Controlled crying not the only way to teach babies to sleep, study finds

It's the age-old question for every sleep-deprived parent: What's the best way to get your baby settled and off to sleep?

A new study, titled No Need To Make Babies Cry, challenges the view that controlled crying is the most effective approach.

Lead researcher Helen Stevens said the study followed 34 babies aged four to 11 months attending a publicly run residential family care centre in Melbourne

Families attending the centre were doing so because their babies were having trouble settling, she toldĀ ABC Radio Melbourne's Rafael Epstein.

"This is the hard end of town."

Responsive vs controlled

As well as logging the total hours the baby slept, researchers tested the mothers' and babies' saliva for the stress hormone cortisol.

The centre taught responsive settling, where parents were encouraged to respond to a crying baby incrementally.

"You don't pick them up straight away, you see if you can soothe them by shushing, patting or stroking their hair," Ms Stevens said.

"If that's not working you just pick them up and cuddle them, if they can't calm down you ... feed them.

"It's whatever it takes to calm the child because we know calm babies go to sleep."

Ms Stevens said the approach was "the polar opposite to controlled crying".

"It's about increasing your care until you've settled your child," she said.

Five hours extra sleep

The study followed the babies throughout their time at the residential facility and for nine days after they were discharged.

"The average sleep hours went from 7.2 hours in a 24-hour day to almost 13 hours," Ms Stevens said.

She said the study showed there were alternatives to controlled crying, where babies are left to cry themselves to sleep.

"A lot of parents will say that it feels terrible to let their baby cry."

However, she said parents should not feel bad for using controlled crying.

"There is no point in parents beating up on themselves.

"When you're in the middle of it, you do whatever you can to survive."

She said that like anything in parenting, what worked for one parent did not necessarily work for another.

"We can get babies to sleep in a range of different ways."

Ms Stevens, who is a maternal child health nurse and consultant, collaborated with La Trobe University, the University of North Texas and Mercy Health on the study.