Monday, May 11, 2009

Why It Is Wrong To Leave A Young Baby To Cry

I don't like leaving Cave Baby to cry. When she does cry, I soothe her as soon as possible. That does not mean that I drop everything to get to her: sometimes that would be impractical or dangerous. Sometimes, if she is playing and has dropped a favourite toy, I know she will sort herself out by diverting her attention to something different. And when she is tired, crying is occasionally unavoidable as she goes to sleep. But by and large I calm her down as quickly as I can. I know that without me, her crying would spiral out of control - this happens when she gets upset in the car where I cannot pick her up.

When I first became a parent I was much less sure of myself. I knew it upset me to see my tiny baby crying, but I was worried about "spoiling" her by "giving in" to her crying. Some of our relatives criticised Cave Father for picking our baby up when she cried in her pram. Others told me to wait a few minutes when she cried, just to see if she settled herself down. Fortunately, I ignored this advice and mothered my baby in a way that I felt happy with. The evidence that I did the right thing is there for all to see - Cave Baby has grown from an unsettled, unhappy newborn to a cheerful bouncing 8 month old. But others will still maintain that it is necessary to teach a young baby that it cannot always have attention when it cries. How can I be sure that I did the right thing? How can I convince others that it is wrong to leave a small baby to cry alone?

Once again the answer can be found in Sue Gerhardt's excellent book on brain development, "Why Love Matters" (see my earlier post on gestation for more about this book). She explains that babies are not born with the ability to manage their own emotions. They are born with a basic, functioning brain allowing them to breathe, to track movements, to see faces close up and to react to sensory experiences that appear to threaten their survival. They also have some simple reflexes, like rooting for a nipple, sucking milk, crying and freezing when in danger.

Further processing of basic emotions, such as fear and anger, require areas of the brain (the cortex) that are simply not operational in a newborn - whilst the neurons themselves are present, they need to be connected up to make the brain work. The first part of the cortex to develop in a baby is called the orbitofrontal cortex. Gerhardt explains that this is the part of the brain that can process basic urges, and inhibit or delay inappropriate responses. It is "the basis for our willpower and self-control, as well as our capacity for empathy". She goes on to say:
"It is no good trying to 'discipline' a baby or to expect a baby to control its behaviour, since the brain capacity to do so does not exist. A baby cannot thoughtfully consider his mother's frustration and decide to eat up to keep her happy. His social capacities are mostly potential, not actual at birth. What needs to be written in neon letters lit up against a night sky is that the orbitofrontal cortex, which is so much about being human, develops almost entirely post-natally. This part of the brain develops after birth and doesn't begin to mature until toddlerhood."

Furthermore, it is only after the age of around 10 months that a baby's brain begins to retain images, which mark "the sketchy beginning of an inner life - an inner library of images that can be referred to that will become increasingly complex and loaded with associations and thoughts as the child grows up". The author explains that these inner images provide an important way for a child to manage its own emotions - "they can be used as a guide to behaviour in the absence of the caregiver".

So, until it approaches the end of its first year, a baby is physically incapable of managing its own emotions and "learning" not to cry for attention. In fact research has shown that a baby needs positive experiences in order to grow the advanced parts of the brain that do manage emotion. All that can be achieved by leaving a baby to cry is to raise its levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol during these vulnerable developmental stages can cause the body to misjudge its baseline cortisol level, leading to numerous problems dealing with stress in later life. If the body does not learn in early life what a "normal" cortisol level is, then it develops an abnormal response to cortisol that persists into adulthood, causing conditions such as depression.

Science confirms what instinct tells us - a young baby is quite simply incapable of learning that it is not supposed to cry for attention. It also lacks the brain development to learn to calm itself down. It is pointless, and even damaging, to leave a baby to cry alone (and that includes so-called "controlled crying"). I am satisfied that I have done the right thing by consistently responding to Cave Baby's cries.


Mon said...

Thanks for sharing.

I have never understood how we manage to convince ourselves that leaving a child to cry is a good decision. Well, I DO understand intellectually - the Victorian era has a lot to answer for, as well as the Western ideal of independence. But emotionally, I don't get it.

It's amazing what we expect our babies to deal with on their own. ALL crying should elicit a response. We are their source of security.

Have you read my Aware Baby series? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Mel said...

I am SO understanding your instinct vs. society dilemma..especially when it comes to crying babies. My first was VERY high needs and soothing her instantly was what felt right..even when my attempts did not appear to work. I weathered the 'you'll spoil' her advice as well.....ugh....but I had to to what felt right.

This is a wonderful blog and is taking me on a merry trip down memory lane....I'm just sad that I didn't figure it all out as quickly as you did. Kudos to you....

~brightest blessings~

Cave Mother said...

Mel - thanks for your kind comment.

Holistic Mama - thanks also for your comment. I had read your Aware Baby posts a while ago and actually I have spent quite a bit of time pondering what you said in them. I think the bit I struggle with is the concept that crying is itself a need. If it really is necessary for a baby/toddler to cry sometimes, then letting them get on with it, whilst holding them and showing them you care, seems fair enough. I accept that for an adult, crying can be a means of reducing stress (especially if another person is present). But I do not believe that a newborn cries to release stress - quite the opposite. Crying in a newborn is a stressful, demanding activity. The brain only has so many cortisol receptors and can only deal with a certain amount. Prolonged crying in a young baby overwhelms these cortisol receptors, and cortisol remains circulating in the body. This is what causes the brains cortisol response to go wonky, causing emotional problems in childhood and adulthood. Also I don't believe that by nursing or rocking my baby I am suppressing her need to cry. I think that I am meeting her need to go to sleep. She doesn't yet have the strategies necessary to calm herself down and get herself to sleep.

But if adults do get relief from crying, then there must be some stage of childhood at which we (unconsciously) learn to weep to relieve stress. The question is, at what age does this happen? I have no idea. But there must be some age beyond which children do need to be allowed to have a good cry.

Having said this, I understand why you need to let the Wildflower cry sometimes to help get her off the sleep. In the real, rather than the ideal world, it is sometimes necessary. Cave Baby was terrible with sleep until 3 months when we started taking her out on pram rides to get her to sleep. She used to cry her heart out and fall asleep from exhaustion. It sounds horrible, but it truly was the only way to get her to go to sleep and stay asleep. (Any other way and she would wake up 5 minutes after going to sleep). And the daytime sleep made all the difference to her temperament.

I am a bit wary of criticising ideas unless I have properly read the book and absorbed what the author is trying to say. Battery life about the run out! Need to post this and carry on later!

Cave Mother said...

...continued from last comment.
So in summary, the Aware parenting concept feels a bit wrong to me, but I would not want to judge without knowing more about it.

By the way, I accidentally came across an old posting on Veronika Robinson's (editor of The Mother) blog about the book - she's not keen!

Maternal Tales said...

I remember those days - when every Mother under the sun would tell me to leave my baby to cry. No Way....I didn't care if it meant they were spoiled - I just wanted to make my baby feel betetr and if it meant picking them up and cuddling them, then so be it.

Having said all that, by about 9 months with both of my two girls, we were about 500 miles away from 'sleeping through the night' and with husband away I hanging by a thread. So I tried the 'crying it out' method. It was hideously painful to begin with but after 3 or 4 nights it worked and ever since then they have been amazing sleepers. They now sleep for 13 hours at night and they, as well as I am happy....Other friends who have tried different methods to get their children to sleep well haven't been so successful and they have children of nearly 5 who have yet to sleep through the night. Difficult decisions all round...

Mon said...

Hi again - I would agree with you about newborns. To be honest I wouldn't try the allowing to cry before 3 months of age. After that I do believe the baby is letting off steam. If you notice, it's when the baby begins to interact with the world and build stress.

I don't feel right about letting a baby cry to the point of exhaustion though. Wildflower has never done that for sleep. Just releases any stress, or a little of it any way.

I'll read that link, although I have read other critics of it. Thanks.
Hey, would have loved these thoughts on my posts! lol Dialogue is good for everyone.

Cave Mother said...

Yeah, sorry I didn't post this on your site at the time! To be honest, I needed more time to think about it. If/when you write the next post in the series, I will put a response there.

Cave Mother said...

Maternal Tales - thanks for your comment. I personally feel uncomfortable about 'crying it out', but I know it works for lots of babies. If circumstances mean it is necessary to use some type of sleep training, at least it is kinder on the child to leave it as late as possible, as you did. From what I read, a child approaching the age of a year would be more able to understand that he is not being abandoned than a 6 month old.

It's all about personal choice, and if a mother is fully in touch with her baby and genuinely feels that some gentle sleep training would help her and her baby, then that is what she must do.

Jessica - This Is Worthwhile said...

All very interesting thoughts. My mom has suggested a number of times that "crying lets off steam," but I don't buy it, either (unless, like you mentioned, Cave Mother, it's in my arms).

Of course, there are days now that we're in toddlerhood where he really does seem to want to cry - he's frustrated, mad, angry, etc. I make sure he's in a safe place and I am calm and loving while he get's it all out. Boy, those are fun days haha.

But as an infant, I never let him fret and scream just for crying's sake. I truly believe that, at least for the first year, a baby's wants and needs are one and the same. And crying is one of the most important means for them to communicate. If no one listened to me when I called out, I'd have to wonder about my own desires and my caretakers - am I right to feel this way?? Are they really trustworthy?

I know I'll make plenty of mistakes raising my kids, but I want to rest easy knowing that, if nothing else, I was a kind mother; sensitive, thoughtful, thorough, and empathetic. For me, being kind has meant listening to and answering my son's cries above all else.

Great post - as usual :)

Earthenwitch said...

I agree with your stance on crying. For me, eleven months in, I still don't feel that my daughter cries to release stress - well, OK: she does it from time to time, but I mean, maybe, one cry in fifty - and not attempting to soothe her, whether that is by breastfeeding her, rocking her or swaying her around, would feel deeply wrong to me, and very distressing.

Mon, if you're reading this, I didn't comment on your Aware Baby posts because I believe very strongly that everyone finds their own way with their baby. I don't know you and I don't know the Wildflower, but I do know that you're doing your very best, and if that's what feels right for you, then so be it. I sort of thought 'if you can't say anything nice' regarding commenting, so didn't.

I'll stop hijacking the comments thread now! :)

Amity said...

I did some 'controlled crying' (5-10 minutes at a time) with my first when she was about 8 or 9 months because I was tired of having to rock her in my arms for 45 minutes each time she needed to sleep, and because she was still waking up every 3 hours to nurse. I was, quite simply, exhausted. And I felt that maybe she, as a high needs baby, NEEDED to cry and learn to soothe herself.

I now regret that and wish I'd done with her what I'm doing with my son -- sharing a bed and not worrying about getting him to sleep through the night. I don't fret about his sleep at all. If I'm busy and he won't go down for a nap after two attempts, he either just stays awake or I stick him in the sling or pushchair and get on with it. He usually drifts off at some point, even if it's not in his bed. I definitely view his crying much differently than I did my daughter's and this time what I'm doing feels right.

I think a lot of my exhaustion with my daughter was rooted in societal expectations that I sleep separately from my baby, get up and go to another room every time she needed me. I also allowed others' comments to get to me and was a slave to the baby development books that said she should be doing X or Y by a certain age. I binned those books and am so glad I did. I'm really mothering by instinct now and it is so freeing. My only regret is that I went through all that stress needlessly three years ago.

Thanks for a great post.

Cave Mother said...

Amity, thanks for a great comment! It makes me really happy to read that you have experienced BOTH sides of the controlled crying debate, and feel happier with your current arrangements. I co-sleep too and I find I get enough sleep. I have stopped worrying about how many times she wakes me. The fact is, we are happy with the situation as a family, so how can there be anything wrong with that? You have a really valuable viewpoint, because most people who advocate controlled crying have never tried co-sleeping (and likewise, most co-sleepers have not done controlled crying). Thanks for posting!