“Crying It Out” – Parental Malpractice!

Attachment Parenting

Attachment Parenting

Having a caregiver that is responsive to a child’s needs and so attuned to subtle signals from the baby that he or she can meet the baby’s needs almost before the baby knows it’s distressed creates more secure, emotionally-able children, who as adults have confidence in partners that can last throughout life.

A caregiver who fails to respond or only intermittently responds to a child’s needs creates an insecure child, and such lack of trust in intimate partners can set the pattern for an adult who has trouble trusting or being intimate with others. In the book I describe the insecure types and how they got that way — often because of parents who were themselves insecure or unable to provide secure support because of mental or physical health or difficult circumstances.

Darcia Narvaez and Angela Braden writing in Psychology Today comment on the damaging advice to let children “cry it out” after bedtime or other times when it’s inconvenient, to train them to sleep through the night and not to expect assistance. Most everyone feels in their bones that ignoring a child’s cries is a bad idea, but this “scientific” behavioral modification approach was seriously recommended in the 1950s. It’s fortunate that this advice was widely ignored or an epidemic of insecure adults would have resulted!

Mainstream parenting media are asserting once again that the cry-it-out sleep paradigm is harmless to babies—this time in the form of a two-paragraph morsel as one of the “sleep myths” Parents magazine “sets straight” in “Rest Assured” (July 2014 issue). The myth is listed as “crying it out is bad for your baby” and goes on to conclude that au contraire, “whatever sleep training method feels most comfortable for you is just fine.” Never mind how the baby feels. “Just fine”? Yikes! Parents typically does an excellent job educating and supporting parents to raise healthy, happy kids. But alarm bells went off for us when we read this lapse.

Fortunately, most parents will feel decidedly uncomfortable leaving their baby to “cry-it-out,” since their natural response is to soothe and keep a baby calm. In fact, methods that leave the baby to cry are less effective in the home than is documented in sleep labs.

Unfortunately, over 2 million Parents readers have just been told that leaving babies to cry to the point of distress and beyond—to the point of potential neurological damage—has been proven safe and even that it’s proper childrearing. It does this by ending with the prolific, misconception that has justified this practice for decades: “[Your baby] needs to learn the important lifelong skills of self-soothing and falling asleep on his own.” Nothing could be further from the truth for a baby.

They go on to refer back to an earlier post warning against the practice of ignoring cries for comfort:

What does ‘crying it out’ actually do to the baby and to the dyad?

Neuronal interconnections are damaged. When the baby is greatly distressed,it creates conditions for damge to synapses, network construction which occur very rapidly in the infant brain. The hormone cortisol is released. In excess, it’s a neuron killer which many not be apparent immediately (Thomas et al. 2007). 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 reactivity can be established as a pattern for life not only in the brain with the stress response system (Bremmer et al, 1998), 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. In our work 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 afrementioned 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.

But isn’t it normal for babies to cry?

No. A crying baby in our ancestral environment would have signaled predators to tasty morsels. So our evolved parenting practices alleviated baby distress and precluded crying except in emergencies. Babies are built to expect the equivalent of an “external womb” after birth. What is the external womb? —being held constantly, breastfed on demand, needs met quickly (I have numerous posts on these things). These practices are known to facilitate good brain and body development (discussed with references in other posts, some links below). When babies display discomfort, it signals that a need is not getting met, a need of their rapidly growing systems.

So if your baby is crying, it’s because you’ve missed some subtle cues that would have let you tend to their immediate discomfort before it got to that stage. It’s not always possible to be there every second for an infant, but ideally the caregiver is close enough to sense changes in the baby’s internal state and respond quickly. The sense of security this provides will allow the baby to feel comfortable with less and less contact, eventually allowing the healthy separation into a secure childhood. Ignoring your baby’s cries to more quickly train them to sleep through the night is simply not a good idea for the baby’s long-term development.

Attachment Parenting is a controversial movement that takes parental attention and close connection to perhaps an impractical extreme, but the emphasis on meeting the child’s needs by staying closely attuned to the child’s state is scientifically supported.

More on education and child development :

Student Loan Debt: Problems in Divorce
Early Child Development: The High Cost of Abuse and Neglect
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
Free Range Kids vs Paranoid Child Welfare Authorities
Brazilian For-Profit Universities Bring Quality With Quantity
The Affordable, Effective University: Indiana and Mitch Daniels
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
“Attachment Parenting” – Good Idea Taken Too Far?
Real Self-Esteem: Trophies for Everyone?
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Steven Pinker on Harvard and Meritocracy
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities

One comment

  1. I could not agree more! With my two kids I never took a “cry it out” approach as it just did not sit right w my intuition as a mom. I had friends who had kids around the same time who criticized me for “jumping every time the baby cries” and said my kids would be needy and dependent for it, while letting their kids cry and “self-soothe” (at 8 weeks???) would lead to them being self reliant and independent. Now my oldest daughter is 10 and has the courage of a lion and their daughters are timid and insecure (sadly). Cry it out is not the way to go, and responding to your baby will not spoil them. I follow some attachment parenting ideas but not to the extreme. Moderate. Thanks for the post affirming this and encouraging responsive parenting!

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