How do you get your baby to sleep when the only fashionable method – 'controlled crying' – seems downright cruel? Susie Mesure, exhausted mother of a 15-month-old, goes in search of a gentler solution

When it comes to sleep, new mums don't get much of a look in. I know I certainly didn't. My son Louis made sure of that. Fifteen months on, not a lot has changed. He doesn't sleep much, so nor do I. What is different, though, is my ability to play the sympathy card. The unwritten rule of parenting seems to be that once your infant hits about, oh, month three, all pity evaporates if you admit you have a non-sleeping child.

Why? Because as a not-so-new mum, if you haven't resorted to "controlled crying" to "break" your infant of their inability to sleep, then you're clearly either insane or a mug. And neither carries much of a sympathy vote. I should know because I'm guilty as charged, which makes me rather tired. Okay, exceedingly tired. And that's on a good day.

Which at least explains the black bags under my eyes and constant feeling of sleeplessness-induced nausea. What it doesn't explain is why I haven't bitten the bullet and left my now-toddler to "cry it out", whatever "it" is. I'd try another method of getting him to sleep if I could find one. But 99 per cent of the baby literature out there – and I've ploughed through most of it – is really just a variation on CIO (to use its mumosphere abbreviation). And leaving Louis to scream his heart out until finally he collapses is not what I signed up for as a mum.

My qualms are simple, really. Is leaving your baby to cry truly the most sensible way to get him to sleep? Does no one worry about the potential damage that might do? And are all mums seriously stuck in a lose-lose vicious circle of either never sleeping again or sending their child on a one-way ticket to baby hell?

Instead, I need a Third Way, a halfway house between him crying solo and my enforced insomnia. Up to now, this has involved countless hours spent hovering over – or in extremis, in – his cot each evening to coax him first to sleep, and then back to sleep, and so on and so on, until we hit that early-hours cut-off when I just scoop him up, bundle him into my bed and brace myself for countless more hours spent with him wriggling around while I try and doze.

My quest for an alternative takes me first to Miriam Stoppard, the self-styled queen of the anti-controlled crying brigade. She thinks leaving babies to cry not only goes against every natural mothering instinct but also causes infants to release high levels of stress hormones that dampen the formation of a healthy brain. I get an inkling of how tricky my task is when I'm told that although Ms Stoppard might worry about such matters, she feels she's said enough recently on the subject, which is to say she has reiterated her concerns without providing any answers. Great.

Next, I call Georgie Bateman, who runs an outfit called Night Nannies. She must know what to do. Our conversation starts well: she reassures me she doesn't think CIO "makes any sense". Good. She trots out the "bath, massage, feed" mantra, stressing the importance of doing everything at the same times to "maximise baby's internal clock". If your baby protests when you pop him down in his cot, she recommends lowering your voice "so they have to stop screaming to hear you", rubbing their back, and attempting a spot of reflexology. "Stroking your baby's feet from toe to heel gives him the same amount of comfort as a full body hug." Which all sounds fair enough, until she warns: "It takes time and patience. Two things a knackered mother often doesn't have." I lose heart when I realise her ultimate tip is to splash my limited cash on one of her night nannies.

Luckily, a chat with Elizabeth Danowski, head of Oxpip, an Oxford-based counselling service for sleep- deprived mothers, nudges me back on course. "The whole issue of whether to let baby CIO is the wrong approach. The question should be, 'What does that baby need and how can you get the balance between baby and the family right?' We need to give ourselves permission to find what can work and not just seek a quick solution."

Chireal Shallow, a psychological therapist and sleep expert at the baby sleep clinic Naturally Naturing, echoes this. She thinks babies are bad sleepers for two main reasons: "Anxiety, or dependency on whatever – the breast, bottle or an object." Working out what's wrong, rather than just opting for a quick fix from a bout of controlled crying, is better long term, she adds.

As for my specific issues – a 15-month-old who still breastfeeds all night and who hates lying down in his cot – she suggests I encourage him to become attached to an object other than me by giving him something to hold while he is nursing, and that I engage his "mirroring instincts" when I want him to lie down.

So instead of hovering over his cot, I try lying down next to it, making myself at the level I want him to be. Other tips include more daytime playtime in his cot so he learns to associate it with having fun, and thinking about what might be frightening him when he wakes at night: the dark, those shadows on the wall, that box on top of the wardrobe.

When it comes to beating that elusive retreat from his room of an evening, Deborah Jackson, author of When Your Baby Cries, starts by warning me not to rush: "Pushing a baby too quickly can cause more problems than we bargained for. You will be able to do it when you feel right and ready." But she then offers me a method called "tidy up and retreat", which she adapted from the American child psychologist Olwen Wilson. "You tell them, 'I will stay with you, but only if you close your eyes and put your head on the pillow. Not if you sit up.' You then sing a lullaby in snatches as you wander around the room, tidying up a bit and edging nearer the door. It's about having audio contact and works really well when they're sleepy and tired but not when they're bouncing around. The massive difference between this and leaving them to cry is that at no time are you leaving them. Although it's intensive, it's less traumatic."

For what it's worth, she suggests that tired as I am, I might wait a little longer before embarking on my mission, pointing out that in many cultures, "a child is a baby until he's two". She adds: "There are methods to get your baby to sleep alone but at 15 months he won't appreciate it."

You'd think such advice would tip me over the edge, but after hearing something similar from Robin Balbernie, a Gloucestershire-based child psychotherapist, I can't get Ms Jackson's words out of my head. Mr Balbernie's view is that patience breeds results even if "the pain barrier you go through is phenomenal". He thinks cuddling a crying baby will pay off because research shows "the quicker you respond to a baby's cries in the first year, the less he cries in his second year".

According to him, eventually babies manage to "internalise" their distress. "To do it, they have to get to the stage of building an image of a soothing parent in their mind. That representation becomes part of their personality." When I tell him Louis's stretches of sleep are gradually lengthening from a couple of hours to the occasional five- or six-hour chunk he tells me the most encouraging thing I've heard in months: "That proves you're nearly there."

Perhaps all those hours spent comatose with Louis really have helped. Maybe I've found my Third Way: I guess you could call it a "slow sleep movement", like the food one. Rather than seek a quick fix from controlled crying, I have laid the foundations for years of emotional security.

And as for how you get there, as Ms Jackson says: "As a mum, you only have two choices: ignoring the baby or not ignoring the baby." I know which one makes me feel better about myself.

How to settle your baby: The experts advise

* Take it slowly.

* Encourage an attachment to a "lovie" (a soft object the baby likes) rather than your breast/his bottle.

* Try some reflexology: rub his feet from toe to heel to simulate a full-body hug.

* Massage his back in a clockwise motion: it soothes by mimicking his digestion system. Talk quietly to a screaming baby so he has to stop crying to hear you.

* Buy him a "magic carpet" for his room to whisk him to the land of nod.

* Be rigid with your night routine. Exploit his internal clock.

* Persuade him to lie down in his cot by lying down next to it, not hovering over it.

* Be really boring when you go back in to resettle him.

* Check the "three esses" – sight, sound and smell – to work out what might be wrong. Don't feel pressured into embarking on a new routine.

* Roll with any resistance from your baby: pat the mattress to persuade him to lay down, don't bundle him down. That way he might stay put.

* Use a night-light.

* Get dad to do the resettling if you're breastfeeding.

* Think about any family tension that your baby might be picking up on.

* Be confident that one day, you'll get there. And your baby will ultimately benefit from your patience.

With thanks to Robin Balbernie, Deborah Jackson, Georgie Bateman, Elizabeth Danowski and Chireal Shallow

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