A Discussion on Crying

“Controlled crying” or “crying it out” are “terms” that I just don’t use, as these terms evoke very negative connotations about processes / outcomes that just aren’t properly understood in relation to the bigger picture of baby / toddler sleep.  These terms also create needless hysteria, anxiety and judgement – and really do we need any more hysteria, anxiety or judgment in the world of parenting?

In general and because of the overall misunderstanding on baby sleep, many people don’t actually understand what these terms actually are, or why even such a process exists (it wouldn’t exist if babies weren’t ending up in overtired and broken-sleep cycles in the first place). The very terms themselves “controlled crying” and “crying it out” are just labels – and in my opinion the wrong labels.  Like putting a label that says “tinned tomatoes” on a can that contains tinned peaches.

To explain this further “controlled crying” or “crying it out” or “leaving to cry” are simply just different phrases that have been coined over the years for what is essentially the same thing – i.e changing the baby / toddler’s conditions of sleep to exclude all of the sleep aids and assistance they need to be able to fall asleep (or to get back to sleep).

When I am asked by a family “do you use controlled crying?”, I find it a very leading question, leading because I know that for many families who are asking the question, they have a very black and white view on firstly what “controlled crying” is and secondly whether they do or don’t agree with it.  It is interesting to me to have these conversations with parents around the crying aspect, because for many families – the crying (as well as the very broken sleep) is already something they are having to endure daily as a result of an exhausted baby / toddler. A baby who is chronically overtired is going to appear to have “high needs” and extreme responses – as a result of being so exhausted that their coping mechanisms break down.

In isolation, the reason for the crying needs to be understood in context to the sleep deprivation. And in an exhausted baby or toddler who is not getting enough sleep (and in many cases this has been the situation and established pattern for weeks or months), the crying is happening because the baby is overtired and sleep deprived due to broken sleep or incomplete sleep cycles day in, day out – they are desperately wanting to go to sleep (or go back to sleep in a situation where they have woken – such as in the case of frequent overnight wakings)…but just struggle to get to the next sleep stage without lots of intervention or assistance. They are crying out of pure exhaustion and frustration – and so we have to keep this in perspective. We’d be crying too in the same situation out of tiredness and frustration every day and / or night if we had constantly interrupted sleep cycles around the clock and completely struggled with even being able to fall asleep. Remember – it’s all about the big picture overall and what’s happening with that, not the small picture.

Exhausting processes and rituals and practices are introduced by the parent – or they just kind of fall into these cycles as a way to cope and / or get through each day.  In that sense, I need to explain to the parents that it’s because of these processes / practices / rituals that were introduced or fallen into by the parents, that has led to the baby’s overall sleep issues, and continued the overall sleep issues.

So to want (or expect) our babies to go through this process of learning to sleep and acquiring that skill of being able to fall asleep independently without any crying in the early stages (and I do emphasise here it is the early stages….whilst the new process and approaches are being undertaken) which gives them the release they are needing from their tiredness / frustration is, in my opinion, just not fair or realistic.

I educate families about taking a much broader and bigger picture perspective on the sleep issues. A complete understanding on why the sleep issues have developed, how the sleep deprivation affects the baby and what changes need to be made to their baby’s existing routine and structure and processes in place be able to have a happy and well-rested baby / toddler who sleeps beautifully day and night.  And the over-arching point with all of this is having the right “Foundations” in place

When I talk about sleep foundations I am talking about a set of fundamental practices and processes that need to be in place in order for your baby /toddler to sleep well including:

  • the right pattern of sleep, feed and wake cycles
  • the need to set up the daytime / night-time in line with their body clock
  • the right understanding of tired signs and responding to those appropriately
  • the right sleep environment (layout of the room, level of light in room, warmth, sleepwear, room temp, setting up the sleep space
  • sleeping your baby / toddler safely
  • enabling your baby / toddler to develop a natural, easy relationship with sleep

Once your baby is falling asleep on his / her own for no other reason other than he / she is simply responding to their body’s tiredness, and stays asleep for good, consistent (really important this word…consistent) solid blocks of sleep day and night time –  it is such a wonderful feeling and achievement for everyone involved, not least for your baby. He / she will always have a really good sleep foundation and positive sleep associations, both of which is always missing initially with all of the families I work with. Their overall (big picture) sleep foundation is “fractured” in many places.

Everyone’s situation that I come across differs in the sense that families are at different stages with the sleep issues (largely dependent on how old the child is and how long the sleep issues have been going on for), HOWEVER the one commonality with every situation is that sleep deprivation is present as a result of poor sleep foundation and poor sleep associations. Everyone is exhausted. The impact of sleep deprivation on baby / toddler and parent is huge. With the broken sleep, they are never having the good quality deep sleep that they need to be having and so the result is a tired baby / toddler every day (and tired Mum every day too). The babies / toddlers are only ever “skimming” the top of the sleep cycle a lot of the time which is poor quality and very restless sleep, they are not ever getting into the solid deep sleep.  In addition, their overall body clock is out of whack with their daytime and night-time, their sleep cycles are broken, it’s all a bit of a mess.

Falling asleep easily and naturally (and independently) when they are tired and staying asleep through the sleep stages is nature.  The way it can be, and the way your baby / toddler wants it to be. So, in other words their overriding sleep association becomes their own tiredness and so they are able to respond naturally to that by falling asleep – for no other reason other than they are tired. Not because they are being held, rocked, patted, fed, walked up and down etc etc – which may help them get back to sleep initially but is also the very reason by they then wake frequently. As they wake constantly, aware that the sleep aid is no longer being administered and so then they fall to pieces again, needing that same sleep aid or intervention to be executed again. When they learn this skill, this is when they will be getting the long deep quality stretches of sleep that they are so needing and craving. A well-slept baby / toddler in a good routine is a happy baby / toddler – and they will always have fantastic sleeping patterns.

With the education that I do with families, there is certainly a need to allow their baby / toddler to put themselves to sleep for periods of time in the early stages, whilst they learn and acquire the skill of falling asleep on their own – but I always emphasise to families that they will be able to go to them during the process to comfort whenever they need to. I am all about the parent(s) feeling comfortable during the process, and ultimately if you going to your baby is helping calm them – then you can and should go to into them as needed. However if you going in is tending to escalate your baby, then you are best off taking that cue that right at that point, it’s too overstimulating and it’s not helping  – and therefore, staying out for periods of time rather than constantly going into them is what is going to be most helpful.  The staying out part of the going to sleep process is important.

The overall process is also a matter of stopping / undoing a whole lot of established and entrenched poor habits, patterns and cycles that have no doubt been going on for weeks or months and maybe even since Day One. You and your baby are both caught / trapped in the same cycle. And the good news is – you are both actually wanting the same thing….and that is – SLEEP!!

And the thing I really need to emphasise here is that the going-to-sleep process and the settling process is just one part / element to an overall process, there would be many other areas we are addressing and / or focusing on as well – things like bedtime at night, get up time in the morning, feed times, sleep environment, sleep associations, sleep and wake cycles being where they need to be, and lots more. All of these elements need to be addressed at the same time, it is not just about the process of them going to sleep and isolating that as the one area to focus on, all the components needs to be addressed together and at the same time.

Families who have, prior to contacting me, tried to let their baby cry it out, or self-settle or any other similar terms (and this is a large percentage of families, I have to say) – will never have success if that is the only aspect they are working on and focused on. They can do that until the cows come home and it would never have been successful in getting their baby to sleep, because there was a whole myriad of other issues in the 24 / 7 routine and set-up and processes and cycles that also needed to be addressed at the same time.  Again all back to the Foundations, if they aren’t in place then your baby / toddler won’t sleep well, and will be very tired and irritable.

A big part of the reason why our babies / toddlers end up with poor sleep patterns and poor sleep associations is because of habits and cycles that we have fallen into with them, at the end of the day we will do whatever it takes to get them to sleep – and this can lead to some exhausting rituals / processes / dependencies / habits being established.  A baby only responds to what processes we put in place for them (and I know that most of the time, those processes haven’t been put in place intentionally by the parent, more it’s a case of falling into those processes and cycles out of desperation and not having any other answers).

The education I provide to families is all about helping them to help their baby / toddler have a great relationship with sleep through the older toddler years, the pre-school years and beyond. Basically, allowing their natural sleep feed and wake cycles to develop instead of interfering or interrupting these. Families just won’t know themselves once their babies / toddlers are getting the sleep they should be getting every day and every night, which of course equates to parents getting the sleep and rest that they need too – without having to spend hours each day and night to help their baby to get to sleep and then stay asleep through the night. I am all about breaking the current cycle (a cycle that is just not good for either of you regarding the constant broken sleep and sleep deprivation) and re-setting a whole new cycle.

Regarding the notion that allowing your baby to self-settle is cruel and will psychologically damage and traumatise them – I find this baseless and in fact I actually find that whole discussion “traumatising” and “damaging” to the parent.  It is not something I subscribe to at all and I will voice this to anyone.  I’ll put this into perspective.  War, malnutrition, neglect, abuse, concentration camps will potentially damage and traumatise a child / infant.  Crying for periods of time, in a supportive and loving home, whilst going through a learning to sleep process does not psychologically damage an infant.

Critics of strategies which involve crying through a self-settling process often use extreme examples of emotional deprivation to support their claims of harm, for example Romanian orphanages with abandoned babies / children that bear absolutely NO relationship at all to much-loved babies / toddlers in safe, loving, good homes….which is 100% of the families I am seeing day in, day out. Also, what is interesting to me is that in these discussions it is never mentioned the detrimental effects (which IS documented and proven) that sleep deprivation has on a baby / child.

I completely understand about not being comfortable hearing your baby cry, almost all the parents I have worked with are the same, none of them are comfortable with crying. Once you get the right education and understanding around the crying in the first place (i.e sheer exhaustion), thongs make much more sense.  It’s the difference between being in the “small picture” vs being in the “big picture”.  I am always bringing families into the “big picture”.  I am a mother too so I definitely do understand. However, it’s important to put it in perspective and realise that the crying and unsettledness to begin with is a direct result of the broken sleep, poor sleep associations and the sleep-deprived cycle a baby / toddler is in and the fact that they are utterly exhausted.  Once the sleep issues are addresses, the crying is eliminated because that baby / toddler is no longer in a cycle of sleep deprivation.

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