Sleep problems: when controlled crying doesn't work

It sounds simple, but why is the sleep training technique controlled crying so challenging to put into practice? Mandy Gurney from the Millpond Sleep Clinic looks at what to do when controlled crying isn't working

Controlled Crying Not Working - Your Questions Answered...

QUESTION: My daughter is six months old, has never slept through the night and refuses to go to sleep on her own. Now I know that this is my fault as I enjoyed rocking her to sleep in my arms when she was smaller, however nothing I try to do to better the situation seems to work.

I’ve tried controlled crying, but my daughter won’t calm down. She keeps grabbing for my hands and won’t stop crying until she has them, which then she puts to her face. I decided that instead of smoothing her back I would stroke her face as this seemed to work better for her. However, when I go to leave the room she starts screaming again. I know she is tired and she wants to sleep, but only as long as I am in the room.

On occasion when she has finally fallen asleep from exhaustion, her naps don’t seem to last very long as if she stirs and notices that I am no longer in the room, she starts up again, and basically that is it for that nap time. I’m just wondering what I am doing wrong, and what I can do to make life a bit better for my baby girl (and also her restless mummy and daddy). - Kate

ANSWER: Controlled crying is a sleep training method that teaches your child to sleep independently. At Millpond we do not recommend using it before the age of six months as we feel a gradual retreat technique is more appropriate for younger babies. Controlled crying does not mean you abandon you baby to their tears but instead you return to briefly check them at set intervals to reassure your baby and yourself. The length of time between visits is gradually increased until your baby is asleep.

A child that cannot self-settle will invariably be a poor napper. Most often they will wake after a short sleep cycle of 30-45 minutes. Teaching your child to self-settle at night will improve the length and quality of naps.

The key to this technique is not to stroke, pat or re-position your baby. This type of contact could be seen as a reward for crying and instead of reducing the crying could teach your child to cry for a set period before you go into them and cuddle or stroke them, thus inadvertently encouraging them to cry.

Try this controlled crying method to teach your child to settle alone:

The bedtime routine should take no longer than 30 minutes. Pre-bed milk should be given downstairs before starting the bedtime routine. The routine should be a calm/winding down exercise and it should be consistent.

Suggested routine for a 7.30pm bedtime:

7.00pm: A warm bath lasting no longer than 5 to 10 minutes, with one or two toys only. Change into pyjamas and tell a bedtime story. Place her into the cot, say goodnight and leave the room.

If your baby cries when you place them in the cot, start the controlled crying technique. 

  • Wait 5 minutes before going back to the room. Make your check brief with minimal interaction. Don't touch, pick her up, or cuddle her. Simply say, “Mummy/Daddy is here, go to sleep” and leave the room, even if she is still crying. 
  • If she is still crying after 10 minutes, go in and repeat the procedure. 
  • If she is still crying after 15 minutes, repeat the procedure. 
  • Repeat every 15 minutes until she is asleep. 
  • If she starts to quieten, wait to see if she is starting to settle to sleep. If you go in at this point you may disturb the settling process. If she starts to cry loudly again, start your checking again. 
  • You will need to do this every time she wakes in the night. Start your checking from 5 minutes. 
  • If you apply the technique properly, your child should not cry for much more than an hour. 
  • Don’t give up. Be consistent. The first three nights will be gruelling, but after this you will see a considerable improvement. 
  • The point of this programme is to teach your child to sleep independently. The considerable benefits of sleep to her - and you - will outweigh any temporary discomfort.


When settling your child for a nap, use the controlled crying technique in the same way.


Have you used a sleep training technique? What worked for you? Come and tell us about it on the Official Supernanny Facebook page.

Related links

Controlled Crying: As used on Supernanny, this technique helps you tell a cry for attention from a distress cry, and gives you the tools to gradually make your baby less dependent on you at night time.

Controlled Crying - What if it's not for you? Check out these alternatives

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