When they won't sleep

When they won't sleep

What is controlled crying, how can you leave your child to cry when it goes against your mothering nature and does it really work?

What is controlled crying, how can you leave your child to cry when it goes against your mothering nature and does it really work?  

Sleep is necessary – for your child’s growth and development, and for your sanity.

Poor sleep and fatigue affect your daytime behaviour causing you to have difficulty in paying attention, to feel tired, irritable, tearful, tense and edgy. Sleep deprivation also induces stress symptoms such as anxiety and backache. So you need to make a plan, not only for your child’s health but also for yours and for the sake of the family.   

If you’re experiencing any of the following, you probably feel that you’re losing control of your child’s behaviour and your own emotions. Your child has a sleep issue and you should consider the controlled crying solution. 

Your child:

  • Refuses to go to sleep or takes a long time to settle more than two to three times a week
  • Only goes to sleep when you lie with them more than three times a week
  • Delays their bedtime by fighting before going to bed
  • Wakes at night and calls for you more than three times a week
  • Comes into your bedroom or insists on sharing your bed on a regular basis
  • Wakes earlier than 5am more than two or three times a week  


  • You find yourself giving in, just so there is peace and quiet
  • You dread putting your child to bed
  • You’re tired all the time
  • You find yourself shouting at your child at bedtime or during the night 

The controlled crying method

Controlled crying is a sleep method that relies on a consistent bedtime routine. The idea is to teach children to get to sleep on their own and not cry out in the middle of the night. Ideally they should always be put to bed at the same time, following a bedtime routine, such as having dinner, a bath, a story. Kiss them, say “Goodnight” in a firm voice and leave the room while they are still awake. If they don’t settle within a few minutes you need to take the next step.

You can choose to stay in their room, or sit outside it. 


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Method one: Staying in the room

Sit next to your child and rest your hand on them. Don’t pat and don’t talk, other than saying “sshh” quietly and repetitively. Be prepared for them to cry for up to 20 minutes. Do this every time they wake the first night. The second night, sit next to them, but don’t touch them. Just use your presence and voice and don’t make eye contact. Each night move further away. Within five days or so, you should be sitting outside the door. Sometimes, just when you think you have it sussed, they may kick up a fuss again. This is completely normal and you’ll need to move back in, and re-start the process.  

Method two: Outside the room

Put your child down, tuck them in and kiss them “Goodnight” lovingly but firmly, so that they know you mean business! Leave the room and let them cry for one minute. After that, go back into their room, reassure and soothe them until they calm. Again leave the room, but this time wait two minutes before going back in. Repeat the soothing process adding two minutes each time. They may have a “relapse” about a week down the line and if so, go back a step and start again. 

The argument against

Some reports show concern with this method because as controlled crying teaches your child to stop crying it may also teach them not to seek help when they are in trouble or upset. Crying is the way for a child to signal distress or discomfort. Leaving them to cry without comfort, even for short periods of time, can therefore cause them distress.

Any sleep method you use should not compromise your child’s development or emotional needs. 

The argument for

This method works as it gives your child the benefit of doubt, with lots of emotional support, to see if they can use their own self-calming strategies. If not, you’re on hand to go in and help. Leaving children to cry for short periods of time before going in to comfort them teaches them that you’re there and haven’t abandoned them. They thus have no need to cry and are able to self-soothe in a nurturing, safe and calm environment. It also allows you to be in control. 

Always ensure that your child’s sleep problem is behavioural and not due to another underlying problem, such as a health issue. 

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