The Dangers of leaving a Baby to ‘Cry it Out’

Letting babies “cry it out” is an idea that has been around since at least the 1880s when the field of medicine was in a hullaballoo about germs and transmitting infection and so took to the notion that babies should rarely be touched (see Blum, 2002, for a great review of this time period and attitudes towards childrearing).

A government pamphlet from the time recommended that “mothering meant holding the baby quietly, in tranquility-inducing positions” and that “the mother should stop immediately if her arms feel tired” because “the baby is never to inconvenience the adult.” Babies older than six months “should be taught to sit silently in the crib; otherwise, he might need to be constantly watched and entertained by the mother, a serious waste of time.” (See Blum, 2002.)

Don’t these attitudes sound familiar?

With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted—that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated person who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation. Ignorant behaviorists then and now encourage parents to condition the baby to expect needs NOT to be met on demand, whether feeding or comforting. It’s assumed that the adults should ‘be in charge’ of the relationship. Certainly this might foster a child that doesn’t ask for as much help and attention (withdrawing into depression and going into stasis or even wasting away) but it is more likely to foster a whiney, unhappy, aggressive and/or demanding child, one who has learned that one must scream to get needs met. A deep sense of insecurity is likely to stay with them the rest of life.

The fact is that caregivers who habitually respond to the needs of the baby before the baby gets distressed, preventing crying, are more likely to have children who are independent than the opposite (e.g., Stein & Newcomb, 1994). Soothing care is best from the outset. Once patterns get established, it’s much harder to change them.

One strangely popular notion still around today is to let babies ‘cry it out’ when they are left alone, isolated in cribs or other devices. This comes from a misunderstanding of child and brain development.

Babies grow from being held. Their bodies get dysregulated when they are physically separated from caregivers.

Babies indicate a need through gesture and eventually, if necessary, through crying. Just as adults reach for liquid when thirsty, children search for what they need in the moment. Just as adults become calm once the need is met, so do babies.

There are many long-term effects of undercare or need-neglect in babies (e.g., Dawson et al., 2000).

What does leaving a baby to ‘CRY IT OUT’ actually do to the baby?

Neurons die. When the baby is stressed, the toxic hormone cortisol is released. It’s a neuron killer. A full-term baby (40-42 weeks), with only 25% of its brain developed, is undergoing rapid brain growth. The brain grows on average three times as large by the end of the first year (and head size growth in the first year is a sign of intelligence, e.g., Gale et al., 2006). Who knows what neurons are not being connected or being wiped out during times of extreme stress? What deficits might show up years later from such regular distressful experience? (See my addendum below.)

Disordered stress re-activity can be established as a pattern for life not only in the brain with the stress response system, but also in the body through the vagus nerve, a nerve that affects functioning in multiple systems (e.g., digestion). For example, prolonged distress in early life, resulting in a poorly functioning vagus nerve, is related disorders as irritable bowel syndrome (Stam et al, 1997). See more about how early stress is toxic for lifelong health from the recent Harvard report, The Foundations of Lifelong Health are Built in Early Childhood).

Self-regulation is undermined. The baby is absolutely dependent on caregivers for learning how to self-regulate. Responsive care—meeting the baby’s needs before he gets distressed—tunes the body and brain up for calmness. When a baby gets scared and a parent holds and comforts him, the baby builds expectations for soothing, which get integrated into the ability to self comfort. Babies don’t self-comfort in isolation. If they are left to cry alone, they learn to shut down in face of extensive distress–stop growing, stop feeling, stop trusting (Henry & Wang, 1998).

Trust is undermined. As Erik Erikson pointed out, the first year of life is a sensitive period for establishing a sense of trust in the world, the world of caregiver and the world of self. When a baby’s needs are met without distress, the child learns that the world is a trustworthy place, that relationships are supportive, and that the self is a positive entity that can get its needs met. When a baby’s needs are dismissed or ignored, the child develops a sense of mistrust of relationships and the world. And self-confidence is undermined. The child may spend a lifetime trying to fill the inner emptiness.

Caregiver sensitivity may be harmed. A caregiver who learns to ignore baby crying, will likely learn to ignore the more subtle signaling of the child’s needs. Second-guessing intuitions to stop child distress, the adult who ignores baby needs practices and increasingly learns to “harden the heart.” The reciprocity between caregiver and baby is broken by the adult, but cannot be repaired by the young child. The baby is helpless.

Caregiver responsiveness to the needs of the baby is related to most if not all positive child outcomes. Caregiver responsiveness is related to intelligence, empathy, lack of aggression or depression, self-regulation, social competence. Because responsiveness is so powerful, we have to control for it in our studies of other parenting practices and child outcomes. The importance of caregiver responsivness is common knowledge in developmental psychology Lack of responsiveness, which “crying it out” represents. can result in the opposite of the aforementioned positive outcomes.

The ‘cry it out’ approach seems to have arisen as a solution to the dissolution of extended family life in the 20th century. The vast wisdom of grandmothers was lost in the distance between households with children and those with the experience and expertise about how to raise them well. The wisdom of keeping babies happy was lost between generations!

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