Sarah Ockwell-Smith wrote a deep, well researched article on self settling here. I agree with a lot, but not all that she says. Here are my thoughts:

“Babies are no more capable of self settling than they are of riding a bike. Self soothing is not something you can teach…” – Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Although I think the bike analogy is a good one, my reasons are different. Self settling or self soothing is a specific form of emotional regulation usually used in the context of settling to sleep. Like riding a bike, regulating emotions is a skill that needs to be learned. Imagine going straight from never riding any form of bike, to trying to ride unassisted. An older child, with good general coordination and balance, may learn fairly quickly, but there could be some falls along the way. Younger children, with less developed skills, would take longer with more falls.Self Settling like bike riding Image

Emotion regulation is similar. Older babies, with more experience with fluctuating emotions are likely to learn to self settle faster than younger babies.

Self settling is something you can teach (or more provide opportunities to practice and learn), but jumping straight to controlled crying is like learning to ride without first practicing on a balance bike or with training wheels.

Most parents don’t expect children to ride unassisted the first time they get on a bike. Most children start with training wheels or a balance bike. This is similar to teaching emotional regulation. Children with better emotional regulation at the same age, tend to have parents who are more responsive to their emotions. Your response, hugs, warmth, and affection are like training wheels for emotional regulation (see my post here, and relevant research here). By providing comfort you are not completely regulating their emotions for them. If you were babies would never cry or whimper in arms or when feeding… but they do.

Training wheels and balance bikes allow children to glide unassisted with less likelihood of falling but they don’t prevent wobbles. Your assistance with self settling can work in a similar way. You can provide opportunities to self-settle by lying your baby in his or her cot on those odd occasions when your baby is sleepy but calm. Then, like training wheels hitting the road, you assist when needed, and to the degree needed. Same with emotional episodes during the day as discussed in Teaching emotion management: Helicopter parenting and sleep and The Dream Baby Guide Summary.

“Through sleep training you can condition a baby not to cry out for attention and go to sleep without parental input fairly easily, however this behaviour is not indicative of a baby who is calm, soothed or settled.” – Sarah Ockwell-Smith
Controlled crying does teach babies not to cry – that is the principle behind the method. However, it is possible that only instrumental cries aimed at getting parents to return are stifled, whereas distress and pain cries are not. The research is unclear on this. What do you think? Please comment.

Although I agree with this, I think Sarah generalises too far. Controlled crying in research circles is a variant of the “extinction” method. This is a psychology term for the phenomena where a behaviour stops when it is no longer being rewarded. I’m not sure that crying should be considered a single behaviour though, given that it communicates so many needs and wants. I suspect that the first kind of cry that would stop would be the cry of “Mum? Dad? Come back please”. Cries of pain, including emotional anguish may not be extinguished because they are an innate reaction to the pain and not an operational behaviour. In learned helplessness studies, the dogs who could not escape an electric shock stopped trying to escape (an operational behaviour) when they learned that they couldn’t, but they continued to whine (an innate reaction to the pain; 1).

“Check out this research which shows what happens during ‘self soothing’ teaching, highlighting how stressed the baby still is, despite their quietness and apparent ‘sleeping’. Chemically we can now prove that the baby is neither soothed or settled.” – Sarah Ockwell-Smith
Babies were not soothed or settled after a controlled crying intervention, but this research can’t determine whether they weren’t crying because the same level of distress no longer overwhelmed them or because they had learned there was no use in crying.

This research (2) did show that after a controlled crying intervention, when a mother’s stress decreased because she thought her baby was asleep, her baby’s stress remained elevated. In comparison, before the intervention stress rose and fell together in mother and baby pairs. This does indicate that the babies were not as soothed or settled as they appeared after the intervention, but it cannot say whether the distress was overwhelming. Babies experienced the same level of distress on the third night as they did on the first night of the sleep routine, even though their behaviour was vastly different. However, we cannot know from this study whether they fell asleep without crying because they were now able to handle that level of distress, or had just learned that it was no use crying about it.

“What if they have vomitted, or slipped down under their blankets? What if they don’t cry because nobody comes, what if they become a SIDS statistic as a result?” – Sarah Ockwell-Smith
This is a huge leap!

As I suggested earlier, learning not to call out to Mum and Dad, is not the same as learning to stifle an innate response to pain and anguish. I cannot imagine any creature could stifle a cry of pain or fear because of a learning intervention if they were aware of a danger great enough to kill them, just as the dog continued to whine during the electric shock. Besides, 90% of SIDS cases occur before 6 months of age (3) and few experts recommend controlled crying prior to 6 months.

“Our neocortex can help us to rationalise and analyse a situation to come up with a solution to regulate our emotions… We need all the parts of our brain, fully developed, to ‘self soothe’.” – Sarah Ockwell-Smith
We need all parts of our brain fully developed for maximal emotion regulation, but rudimentary settling behaviours are present in infants. Babies with fewer settling tools, will not be able to self settle in as many situations as babies with more settling tools.

The thinking part of the brain does contribute significantly to a child’s ability to regulate their emotions (4,5). It facilitates self-instruction and problem solving. However, I don’t agree that it is necessary for self settling to sleep. Even infants avert their gaze when they are getting overstimulated, and make rhythmic sounds as they fall asleep (6). These are rudimentary forms of emotion regulation. I would argue that a fully equipped emotional regulation toolbox requires all brain areas that Sarah mentions, but babies are born with a very limited set of tools that can be enough to self settle from very low levels of emotion. As babies grow they learn new comforting skills such as sucking their hand, their thumb, or playing with cloth, and they also get accustomed to feelings such as tiredness. With each new tool, babies become better able to regulate their emotions. Emotional tool kits (to use a phrase from the Dream Baby Guide) have limits at any age. Even adults can struggle to calm down from intensely emotional experiences.


“Well there is research that shows that the more nurturing you are towards your child in their early years the greater their hippocampal volume…..and that’s important because the hippocampus is related to behavioural regulation.” – Sarah Ockwell-Smith


 Yes, but loving, nurturing mothers do try controlled crying. This study would still class them as nurturing because it is based on observations of daytime interactions.

This research observed how much mothers nurtured their children of ages 3 to 5, and how this related to hippocampal volume at school age. It is not fair to lump nurturing, caring, loving parents who try controlled crying, in with mothers who are rarely nurturing. In fact, lack of sleep is related to depression, which is associated with a lack of responsiveness. Therefore, controlled crying, assuming it improves parental sleep, may result in more nurturing behaviours overall. A 2010 review of the literature finds no evidence that controlled crying is harmful. Some studies even show benefits (for details and reasons why I still don’t think controlled crying is a good idea see Research-Based Sleep Training Methods). My take on the research is that controlled crying can improve sleep for parents, and possibly children. Improved parental sleep, and the effects this has on parental wellbeing, and family harmony, are beneficial. However, I do not believe that controlled crying is the only, or best, way to achieve parental sleep and associated benefits.

Learning to self settle via controlled crying is like learning to ride without training wheels. Possible, but can be painful and there are gentler ways.

In my view, learning to self settle via controlled crying is like learning to ride a bike without training wheels. Most experts agree that you shouldn’t try controlled crying until your baby is at least 6 months old. Just as you wouldn’t expect a child to ride before they can walk. Even after 6 months I still prefer to start with training wheels to minimise the distress, even if it takes a bit longer. There is support for many alternative approaches as detailed in Research-Based Sleep Training Methods, A Sensible Sleep Solution with Associate Professor Sarah Blunden, and The Dream Baby Guide Review. Unlike Sarah, I don’t consider pick up put down methods such as gradual withdrawal to be the same as controlled crying. I also think that changing how you respond to cries depending on what they communicate makes sense (Dream Baby Guide). Different methods fit different ages, individuals, and families. If you would like an online tool to help you find solutions that might fit you, please check out my Sleep Options Wizard.

Should you feel guilty for trying controlled crying techniques? NO.

Should you try other methods first? I think so.

Should you feel guilty for nurturing your child to sleep? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

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1. Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1), 407-412. doi:10.1146/

2. Middlemiss, W., Granger, D. A., Goldberg, W. A., & Nathans, L. (2012). Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early human development, 88(4), 227-232.

3.Baby Center:

4. Cole, P. M., Armstrong, L. M., & Pemberton, C. K. (2010). The role of language in the development of emotion regulation. In S. D. Calkins & M. A. Bell (Eds.), Child development at the intersection of emotion and cognition. Human brain development. (pp. 59-77). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

5. Roben, C. K., Cole, P. M., & Armstrong, L. M. (2013). Longitudinal relations among language skills, anger expression, and regulatory strategies in early childhood. Child development, 84(3), 891-905.

6. Stifter, C. A., & Braungart, J. M. (1995). The regulation of negative reactivity in infancy: Function and development. Developmental psychology, 31(3), 448.

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