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.
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 has been 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." A baby 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."
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."
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
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.
According 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.
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 (potentially 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
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. Soothing care is best from the
outset. Once patterns of distress get established, it's much harder
to change them.
Rats 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 a 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.
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.
popular notion still around today is to let babies "cry it out" when
they are left alone, isolated in cribs or in other devices. This
comes from a misunderstanding of child 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
longterm effects of undercare or need-neglect in babies. Secure
attachment is related to responsive parenting, such as comforting
babies when they wake up and cry at night.
What does 'crying
it out' actually do to the baby and to the dyad?
interconnections are damaged. When the baby is greatly
distressed, it creates conditions for damage to synapses, the
network construction which is ongoing in the infant brain. The
hormone cortisol is released. In excess, it's a neuron killer
but its consequences many not be apparent immediately. 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. 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?
stress reactivity 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 and lack of responsive
parenting, can result in a poorly functioning vagus nerve, which
is related to such disorders as irritable bowel syndrome.
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.
undermined. As developmental psychologist 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 resulting inner emptiness.
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 that guide one to
want to stop child distress, the adult who learns to 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
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, and 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 responsiveness 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 knowledge of (now
great great) 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. These practices are known to facilitate good brain and body
development. When babies display discomfort, it signals that a need
is not being 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. We
can all educate ourselves about what babies need and the practices
that alleviate baby crying. We can help one another to keep crying
from happening as much as possible.
Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., is a
professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and the former
executive editor of the Journal of Moral Education.
Reprinted with permission of the
author. For references and links, please see the
original article on Psychology Today.