Letting babies "cry it out" is an idea that has been around since at
least the 1880s when the field of medicine was in a hullaballoo about
germs and transmitting infection and so took to the notion that babies
should rarely be touched (see
, for a great review of this time
period and attitudes towards childrearing).
In the 20th
century, behaviorist John Watson (1928), interested in making psychology
a hard science, took up the crusade against affection as president of
the American Psychological Association. He applied the mechanistic
paradigm of behaviorism to child rearing, warning about the dangers of
too much mother love. The 20th century was the time when "men
of science" were assumed to know better than mothers, grandmothers and
families about how to raise a child. Too much kindness to a baby would
result in a whiney, dependent, failed human being. Funny how
"the experts" got away with this with no evidence to back it up!
Instead there is evidence all around (then and now) showing the
opposite to be true!
pamphlet from the time recommended that "mothering meant
holding the baby quietly, in tranquility-inducing positions" and that
"the mother should stop immediately if her arms feel tired" because "the
baby is never to inconvenience the adult." Babies 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." (See Blum, 2002.)
Don't these attitudes sound familiar? A
parent reported to me recently that he was encouraged to let his
baby cry herself to
sleep so he "could get his life back."
neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for
granted---that letting babies get distressed is a practice that
can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the
long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way
to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative
and alienated person who can pass the same or worse traits on to the
The discredited behaviorist view sees the baby as an interloper into
the life of the parents, an intrusion who must be controlled by various
means so the adults can live their lives without too much bother.
Perhaps we can excuse this attitude and ignorance because at the time,
extended families were being broken up and new parents had to figure out
how to deal with babies on their own, an unnatural condition for
humanity--we have heretofore raised children in extended families. The
parents always shared care with multiple adult relatives.
According to a behaviorist view completely ignorant of human
development, the child 'has to be taught to be independent.' We can
confirm now that forcing "independence" on a baby leads to greater
dependence. Instead, giving babies what they need leads to
greater independence later. In anthropological reports of
small-band hunter-gatherers, parents took care of every need of babies
and young children. Toddlers felt confident enough (and so did their
parents) to walk into the bush on their own (see Hunter-Gatherer
Childhoods, edited by Hewlett & Lamb, 2005).
Ignorant behaviorists then and now encourage parents to condition the
baby to expect needs NOT to be met on demand, whether feeding or
comforting. It's assumed that the adults should 'be in charge' of the
relationship. Certainly this might foster a child that doesn't ask for
as much help and attention (withdrawing into depression and going into
stasis or even wasting away) but it is more likely to foster a whiney,
unhappy, aggressive and/or demanding child, one who has learned that one
must scream to get needs met. A deep sense of insecurity is likely to
stay with them the rest of life.
The fact is that caregivers who habitually respond to the
needs of the baby before the baby gets distressed, preventing crying,
are more likely to have children who are independent than the opposite
(e.g., Stein & Newcomb, 1994). Soothing care is best
from the outset. Once patterns get established, it's much harder to
Rats are often used to study how mammalian brains work and many
effects are similar in human brains. 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 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,
drugs are administered to alleviate the anxiety.
These researchers say that there are hundreds of genes affected by
nurturance. Similar mechanisms are found in human brains--caregiver
behavior matters for turning genes on and off. (Work of Michael Meaney
and colleagues; e. g., Meaney, 2001).
We should understand the mother and child as a mutually
responsive dyad. They are a symbiotic unit that make each other
healthier and happier in mutual responsiveness. This expands to other
One strangely popular notion still around today is to let
babies 'cry it out' when they are left alone, isolated in cribs
or other devices. This comes from a misunderstanding of child and brain
- Babies grow from being held. Their bodies get dysregulated when
they are physically separated from caregivers. (See
here for more.)
- 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 longterm 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).
What does 'crying it out' actually do to the baby and to the
Neurons die. When the baby is greatly distressed,
the toxic hormone cortisol is released. It's a neuron killer Panksepp,
1998). 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). Who knows what neurons are
not being connected or being wiped out during times of extreme
stress? What deficits might show up years later from such regular
distressful experience? (See my addendum below.)
Disordered stress reactivity can be established as a pattern
for life not only in the brain with the stress response system
(Bremmer et al, 1998), but also in the body through the vagus nerve, a
nerve that affects functioning in multiple systems (e.g., digestion).
For example, prolonged distress in early life, resulting in a poorly
functioning vagus nerve, is related disorders as irritable bowel
syndrome (Stam et al, 1997). See more about how early stress is toxic
for lifelong health from the recent Harvard report,
The Foundations of Lifelong Health are Built in Early Childhood).
Self-regulation is undermined. The baby is absolutely
dependent on caregivers for learning how to self-regulate. Responsive
care---meeting the baby's needs before he gets distressed---tunes the
body and brain up for calmness. When a baby gets scared and a parent
holds and comforts him, the baby builds expectations for soothing, which
get integrated into the ability to self comfort. Babies don't
self-comfort in isolation. If they are left to cry alone, they learn to
shut down in face of extensive distress--stop growing, stop feeling,
stop trusting (Henry & Wang, 1998).
Trust is undermined.
pointed out, the first year of
life is a sensitive period for establishing a sense of trust in the world,
the world of
and the world of self. When a baby's needs are met without
distress, the child learns that the world is a trustworthy place, that
relationships are supportive, and that the self is a positive entity that
can get its needs met. When a baby's needs are dismissed or ignored, the
child develops a sense of mistrust of relationships and the world. And
self-confidence is undermined. The child may spend a lifetime trying to fill
the inner emptiness.
Caregiver sensitivity may be harmed.
A caregiver who learns to ignore baby crying, will likely learn to ignore
the more subtle signaling of the child's needs. Second-guessing intuitions
to stop child distress, the adult who ignores baby needs practices and
increasingly learns to "harden the heart." The reciprocity between caregiver
and babu is broken by the adult, but cannot be repaired by the young child.
The baby is helpless.
to the needs of the baby is related to most if not all positive
. In our work caregiver responsiveness is related to
, empathy, lack of aggression or
, social competence. Because responsiveness is so
powerful, we have to control for it in our studies of other
practices and child outcomes. The importance of caregiver
responsivness is common knowledge in developmental psychology Lack of
responsiveness, which "crying it out" represents. can result in the opposite
of the afrementioned positive outcomes.
The 'cry it out' approach seems to
have arisen as a solution to the dissolution of extended family life in the
20th century. The vast
wisdom of grandmothers was lost in the distance between households with
children and those with the experience and expertise about how to raise them
well. The wisdom of keeping babies happy was lost between generations.
But isn't it normal for babies to cry?
No. A crying baby in our ancestral environment would have signaled
predators to tasty morsels. So our evolved parenting practices alleviated
baby distress and precluded crying except in emergencies. Babies are built
to expect the equivalent of an "external womb" after birth (see
Allan Schore, specific references below). What
is the external womb? ---being held constantly, breastfed on demand, needs
met quickly (I have numerous posts on these things). These practices are
known to facilitate good
brain and body development (discussed with references in other posts,
some links below). When babies display discomfort, it signals that a need is
not getting met, a need of their rapidly growing systems.
What does extensive baby crying signal? It shows the
lack of experience, knowledge and/or support of the baby's caregivers. To
remedy a lack of information in us all, below is a good set of articles
about all the things that a baby's cry can signal. We can all educate
ourselves about what babies need and the practices that alleviate baby
crying. We can help one another to keep it from happening as much as
Check these out:
How to soothe babies:
Soothing babies crying "for no reason":
Soothing babies who have "colic":
Science of Parenting, an inexpensive,
photo-filled, easy-to-read book for parents by Margot Sunderland, has much
more detail and references on these matters. I keep copies on hand to give
to new parents.
Here is a terrific post on co-sleeping (the abandoned practice that is
behind notions of leaving babies to cry it out) by my esteemed colleague,
Much more about co-sleeping research is here at
the website of my colleague, James McKenna.
More on babies' and children's needs
Giving babies what they need is really a basic right of babies.
here for more rights I think babies should expect. And see
here for a new book by Eileen Johnson on the
emotional rights of babies.
ADDENDUM: I was raised in a middle-class family with a depressed mother,
harsh father and overall emotionally unsupportive environment--not unlike
others raised in the USA. I have only recently realized from extensive
reading about the effects of early parenting on body and brain development
that I show the signs of undercare--poor
memory (cortisol released during distress harms hippocampus
development), irritable bowel and other poor vagal tone issues, and high
social anxiety. The USA has epidemics of poor physical and mental health
(e.g., UNICEF, 2007; USDHSS, 1999; WHO/WONCA, 2008). The connection between
the lack of ancestral parenting practices and poor health outcomes has been
documented for touch, responsiveness, breastfeeding, and more (Narvaez et
al., in press). If we want a strong country and people, we've got to pay
attention to what children need for optimal development.
Blum, D. (2002). Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of
Affection. New York: Berkeley Publishing
Blunt Bugental, D. et al. (2003). The hormonal costs of subtle forms of
Hormones and Behaviour, January, 237-244.
Bremmer, J.D. et al. (1998). The effects of
stress on memory and the hippocampus throughout the life cycle:
childhood development and
aging. Developmental Psychology, 10, 871-885.
Dawson, G., et al. (2000). The role of early experience in shaping
behavioral and brain development and its implications for social policy.
Development and Psychopathology, 12(4), 695-712.
Catharine R. Gale, PhD, Finbar J. O'Callaghan, PhD, Maria Bredow, MBChB,
Christopher N. Martyn, DPhil and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and
Team (October 4, 2006). "The Influence of Head Growth in Fetal Life,
Childhood on Intelligence at the Ages of 4 and 8 Years". PEDIATRICS Vol.
118 No. 4 October 2006, pp. 1486-1492.
Heim, C. et al. (1997). Persistent changes in corticotrophin-releasing
factor systems due to early life stress: Relationship to the pathophysiology
of major depression ad
post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 185-192.
Henry, J.P., & Wang, S. (1998). Effects of early stress on adult
affiliative behavior, Psychoneuroendocrinology 23( 8), 863-875.
Hewlett, B., & Lamb, M. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods.New York:
Meaney, M.J. (2001). Maternal care,
expression, and the transmission of individual differences in
reactivity across generations. Annual Review of
Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore,
A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (in press). Evolution, Early Experience and
Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience. New York: Oxford University
Schore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and
development of a predisposition to
psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9,
Schore, A.N. (2000).
and the regulation of the right brain. Attachment & Human
Schore, A.N. (2001). The effects of early
trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental
health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22, 201-269.
Stam, R., et al. (1997). Trauma and the gut: Interactions between
stressful experience and intestinal function. Gut.
Stein, J. A., & Newcomb, M. D. (1994). Children's internalizing and
externalizing behaviors and maternal health problems. Journal of
Pediatric Psychology, 19(5), 571-593.
UNICEF (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child
well-being in rich countries, a comprehensive assessment of the lives and
well-being of children and adolescents in the economically advanced nations,
Report Card 7. Florence, Italy: United Nations Children's Fund
Innocenti Research Centre.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (1999).
Mental health: A report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: Center
for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National
Institute of Mental Health.
Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological Care of Infant and Child.
New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc.
WHO/WONCA (2008). Integrating mental health into primary care: A
global perspective. Geneva and London: World Health Organization and
World Organization of Family Doctors.