Puck & Pearl: Exploring Childhood & Parenting

Puck & Pearl

Sleep and Babies: Should I let my baby cry it out?

So much is written about sleep and babies. ZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Should I let my baby cry herself to sleep or do I respond to her every cry when she wakes?

As a psychologist, I had little to zero knowledge of the topic of sleep training. Most of my training in  child development focused on the attachment literature (Bowlby, Ainsworth, Main), with an emphasis on creating a “secure attachment style” for the growing infant in order to ensure mental well being (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory).

So, what was I to do?

Well, I did the natural thing: 1) I turned to friends, and family, 2) I tried to revisit the scientific theory and research on the topic (albeit in a cursory manner due to time constraints of parenting A), and 3) then I checked back with my own gut on the matter.

First I turned to friends. Several parenting friends swear by the cry-it-out method. They laugh at young parents who are unable to tolerate their child’s crying, though they admit that it was initially very difficult for them as well. They’ve gotten used to it, and frankly they say they have the result of a well-trained sleeper as proof that it’s worth enduring a few nights of crying.  When their child regresses and falls out of a routine, they go right back to the tried and tested method.

In her blog “The Science of Mom”, Alice Callahn, Ph.D. writes about her own success with the Ferber method, and crying-it-out (CIO),(CIO and Science of MOM) which reflects many moms’ experiences, including my friend’s and sister-in-law’s.

But, Allice Callahan also mentions the controversy that has recently surrounded CIO, and the research that suggests the increase in cortisol in the infant as she cries herself to sleep. Cortisol is a stress hormone that can have deleterious effects on the body and brain cells.  So, is it really harmful to let my baby cry himself to sleep?  Does this explain why Alice Callahan starts off this post as a confessional?

In a Psychology Today blog post, Narvaez documents some of the harmful effects of allowing a baby to cry. She cites some science and some psychological theory to explain that in their first phase of life babies are trying to develop trust in the world- allowing them to cry themselves to sleep diminishes that trust, and has negative effect on their brain and other organs. Narvaez also claims that we are biologically primed to immediately stop a baby’s cries, since in the past a baby’s cry would attract unwanted predators and endanger the whole clan. Her argument culminates in what reads like a downright accusation- she states that significant crying in babies is proof of lack of caregiver responsiveness and support.

After considering the above material, I checked back in with my GUT.  This is what my gut had to say:

1) Crying leads to neuronal damage?  That doesn’t feel right at all.  My intuition says that for a baby to lose brain cells her cries would have to reach fever pitch intensity.  I can’t imagine that all cries lead to a high stress response in the body.  I would have to look more closely at the studies to see how they measured crying, and whether all crying was deemed to lead to brain damage.

2) I bet each baby has a different experience with the Ferber method, with some crying too intensely in reaction to the method, and others taking well to it.

3) That said, it feels counter-intuitive to let my baby cry herself to sleep.  Every pore of my body wants to respond to A when he cries.  It seems like the more caring and responsive thing to do.

{After writing the first part of this post, I then went to sleep and woke up in the middle of the night with some memories and sensations.  This changed some of my initial reactions to the material.  Here are some of my impressions post sleep:

I woke up remembering that I had recently asked my mom if she let us cry ourselves to sleep or if she responded to our every cry.  Of course, she confirmed my suspicion that she could not tolerate our crying, just as she could not tolerate when A’s, her grandson’s cries. In fact, I witnessed that A crying so much in the first couple of months made her not want to take care of him. She was feeling bad about herself that she could not soothe him.

That really got me thinking. In many cases mothers are quick to respond to their baby’s cries in order to immediately reduce their own discomfort and anxiety, not necessarily because they are so “responsive” to baby, as Navaraez might suggest. When I reflect back, most of my childhood involved not expressing my emotions to my mother so as not to cause her discomfort. From my mother’s response to me early on, somehow she had communicated a strong message: “Please don’t cry”; “I can’t tolerate you suffering”. These are sentiments that I think many mothers can identify with.  What was the consequence of my internalizing these messages?  I was an extremely well-behaved child.  There was little to no crying in my youth. There was no complaining that I wanted things to be different, and there was an acute awareness that certain things that I may want would distress my mother, so I just talked myself out of them.  So had my mother succeeded by responding to my every cry and thus preventing me from crying? Did she really save a bunch of my brain neurons, and was I really better off?

Wow. That made me really question my initial (pre-sleep) assumption that a more caring, responsive mother is the one who responds to her baby’s every cry. It reminded me that it really is not so simple, and depends on so many factors in the situation. Allowing to cry or not allowing to cry can mean different things completely. If in my stopping Adar’s crying I am telling him that I can’t handle his distress that is different than my responding to his cries in an attempt to understand what is distressing him and seeing if I can help. Also, perhaps in certain situations the more caring thing is to let the baby cry, even if they don’t understand that. For instance, if the baby wants to do something that is dangerous, or if she wants to stay up all night. The message can be clear: I love you, and because I care about you, you can’t do that! You can continue to cry, but I will not let you do that.
Still, in that situation it feels better to me personally to remain in the baby’s presence when they are crying in order to communicate care/love/concern despite not letting the kid have what she wants. At a later age, if the baby cries and has a tantrum that persists for a long time, sometimes it’s better not to give those cries too much attention and to let them die down on their own.  In that case, I might want to leave the room.}

MY BOTTOM LINE as a result of some of these thoughts is that there is no clear answer as to whether to let cry or don’t let cry. It’s important for parents to be honest with themselves and understand what they bring to the table, good and bad. Their own anxieties, exhaustion, exasperation, need for control, attention and validation, on the one hand, and their love, care, concern on the other. THAT WAY, THEY CAN MORE EASILY ASSESS WHETHER THE MORE CARING AND RESPONSIVE THING TO DO IN THE MOMENT IS TO LET CRY OR NOT LET CRY.

I can imagine the Ferber method working well in some families, with baby’s cries not mounting to the kind of crescendo that would lead to a stress response that damages neurons. For other babies the Ferber method might prove too stressful. I do like some of the alternative methods to Ferber’s that encourage the parents to be present while baby cries, to communicate that they are still there and are not abandoning the child. (To read more about the pros and cons of the Ferber method, and some alternative methods read this on-line article here.)

I think timing of the sleep training method is also critical. One method might be appropriate for one developmental stage and not another. Ferber is not recommended before six months of age. Again, it’s the age of the child that can determine whether the caring thing to do is to let cry or not let cry.

IN CONCLUSION, let’s face it: it’s not as if we can really control whether baby cries or doesn’t cry. It’s not as if picking her up and trying to soothe her is always a sure thing anyway….But at the end of the day, whether I let A cry or not,  I want to express the following two strong feelings from the bottom of my heart:

1)  To A: I love you, I care about you,  I am here for you, whether you’re in a good mood or not. I can tolerate your distress, it doesn’t send me into anxiety.  It’s okay for you to be sad, or mad, or frustrated, and I will do my best to help.   Sometimes you’ll find that I can help alleviate your distress, but sometimes I can’t.  Then there are other times where it’s best if I don’t, because I think that what you want is not in your best interest.

2) To myself: Despite  doing what I think is best for my baby, I will make mistakes. But that’s okay, I can live with imperfection.  Punishing myself for the mistakes I make won’t help my baby.  I’m okay being the “good enough mom”.

What’s your bottom line when it comes to sleep and your baby?  How do you feel about letting your baby cry it out?


One comment on “Sleep and Babies: Should I let my baby cry it out?

  1. Pingback: Sleep at 18 Months | Becoming Mom

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