The problem with letting them cry it out
My wife recently attended a mothers’ group and the topic of letting babies ‘cry it out’ came up. One woman proclaimed, “I refuse to get up in the night. I teach my baby from day one that if she wants to cry at night, she’s on her own. I’m not going to respond. She has to learn that night-time is for sleeping.”
‘Crying it out’ means that when our baby is upset, we leave the infant alone to ‘get over’ whatever it is that is upsetting him. Many parents think that when their baby is irritable, the child should be left alone to cry it out. Reasons include:
- to learn to self-soothe, sort himself out, or to go to sleep.
- too much kindness and responsiveness might result in a child that is clingy, whiny, and constantly wanting attention and entertainment.
- they are concerned that if their child is dependent on them, the child will never become independent.
- so the parents can ‘get their life back’.
These views are wrong.
Well-meaning, but very wrong
Ignorant (though well-meaning) proponents of crying it out encourage parents to teach their child NOT to expect her needs to be met. While this might be convenient for parents, research tells us that crying it out is likely to foster a whiny, unhappy, aggressive, demanding child who feels needs cannot be met without screaming.
Our understanding of neuroscience, child development, relationship growth and wellbeing has advanced enormously since crying it out was first promoted in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And it seems that parents had it right well before the experts of this era got in the way. (It’s worth noting that the experts of the early 1900s were speaking without any evidence.)
With scientific developments, we can confirm that letting babies get distressed can damage them. How?
- Letting babies get distressed can impact on their relationships throughout life.
- It can impact on intelligence.
- It can impact on health.
- It can increase anxiety.
- It can increase uncooperative behaviour.
It is a fact that when parents quickly and compassionately respond to their baby’s needs BEFORE the baby gets distressed, they have children who develop greater independence and wellbeing both in childhood and later in life.
Here are some other useful facts to dispel the notion that crying it out is a wise strategy:
- Babies who are not held may not grow to their potential, both physically and intellectually (see here for other important ideas related to this point).
- Babies actually calm down when their needs are met. By ignoring them, we put them through terrible anguish before they finally ‘give up’. Note that they do not regulate or soothe themselves. Instead, they retreat into a world of helplessness and anxiety, and show the signals of a depressed person.
- Responsive parenting grows children who have a secure attachment.
Additionally, researchers have demonstrated that crying it out:
- Hampers a child’s ability to self-regulate (or self-soothe).
- Reduces parents’ sensitivity to children’s needs– emotional and otherwise.
- Reduces trust between a child and parent.
- Teaches a child that the appropriate response to stress is via screaming, lashing out, or alternatively through withdrawing inward and feeling helpless.
- Is related to brain development and function.
But aren’t babies supposed to cry?
Crying is a signal that something is wrong. Babies only cry in an emergency. If the baby is crying, they need us to help them. They have an unmet need – whether it is pain, hunger, exhaustion, illness, or their nappy is soiled or wet – and they need a response! Parents who do not respond in productive and compassionate ways either lack knowledge and skills, or they lack the support they need (such as in the case of a mother dealing with postnatal depression). In any of these situations, such parents don’t need judgement, but support.
Research tells us that when we do respond quickly to our children’s needs rather than letting them cry it out, our babies grow healthily – emotionally, socially, and physically.
(Extra caution: please be aware that researchers are in almost absolute agreement that crying it out should NOT be attempted with any child under the age of six months.)
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This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz