Controlled checking (sometimes called controlled crying) is a sleep training method, which involves putting your baby or child to bed awake, and then leaving the room. If they cry you then return after a short period, reassure them with a phrase and then leave the room again. You slowly increase the amount of time you wait before returning to the room, and repeat until your baby or child is asleep. Controlled checking is not letting your baby cry on their own until they sleep – you always go back into the room to reassure them.
Controlled checking if followed correctly, for a maximum of 2 weeks, is safe to use provided the baby gets lots of love and attention in the day from a sensitive attuned parent. The Harvard Centre for the Developing Child makes the distinction between moderate short-lived stress (tolerable stress) that can actually promote growth and toxic stress, which is the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system. Tolerable stress is what the baby or child will experience during controlled checking, the evidence shows that as the stress is buffered by supportive relationships this helps the child adjust.
Ultimately whether you are happy to used controlled checking or not is a personal choice, and one, which both parents need to be happy with before committing to using this sleep training method.
Provided you both agree, your child is over 6 months and there are no contra-indications from the list below then you can use controlled checking. You can watch videos from mums discussing and using controlled checking here to help you decide if it is for you.
You must not use controlled checking if your baby is less than 6 months old. Controlled checking should also not be used for children who have a fear of being left alone in their beds (separation anxiety) or those who have a vomiting response if they get overwrought.
It is also important to ascertain if there are any underlying sleep issues before attempting to use this sleep training method, such as:
• Night time fears and separation anxiety;
• Daytime stress;
• Snoring and other forms of sleep-disorder breathing such as sleep apnoea;
• Nocturnal headaches or other medical conditions which cause pain;
• Sleep walking and/or night terrors; and
• Sleep issues caused by bedtimes which are too early.
If your child has any of the issues detailed above they must be dealt with first before using this method of sleep training, and it may be more appropriate to use another asleep training method such as pick up, put down or gradual retreat.
Before starting controlled checking it is important to ensure you have read everything above and are happy that this method of sleep training is appropriate for your child and your family. Ensure sure that both parents are on board with the idea and understand exactly what you are doing and how you do it. Whilst this isn’t always possible try to choose a quiet week when you have little else on and make sure your baby or child isn’t unwell. It might also be an idea to pre warn the neighbours!
As with all forms of sleep training it is important to first establish a consistent bedtime and positive bedtime routine. Always make sure you baby or child is warm and safe, and then follow these steps:
1. Follow your usual bedtime routine so your baby or child understands that it is bedtime;
2. Put your child or baby into their bed when they are drowsy but still awake, say goodnight and then leave the room;
3. When they start to cry leave them for up to five minutes at first (if this feels too long you can reduce it to one or two minutes to begin with);
4. After five minutes return to their bedroom;
5. Do not make eye contact with them, pick them up or stroke them but have a reassuring phrase such as “its ok I am here, go to sleep” or “shhh, it is time to sleep”. It is important to stay calm but be firm;
6. Then leave the room again and leave it for another five minutes or you can lengthen the time. However do not leave it for more than 10 – 15 minutes before returning;
7. Repeat steps 3 – 6 until your baby or child is asleep.
Do not go out of earshot of your baby or child whilst they are crying, try to distract yourself with something and use a stopwatch or clock to time the minutes, they are likely to feel very long.
If your baby can stand and will not lie down to sleep you can either:
• Place your hands on the child’s body around the trunk and wait for them to lie down on their own, then make them comfortable and warm and praise them for lying down; or
• Leave the room after you have put them into bed whether they are lying or standing, when you return after 5 minutes lie them back down gently and say “please lie down” calmly and firmly along with your settling phrase and then leave the room again.
In either scenario never force them physically to lie down, and when they do lie down give lots of praise.
Breath holding spells are less common reactions that you need to be prepared for when sleep training. They can easily frighten parents and it can be very alarming. Here is everything you need to know about breath holding spells.
You can still successfully use this method however it may take a little more patience. When your child gets out of his or her bed, or if when you return to check they are not in their bed, calmly and quietly without speaking and avoiding eye contact put them back into their bed. Say your settling phrase such as “it is time to sleep, goodnight” and leave the room again until the next check. You will need to do this as many times as it takes, ensure you are consistent and do exactly the same each time you need to return them to their bed.
Consistency is absolutely key with success, you may find that they get worse over the first few nights, alternatively things may improve fairly quickly over the first few days, but then do be prepared for a relapse around night 3 or 4. Provided you remain consistent in your approach, your baby or child will stop pushing your boundaries and learn to go to sleep in their own bed.
Plus you can come and chat to Maggie, our team of trained parent supporters and other mums in the Channel Mum support group too.
This guide has been checked and approved by our in-house Health Visitor, Maggie Fisher in October 2018.
Safe sleeping for babies
Your baby’s average sleep needs
Sleep and awake states of your baby
What are your baby’s signs of tiredness?
Your baby’s sleep cycles
The effect food can have on your baby’s sleep
Comforting and soothing your baby to sleep
Sleep aids that might help settle your baby
Swaddling your baby
Using the ‘Gradual Retreat’ sleep training method
Using the ‘Kissing Game’ sleep training method
Using the ‘Pick Up, Put Down’ sleep training method
Using the ‘Wake to Sleep’ sleep training method
The Channel Mum sleep guide
How to sooth a crying baby