In her book, The Science of Parenting, published by Dorling Kindersley, author Margot Sunderland makes a compelling argument against prolonged crying.
Over the years, there have been many advocates of leaving babies and toddlers to cry. Mothers were told their babies were just “exercising their lungs” or that continually picking up a crying baby would “spoil” it.
More recently spells of crying have been used to train a baby to go to sleep and establish clear bedtime routines. There is no denying that these techniques work.
An uncomfortable child will stop crying eventually if there is no response.
But there are real costs. There is research to support the statement that stress from prolonged crying and separation can affect a baby’s developing brain.
All about crying
Babies are genetically programmed to call out for comfort when distressed.
Crying is your baby’s intense bid for you to help it with its overwhelming feeling and frightening bodily sensations because its brain is not yet developed enough for it to manage these on its own.
Babies do not cry to exercise their lungs, to control you or just for the hell of it. They cry when they are unhappy and need to alert you because something is really bothering them, either physically or emotionally. They cry for your help.
Why babies cry
Four million years ago, humans walked on two legs for the first time. Because this led to the freeing up of their arms to accomplish more complex tasks, over time intelligence increased.
The bipedal shift meant the human pelvis became narrower and, as intellectual capacities increased, the brain grew bigger.
The evolutionary solution regarding childbirth was for the human infant to be born very immature because otherwise the enlarged head would never get through the mother’s narrowed pelvis. So of all mammals, the human is the most immature at birth. In fact, it has to complete its gestation outside the womb.
Sigmund Freud was right when he said the human infant comes into the world “not quite finished”. You need to think of your newborn as an external foetus.
Your baby will cry for many reasons – tiredness, hunger, over-stimulation by adult fussing. It also moves easily into fear of threat and shock – the shock of the too bright, too harsh, too cold, too hot, too sudden.
The amygdala in the lower brain, which functions as a detector of potential threat, is perfectly on line at birth.
Imagine the baby’s world. How can it know that the noisy, liquidiser is not a predator that will come and attack? How can it cope with the shock of being undressed and immersed in water in the bath?
At first it can be hard to work out what the crying means.
But over time you will be able to read the cries more accurately.
What matters is that you calm down the child and that you have the mental and emotional space in your mind to really hear and take seriously its panic and pain.
How long will the crying continue?
The first three months are often the worst. Crying usually peaks when the baby is three to six weeks old and abates at around 12 to 16 weeks. Sheila Kitzinger suggests that crying lessens at this time because, by then, babies are more mobile and can grasp and play with things, so they no longer cry from boredom and frustration.
Older babies and toddlers will still cry when cold, hungry, tired or ill, although the shock of the world has dramatically lessened. But they are awash with new feelings. They suffer from states of panicky separation distress and are increasingly clear about likes and dislikes, what frightens them or displeases them. In the pre-verbal chid, crying often means “no”.
All this panic response means high levels of stress chemical washing over a baby’s brain. These chemicals are not dangerous in themselves, but it’s a different story if they are left swirling around its brain for long periods in bouts of prolonged crying, and no one takes its panic seriously and comforts it.
Distancing yourself from the child’s distress, whatever some sleep training books may tell you, or even worse an angry response to your baby’s crying (although sometimes you may feel like it), is never appropriate.
Let’s be clear at the outset – it is not crying itself that can affect a child’s developing brain. It doesn’t. It is prolonged, uncomforted distress.
Prolonged crying is the type of crying that any sensitive parent (or, for that matter, anyone sensitive to the despair of others) will be able to recognise as a desperate call for help. It is the type of crying that goes on and on and on, eventually stops when the child is either completely exhausted and falls asleep or, in a hopeless state, realises that help is not going to come.
If a baby cries like this too often, a stress response system in its brain may be affected for life.
There is a wealth of scientific studies from all over the world showing how early stress can result in enduring negative changes in a baby’s brain. A child who has experienced periods of prolonged crying can develop an over-sensitive stress-response system that may affect it throughout its life. This can mean that all too often its perception of the world and what is happening to it will be coloured by a sense of threat and anxiety, even when everything is perfectly safe.
Can a baby manipulate or control a parent through crying?
Parents may wonder if their baby is using crying to manipulate them.
To control an adult, a baby needs the power of clear thought, and for that it needs a brain chemical, glutamate, to be working well in its frontal lobes. But the glutamate system is not properly established in a baby’s brain, so that means it’s not capable of thinking much about anything, let alone how to manipulate its parents.
Some parents cut off from their children’s pain and hear it as “just crying”. This can be a result of their own upbringing.
Because no one responded when they were babies, they are now unable to feel their child’s distress.
What’s happening in your baby’s brain?
In a crying baby, the stress hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands.
If the child is soothed and comforted, the level of cortisol goes down again, but if the child is left to cry on and on, the level of cortisol remains high.
This is a potentially dangerous situation, because over a prolonged period of time cortisol can reach toxic levels that may damage key structures and systems in the developing brain.
Cortisol is a slow-acting chemical that can stay in the brain at high levels for hours, and in clinically depressed people for days or even weeks.
The structure in the brain is the hippocampus, found deep within the lower mammalian brain, which plays a role in long-term memory.
In the brain scans of children who have suffered intense uncomforted distress, the hippocampus appears somewhat shrunken because of cell death within its tissues.
Brain scans have shown that the hippocampus of a very stressed child resembles that of an aged person.
Are all children affected the same way?
Science does not have a precise answer to this. Some children may get away with developing a mild neurosis because early stress has altered key systems in their brain, while others with genetic vulnerability and additional life stresses, such as suffering loss or being bullies, may develop a full-blown anxiety or depressive disorder.
Controlled crying entails leaving a young baby or toddler to cry until it falls asleep in an attempt to “extinguish” night wakings. Those pro controlled crying say it is short-lived pain for long-term gain and that babies learn quickly to settle themselves. Those on the other extreme talk about long-term emotional damage as the baby enters a despair state and stops crying out of hopelessness. Both are confusing messages.
Lets look at the sense
When not to think about controlled crying:
There are very good reasons why babies may wake and these real reasons need to be attended to before you can even contemplate any form of sleep training (benign or extreme).
Do not sleep train…
Can controlled crying ever be a reasonable plan?
When a parent’s ability to parent a little one and function is affected negatively by sleep deprivation, there can be a time and place for sleep training.
The key issue in terms of emotional considerations is:
There are three different levels of sleep training
While you may not necessarily hold it much during this process, your presence is a comfort (as long as you remain calm and confident).
How do you sleep train senseably?
If you have gone through the previous list (when not to even think about controlled crying) and feel your baby may be a candidate for sleep training, follow the nine steps in Sleep Sense:
1 Have reasonable expectations for your baby’s age.
2 Set up sensory input (during the day, bedtime and night) that is conducive to good sleep.
3 Set up a sleep zone that encourages sleep.
4 Check that your baby’s nutrition is adequate for a good night’s sleep.
5 Rule out medical causes of night wakings.
6 Set up a good day sleep routine.
7 Ensure your baby’s sleep soothers can be used independently once age-appropriate.
8 Deal with emotional issues, such as separation anxiety.
9 Sleep coach calmly, consistently and collaboratively. - The Mercury