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How to get baby to sleep

What to do with a crying baby? Expert opinion is divided but recent research suggests that allowing a baby to cry itself to sleep may actually be good for it - and its mother.

There are many viewpoints on the best way to get a baby off to sleep - the goal is to find what suits each individual child. Getty Images
There are many viewpoints on the best way to get a baby off to sleep - the goal is to find what suits each individual child. Getty Images

With so much conflicting advice, it can be hard to know which approach to take with a crying baby. Leave them to cry and risk raising their cortisol to, as some experts say, damaging levels? Or rock them to sleep and potentially lose all hope of an evening to yourself until they leave for university?

New research

A recent study has revealed that the former tactic, often referred to as "crying it out" or "controlled crying", not only does babies no harm but can also enable both the child and parent to get a better night's sleep. The study, which was carried out by researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia, looked at the sleep habits of 326 babies from 7 months of age and followed them up to 5 years of age to see whether those who had been subjected to sleep training techniques such as controlled crying (when the mother leaves the baby to cry for a few minutes before going in to calm them and then leaving them for longer and longer intervals) had suffered any long-term damage or any benefits. The results contradict recent research, which claimed that leaving babies to cry resulted in raised levels of the hormone cortisol, even after they had gone to sleep.

Mothers have their say

This will come as good news to many mothers, who have used the technique to great effect. "I used it on both my sons," says Lizzie Johnstone, a mother of two boys ages 4 and 2, from Abu Dhabi, "and they have always been good sleepers." Starting early, says Johnstone, is key. "I did it with George, 2, when he was 5 months old. He had a dummy then and it kept falling out so he would cry every hour. I took it away then left him to cry for 20 minutes the first night. It was only 10 minutes the next night and the third night it was three minutes. He didn't cry again after that and now only cries at night when he is ill."

For others, though, leaving their baby to cry feels counter-intuitive. "I think it is unnecessarily distressing," says Katie Hammond, a mother of two boys, ages 2 and 4 months, from Abu Dhabi. "Up until about 18 months all their security comes from being close to their parents, usually their mother. Obviously, if you've got a 4-year-old who's fannying around and asking for water and not going to sleep, then that's different, but I would never leave a baby."

Hammond has never used any sleep training techniques on her two sons and both sleep soundly. "Perhaps I have been lucky," she says. "I can just put Ollie, 2, in his cot and he goes to sleep and the same with Josh." Going on her instinct and what suited her children has always been her approach. "Everyone says that if you feed or rock your child to sleep you're making a rod for your own back, but when Ollie was little he always fell asleep either in my arms with me feeding him or bouncing on the exercise ball and he has never had any problems going to sleep on his own. If anything, perhaps that is why he is so relaxed about going to bed now."

An expert speaks

"I believe that parents who use controlled crying are inadvertently teaching their child to cry," says Cecile de Scally, a midwife educator based in Dubai who specialises in sleep problems. "When you go in and out to the child, you can teach them that if I just keep this crying up, I will get a reward - I will get my mum or my dad to come to me. And parents have a huge reward status."

Equally, she is sceptical of the "attachment parenting" approach advocated by the pediatrician William Sears, in which parents are advised to spend as long as is necessary with the baby or child for them to go to sleep. "That can tie the parents down because the parents never have any time out or any freedom to have time out," she says.

Instead, de Scally recommends a graded approach, taking into account the age of the child and taking it slowly, thereby making it the method that is least likely to fail. However, she says, parents must be prepared to expect at least some crying. "It's getting parents to understand that sleeping is cyclic in nature and that children associate sleep with cues. And at the beginning of a sleep cycle and the end they must check their cues. And for small children, they are: I'm warm, I'm dry, I'm fed. I'm in the right bed with the right smells and sounds and light and then they've got a fifth cue, which is the parent cue. And if that is retained over time, they will continue to work harder and harder to get their parents' attention."

There is, parents will be happy to hear, no such thing as a child who won't sleep. "There is a solution to every child," says de Scally. "It is just a case of finding out what the solution is for that child, how to meet their needs, while also guiding them to independent sleep."

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