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Controlled comforting — a sleep technique for babies

5-minute read

Controlled comforting is a sleep-training strategy used to help babies learn to settle themselves. It can be used to manage persistent settling down and waking up problems in babies and toddlers aged 6 months to 2 years.

Sleep-training strategies do not work for all babies. Many parents and some health professionals do not use them.

If you are worried about your baby and their sleep, speak to your doctor or early childhood nurse, or contact Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436.

When a baby cries, this is a signal of emotional or physical distress or discomfort. You should ensure your baby knows you are emotionally and physically available. This is the foundation of a secure parent-child attachment.

Helping your baby learn to settle on their own involves checking in with your infant regularly as they try to go to sleep, and offering reassurance and support while they learn this skill.

This is not the same as extinction crying, also called controlled crying – a term for letting babies 'cry it out' until they are exhausted. Do not do this – it is not appropriate at any time.

Start sleep training strategies only when:

  • your baby is older than 6 months
  • your baby is well and not showing signs of teething
  • you have established a simple, soothing bedtime routine
  • you are confident your baby is getting a lot of time, attention and affection
  • you have the support of your partner or close family member

Remember that sleep training can be emotionally and physically draining for both of you.

Stop sleep training strategies if:

  • your baby becomes sick
  • you or your baby are finding this stressful
  • the situation has not improved in 2 weeks.

Seek further support from your doctor or early childhood nurse, or call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436.

Steps to help baby self-settle

Ensure your baby is well fed, has a clean nappy and has had lots of cuddles and attention.

  1. Make sure you have a repetitive and calming bedtime routine.
  2. Watch your baby for signs of tiredness.
  3. Kiss and cuddle your baby and say goodnight.
  4. Place your baby in the cot and tuck them in.
  5. Pat or talk to your baby until they are quiet, or for about 1 minute and then leave the room.
  6. Give your baby the opportunity to go to sleep but be close by to monitor their behaviour.
  7. Monitor your infant’s reaction by listening for the type of cry – ignore a whinge or grizzle.
  8. If your baby starts to cry, leave them for a set period (2 to 5 minutes) before going back in. Don’t turn up the lighting, and use minimal eye contact.
  9. After each time interval, if your baby is still crying, return very briefly offering soothing, comforting words or pat them for 1 minute or until they are quiet. Your hands should be through the bars of the cot not over as the baby will anticipate you will pick them up.
  10. Avoid picking baby up if possible. If your baby is distressed and does not settle, pick them up, resettle and then leave the room.
  11. By returning briefly after every set period, you are reinforcing that you understand your baby has a problem and you are close by and will help and support them as they learn this new skill.
  12. Continue with this process until your baby has fallen asleep.

The same process should be followed for both day and night sleeps.

Frequently asked questions

How long will it take?

It may take from 3 to 14 days for a baby to be able to self-settle.

Should I wait outside my baby’s room?

No. You just need to be close by. It is often better if you can busy yourself with a task that will distract you. Two minutes can be a long time to hear your baby cry.

Is it better to start this for the daytime sleeps or at night time?

Sleep training is generally more successful at night. Try the night first and then day sleeps will follow.

If you are finding sleep training too hard try adding in a few more steps:

  • Rock your baby in your arms until almost asleep and then put them into the cot.
  • If this has been successful after a few days then do the same thing at sleep time but ensure your baby is put into bed fully awake.
  • If you feel too tired, upset or stressed to follow through with sleep training strategies, pick your baby up, calm them down and try again later.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2020

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The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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