There are many theories about the best way to react to a crying baby, here are some of the effects of leaving them to “cry it out” backed up by science.
Aside from the obvious maternal feelings, wanting to show your child affection when they are experiencing something they do not understand just seems intuitively correct. However, there are many that believe giving attention to a child when distressed sets them up for a life of dependence and attention seeking.
The truth is, when you start to look, there isn’t any good evidence that supports the idea that leaving babies to cry is a good method for them gaining dependance. The idea came about in the 1880s when the field of medicine had become obsessed with hygiene and the potential of transmitting infections, this led to the conclusion that babies should not be continually touched. (Deborah Blum 2002)
Alongside this, it seems that the idea of leaving a baby to cry comes from more of a selfish motivation (the baby being an inconvenience) than anything else. This was led by John Watson in 1928 when he became president of the American Psychological Association. His school of thought was giving to much love and affection would result in a dependent and time consuming baby, despite intuition and evidence at the time showing the opposite to be the truth.
The government at the time advised that “the mother should stop immediately if her arms feel tired” because “the baby is never to inconvenience the adult.” And 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.”
Before we get into some of the effects I think it is important to define what- leaving your baby to “cry it out” actually means. The method is one in which you emotionally detach from your child and leave them in distress, with the goal of teaching them that crying does not get you attention. This is very different from your baby crying for a short time, while you are occupied with something else.
So what does the evidence actually say about leaving your baby to cry it out?
Neglected Babies Have A Higher Chance Of Dependency Later On In Life.
It is thought that ignoring a child, will lead to them being more dependant, however, another school of thought is it could lead to them needing to raise their voice even louder to be heard. Creating a demanding child who has learned that they need to scream to get their needs met.
A 1994 study (Stein & Newcomb, 1994) showed that caregivers who regularly respond to their babies needs preventing crying and distress are far more likely to have children who are independent than those who are left.
Babies Are Only Learning To “Externally” Manage Distress
Research conducted at the University of North Texas looked at 25 babies ranging in age from 4 to 10 months. The infants took part in a five-day sleep training program, in which the babies were left to cry during sleep time. The researchers took saliva samples and measured cortisol levels.
As a result they found that: Overall, outward displays of internal stress were extinguished by sleep training. However, given the continued presence of distress as evidenced by their physiological response, infants were not learning how to internally manage their experiences of stress and discomfort.
Crying For Prolonged Periods Can Lower Your IQ
A study led by Dr. Rao from the National Institutes of Health concluded: “Excessive, uncontrolled crying that persists beyond 3 months of age in infants without other signs of neurological damage may be a marker for cognitive deficits during childhood.”
The study also found that the children with prolonged crying in the first three months of life “had an adjusted mean IQ that was 9 points lower than the control group” and “significantly poorer fine motor abilities”.
Under Nurtured Children Have Genes Turned Off For Life
Darcia Narvaez Ph.D. shared in her article “Dangers of “Crying It Out” that “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.” Narvaez linked this with the work of Michael Meaney who says “there are hundreds of genes affected by nurturance. Similar mechanisms are found in human brains–caregiver behavior matters for turning genes on and off.”
Touch Stimulates Growth Hormones
In the book “The genetic basis for touch effects” Saul Schaunberg talks about the effects when mothers stop touching their infants. Schaunberg concluded that a lack of touch can result in the halt of DNA synthesis, growth hormone diminishing and your baby entering “survival mode.”
Darcia Narvaez Ph.D also touched upon this saying:
- 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 long term 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 2003).
Neural Pathways Are Damaged
Distress can lead to the conditions for damage to the brain’s synapses, if we then take into account the undeveloped brain of a baby this could potentially lead to an increased risk for these conditions.
Darcia Narvaez Ph.D says:
“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 (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).”
She continues that this can lead to the neurons potentially being “wiped out” during these times of stress. Which in turn could lead to stress reactivity being established as a pattern for life.
Babies can obviously become an inconvenience to the life we are used to, but this is the choice we make when having a child. Babies need love, attention and to be cared for. Not for us to go against every part of our intuitive feeling, just so we can hope to train them into obedience. Everyone has their own parenting method and it could be argued that there is no right method, however, leaving a baby to “cry it out” appears not be a method that is conductive of the growth of the next generation! Thanks for reading and please share this article! Much love, Luke!
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I am Luke Miller the author of this article, and creator of Potential For Change. I like to blend psychology and spirituality to help you create more happiness in your life.Grab a copy of my free 33 Page Illustrated eBook- Psychology Meets Spirituality- Secrets To A Supercharged Life You Control Here