Dangers of “Crying It Out”
Damaging children and their relationships for the longterm.
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).
In the 20th
century, behaviorist John Watson (1928), interested in making
psychology a hard science, took up the crusade against affection as
president of the American Psychological Association. He applied the
mechanistic paradigm of behaviorism to child rearing, warning about the
dangers of too much mother love. The 20th century was the
time when "men of science" were assumed to know better than mothers,
grandmothers and families about how to raise a child. Too much kindness
to a baby would result in a whiney, dependent, failed human being. Funny how "the experts" got away with this with no evidence to back it up! Instead there is evidence all around (then and now) showing the opposite to be true!
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? A parent reported to me recently that he was encouraged to let his baby cry herself to sleep so he "could get his life back."
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.
discredited behaviorist view sees the baby as an interloper into the
life of the parents, an intrusion who must be controlled by various
means so the adults can live their lives without too much bother.
Perhaps we can excuse this attitude and ignorance because at the time,
extended families were being broken up and new parents had to figure out
how to deal with babies on their own, an unnatural condition for
humanity--we have heretofore raised children in extended families. The
parents always shared care with multiple adult relatives.
to a behaviorist view completely ignorant of human development, the
child 'has to be taught to be independent.' We can confirm now that
forcing "independence" on a baby leads to greater dependence. Instead, giving babies what they need leads to greater independence later.
In anthropological reports of small-band hunter-gatherers, parents took
care of every need of babies and young children. Toddlers felt
confident enough (and so did their parents) to walk into the bush on
their own (see Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods, edited by Hewlett & Lamb, 2005).
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.
are often used to study how mammalian brains work and many effects are
similar in human brains. In studies of rats with high or low nurturing
mothers, there is a critical period for turning on genes
that control anxiety for the rest of life. If in the first 10 days of
life you have low nurturing rat mother (the equivalent of the first 6
months of life in a human), the gene never gets turned on and the rat is
anxious towards new situations for the rest of its life, unless drugs are administered to alleviate the anxiety. These
researchers say that there are hundreds of genes affected by
nurturance. Similar mechanisms are found in human brains--caregiver
behavior matters for turning genes on and off. (Work of Michael Meaney
and colleagues; e. g., Meaney, 2001).
should understand the mother and child as a mutually responsive dyad.
They are a symbiotic unit that make each other healthier and happier in
mutual responsiveness. This expands to other caregivers too.
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. (See here for more.)
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 longterm
effects of undercare or need-neglect in babies (e.g., Bremmer et al,
1998; Blunt Bugental et al., 2003; Dawson et al., 2000; Heim et al
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 babu 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
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 (see Allan Schore,
specific references below). 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.
What does extensive baby crying signal?
It shows the lack of experience, knowledge and/or support of the baby's
caregivers. To remedy a lack of information in us all, below is a good
set of articles about all the things that a baby's cry can signal. We
can all educate ourselves about what babies need and the practices that
alleviate baby crying. We can help one another to keep it from happening
as much as possible.
on Feb. 6, 2013 at 7:45 PM