Controlled crying 'not emotionally harmful to babies'

By Faeza
25 May 2016

Babies left to cry themselves to sleep may not suffer any chronic levels of stress, a new study has found.

Controlled crying is a technique used for training young children to fall asleep on their own, in which the child is left to cry for gradually increasing periods of time before being comforted.

While some parents worry that this method may cause emotional or behavioural issues, a new study conducted by Australia's Flinders University has found that controlled crying or a similar technique called "bedtime fading" may actually improve babies’ and parents’ sleeping patterns.

For the study, researchers conducted two common infant sleep training interventions during a randomised controlled trial involving 43 infants who had night-time sleep troubles past about six months of age. The babies were observed during the behavioural training methods of controlled crying or bedtime fading, in which parents gradually delay infants’ bedtime each night in the hope that sleepier babies will doze off more easily.

Compared to a control group, researchers reported that infants whose parents used the graduated extinction method fell asleep an average of 13 minutes sooner and woke up significantly less often during the night.

Sleep expert and psychologist, Associate Professor Michael Gradisar, said the results show the two sleep education methods appear to improve sleep without detrimental effects on the child or family.

“It’s natural for parents to worry about having their babies cry at bedtime,” he said in a statement.

“While it’s well documented that sleep deprivation can cause family distress, including maternal depression, we’re hoping these results will add another element to how parents view their responses and how they manage their own and their babies’ sleep behaviour."

Professor Gradisar added that for parents who remain anxious about letting babies cry, the bedtime-fading group showed nearly as large a decrease (10 minutes) in the amount of time it took for babies to fall asleep, although this group saw no change in the number of night-time awakenings compared to the control group.

He added that at a 12-month follow-up, no significant differences were found in emotional and behavioural problems in the children, or in attachment styles.

The researchers are hoping to hold more independent trials to validate the findings.

The findings were first published in the American Pediatrics journal.

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