A much debated area of parenting is whether we should let the baby cry occasionally, or comfort and cuddle him when he starts to cry. I have been given the advice to let my baby cry, it’s good for him, it strengthens his lungs; but nothing felt as unbelievably unnatural and upsetting (both for me and the baby) as this practice. The advice came from loving, well-meaning family members, who have been parents themselves, and they only wanted the best for me, but I just couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t the best. “Babies are crafty” and “they will try to manipulate you” and “before you know it he’s going to rule in this house” and similar comments were made, a tone almost implying that babies are our little enemies, so to speak, and we can’t let them win. But I wasn’t at war with my baby… I just wanted to love him. In the end I fortunately decided to go against this advice and always comforted him when he started to cry; after all, even grown-ups need a hug when they cry, right?
But let’s see both sides of the debate first. Those who argue that babies should be left to cry a little bit usually see this as baby training, i.e. training the baby to learn to sooth himself without the parents’ help. This method has been around for a long time, mainly due to the popularity of the psychological movement of behaviourism in the early twentieth century. Behaviourists such as Watson (1928) believed that child rearing should be based on science instead of motherly love, and stated that too much love and affection will result in a dependent, whiny child who will grow into a failed adult. Blum (2002) gives a great account of this period when mothers were instructed to have minimal contact with their babies, never to hold them too long and teach them instead to sit quietly in their cribs.
Though not in quite a drastic form, but baby-training is still popular to this day. It is also known as the “cry-it-out” method and it’s supposed to teach babies to self-soothe. This can indeed be useful at night when after having been left to cry the baby will eventually stop waking up and crying because he will learn that it’s useless, he is not going to get any help. Cruel as it sounds, it does work, and it has been general practice for decades. This method is supposed to help the mother get more sleep from the beginning, help her “get her life back”, and it even argues that this way the baby gets more sleep as well; but it disregards why the baby sleeps through the night instead of waking up. And the answer is that the baby simply gives up hope; he thinks he’s crying in vain and no help will arrive. A baby raised in a strict routine will cry less and less as they give up and adjust to a world where they’re not responded to. This kind of anxiety then can follow the person throughout his life.
With the help of neuroscience it is now confirmed that letting babies cry regularly damages neuronal interconnections. The elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol interferes with the rapid brain development of the baby and in excess it is a neuron killer (Thomas et al 2007). Caregiver behaviour and nurturance also affects the turning on or off of the genes responsible for controlling anxiety. Meaney (2001) argue that there is a critical period for turning on these genes, and how anxiety is handled will be established for the rest of life. Disordered stress reactivity as a pattern for life can affect general health and the functioning of other systems in the body, not just the brain (Harvard University, 2010). Digestion, for example, is one of them, with prolonged distress in early life being linked to irritable bowel syndrome in later life (Stam et al 1997).
The fear of behaviourists that greater dependence in childhood will result in greater dependence in adulthood has since been proven wrong. Research found that children with responsive caregivers who didn’t let them be distressed and cry extensively are more likely to grow into independent adults (Stein and Newcomb 1994).
It is also very damaging to the baby’s self-esteem when his only means of communication (crying) is ignored and it can cause psychological problems that will last well into adulthood. If however a baby’s needs are met on a regular basis, he will learn that the world is a trustworthy place and develops a sense of trust of relationships and a healthy self-confidence.
A baby’s cry means he is trying to communicate something to us, whether he’s hungry, sleepy, lonely, bored or in pain is for the mother to decide, but the baby needs the reassurance that his cry is heard, understood, and help will arrive. This is the only way he will learn that he is a valuable human being worthy of attention and his self-esteem will grow.
Blum, D. (2002): Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. New York: Penguin.
Harvard University (2010): “The Foundations of Lifelong Health Are Built in Early Childhood”. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/index.php/resources/reports_and_working_papers/foundations-of-lifelong-health/
Meaney, M. J. (2001): “Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations”. Annual Review of Neuroscience. 24. 1161-1192.
Stam, R., Akkermans, L. M. and Wiegant, V. M. (1997): “Trauma and the gut: interactions between stressful experience and intestinal function”. Gut. 40 (6). 704-709.
Stein, J. A. and Newcomb, M. D. (1994): “Children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviors and maternal health problems”. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. 19 (5). 571-593.
Thomas, R. M., Hotsenpiller, G. and Peterson, D. A. (2007): “Acute Psychosocial Stress Reduces Cell Survival in Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis without Altering Proliferation”. The Journal of Neuroscience. 27 (11). 2734-2743.
Watson, J. B. (1928): Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc.