the controlled crying suggestion came from, a professional. And she wasn't the only one who received that advice - it was widespread amongst the medical profession.
If we consider the effects of child cruelty and neglect in adulthood, I think it's safe to say that I am not a victim. My mother and I, as well as the rest of my family, enjoy a close relationship that I do not often see in other families. Almost all of us are married and have moved out but chosen to remain in the local area so as to be close to one another. Family is the most important thing to all of us. Of my childhood I have the happiest memories; my sad ones are when I was bullied at school, not when I was treated badly by my mother. All of her children have grown up to be successful and happy. She has been, to me, the model of how parenting should be.
It would appear that leaving me to cry has done me no damage. I wouldn't be so naive as to say that all practices of yesteryear are the best ones, but I do believe that if something works and appears to have no adverse effects, then why is it so bad to try it?
Let's have a look at what the "experts" say.
In this article, parenting guru Penelope Leach references scientific evidence that raised stress levels in the brain can damage development. I'm not a scientist and I haven't done any studies, so I can't argue. However, I draw your attention to the first line - "Leaving a distressed baby to cry on a regular basis could be damaging to the developing brain." First of all, the damage isn't guaranteed, though I agree this isn't a reason to ignore the evidence - placing a baby to sleep on its front could lead to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS rates have decreased since the advice to always place babies to sleep on their backs was released) and although I know that myself and my three siblings were all put to sleep on our tummies, I wouldn't risk it myself. But then there's the other key phrase - "on a regular basis". Controlled crying usually yields results within a week. Does that count as a regular basis? Finally, we consider the evidence - me. I'm not sure my brain development counts as damaged... well, I guess you could judge for yourself!
However, in this article, which contains a poll that seems to show most parents do indeed use controlled crying, it states that there is no evidence to show that controlled crying does babies any harm. Both articles use science and scientific evidence as their basis for their argument, yet they have both come up with completely different results. With that considered, I'm tempted to ignore the articles and concentrate on the results.
I don't know anyone who has suffered long term from having controlled crying inflicted upon them in their infancy; these people include care assistants, teachers and accountants, some of whom have their own families. As for short term effects, I can reference my nephew, who at 18 months is a happy and healthy little boy after my sister used controlled crying when he was about 9 months old.
With all things considered, I decided to try it. I understand that babies use crying as a form of communication to let their mothers know when something is wrong, but I don't think it's unfair to say that they also use it when they want rather than need something. Someone did say during the debate on Facebook that babies are incapable of separating want from need, but I believe differently. Pearl showed when she refused the Good Night formula that she wasn't hungry. She was nursing out of habit and for comfort, and if I didn't have to go back to work in early June then I probably wouldn't have worried about it. But the reality is that I must go back to work, a place where I must teach classes of 30 teenagers 5 lessons a day, and with the amount of sleep I was getting, that wasn't going to happen. I tried some 'nicer' approaches and nothing worked, so my partner and I agreed after many nights of tears (mostly mine) that we had to give it a go.
It wasn't easy. The first night Pearl cried on and off for about an hour and a half, starting at about 1am. There are some methods that state that you shouldn't touch your baby at all, but I wasn't having that. I didn't pick her up, as I felt that would be counterproductive, but I stroked her face and kissed her and told her that everything was fine, it's sleepy time now. She wasn't very happy with me, to say the least, but eventually she cried herself to sleep... and she didn't wake up again until her early morning feed at 5am.
The second night she slept through. I was astonished; had we solved the problem already? But with the third night came the rebellion; she cried for well over an hour, and my husband nearly caved. But consistency is key with controlled crying - you must stick with the plan. If you don't, you undermine the work you've already done and the crying you've let your baby do so far will be for nothing.
So let's look at the results.
Since then, Pearl has been the model baby. She goes to bed at 7pm and wakes up at around 5am, sleeping again until around 7:30am. She's just learnt how to roll from back to front and isn't quite comfortable sleeping like that yet, so it wakes her up once or twice in the night - but all I need to do is turn her over, pop the dummy in and she goes straight back to sleep.
I'm like a new woman, I can tell you. I feel so much better, and I see no negative effects in Pearl at all. She's a very content little baby - she giggles at her reflection, she loves it when we blow on her face in the bath, she loves to pull Daddy's hair, she gobbles down her food... one of her favourite things to do is watch the cat, but Pollyanna is not a baby fan unfortunately! I also know that Pearl is a happier little girl for getting more sleep. We all know how moody and cranky our babies get when they haven't had as many naps during the day - Pearl still has that problem sometimes! - and Pearl is definitely brighter in the mornings now she gets a good night's sleep every night.
If Pearl's cries were to communicate something that she really needed, such as food, then controlled crying wouldn't work. If she was sick, it wouldn't work - and it's not recommended, either. I truly believe she was crying out of habit and possibly for comfort, something that she wanted, not needed. She doesn't wake up in the night and wonder where I am and need me, but that's not to say she doesn't get me for comfort the rest of the time. If she wants a cuddle during the day, she gets one... and when she doesn't want a cuddle during the day, she gets one! She is certainly not deprived of love and attention and, after 6 months of going to her in the night every time she cried, I have not taught her that I will not be there when she calls.
I'm not saying controlled crying is for everyone, but it has certainly worked for me. I am a better person and a better mother as a result of having more sleep, and my daughter has suffered no ill effects. She's a happy, bubbly, perfect little angel and I know that our relationship is as strong as it ever was.