Babies: Let ’em cry?

Psychology Today recently published an article on the “Dangers of ‘Crying it out.’” I saw some chatter about it on Facebook, but didn’t have time to read the article or engage the topic initially.

And then a parent asked me what I thought.

So I read the article. And I have plenty to say about it. In some places I agree. In others, not so much. If you’re interested in my thoughts, I’m going to provide a couple of caveats and then dive in. Hang on for the ride.

If psychology and research sound like blah blah blah mumbo jumbo did you suddenly lapse into Chinese, this may or may not be the post for you. You have been warned.

Caveat 1: Parenting is an INCREDIBLY hard job. It’s the hardest–and hopefully most rewarding–work people do.

Caveat 2: Every child is different. Every parent is different. You have to find the parenting practices that work for you and your child. ***Please note that ANY form of abuse or neglect is NOT a viable parenting practice.

That said, here we go.

The article was written by Darcia Narvaez, PhD. She’s an evolutionary psychologist. Although there are parts of evolutionary psych I can get behind, most of it gets dumped by most psychologists who aren’t of the evolutionary persuasion.

The article appeared in Psychology Today. Although this magazine has some good stuff at times, a practicing psychologist referring to Psychology Today as his or her first line for empirical information about…well…anything is akin to a sex therapist relying on Cosmo for advice for his or her clients. Psychology Today is not a research publication. It is neither peer reviewed nor refereed. It is a publication in pop psychology.

But let’s not diminish entirely the knowledge of Dr. Narvaez. Here’s where I (and LOTS of good, quality research that has been published in peer reviewed, refereed journals) agree:

  • Babies grow from being held. This is one of the reasons kangaroo care has been incredibly successful for premature infants.
  • Babies are not able to communicate verbally, so they gesture and, if necessary cry to get the attention of their caregivers in order to get their needs met. Once they have gotten what they need, they are calm again.
  • There ARE longterm effects of undercare or need-neglect in babies…and in children of all ages. (More on that in a minute.)
  • Secure attachment IS related to responsive parenting.
  • When a baby–or child…or adult–is stressed, cortisol is released, which can have physiological ramifications.
  • Disordered stress reactivity can be established as a long-term pattern (not necessarily for life).
  • Self-regulation can be undermined when parents don’t respond. But parents have to do a LOT of not responding for this to occur.
  • Caregiver responsiveness is related to a lot of positive child outcomes and positive adjustment.

WE CAN NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF POSITIVE PARENTING BEHAVIOR. These behaviors include warmth, sensitivity to your child and his or her needs, positive interactions with your child.

Narvaez cites several articles/books along the evolutionary psych lines. I didn’t look those up. What I DID spend time looking through was some of the stuff from the journal Development and Psychopathology. One article that was cited in particular is worth noting. I’ll spare you the summary I originally wrote because of its length. But here are the major take home points:

Ultimately, critics agree that our understanding of neurobiology and the effects of early experience on developmental outcomes is still new. We don’t know enough to make definitive statements. Here’s what we DO know:

  • A SIGNIFICANT amount of growth and development occurs in multiple areas of a child’s functioning in prenatal and early postnatal years.
  • These early years are likely a critical/sensitive period for children regarding the effects of exposure to toxins, nutrition and–possibly–stress.
  • If a child has some type of neurological disorder such as PKU or autism, this period seems to be a sensitive period for long-term beneficial effects of early intervention on brain development and behavior.
  • Parental mental health during this period is a significant factor regarding early brain activity and behavior in children, as well as long-term adjustment and outcomes.

Another thing we know:

  • Not every child with a good beginning winds up in a good place. Conversely, not every child with a bad beginning winds up in a bad place. There are lots of terms for these things. About the latter, it’s called resilience, folks. And determining the risk factors that detract from and protective factors that contribute to resilience is the stuff of which careers are made.

A few other issues with the Psychology Today article.

Narvaez NEVER defines “crying it out.”

  • I am not a proponent for neglect or abuse. Letting a child “cry it out” all. the. time. and never responding to his or her needs IS neglect, friends. And prolonged neglect and abuse DOES change one’s neural wiring. It DOES have long-term negative effects. Letting a two year old “cry it out” in a tantrum–assuming the child is not doing anything to intentionally harm him/herself–likely will not have long term negative effects. Letting an infant “cry it out” at bed time–assuming all other needs have been met and the child has not moved in the crib into a position that compromises safety (Thanks be for video monitors)–likely will not have long term negative effects. NEVER responding to your child who wakes up crying in the middle of the night–that’s a problem. NEVER responding to your child when he or she indicates a need–that’s a problem. Because it DOES compromise self-regulation (which children learn from primary caregivers, folks). It DOES increase cortisol, which affects neurobiology. It DOES create a long-term pattern of negative stress reactivity.

Narvaez NEVER talks about balance.

  • Let’s assume for a minute that you have an established bedtime routine with your child–which should start when they are infants. (If you DON’T have a routine, try it out and see if it makes bedtime different in some way.) Let’s assume that this routine incorporates some down-regulating of energy. It may be kicked off by bath time, followed by a soothing rubdown with that Johnson & Johnson or Aveeno nighttime lotion with the lavender smell. How about a book? A few cuddles? Then the child is put in his or her bed with maybe a back rub and a song or two. Then the parent leaves. And the child cries. The child has not compromised his or her safety. All other needs have been met. And you let the child “cry it out.” Let’s also assume that, when the child IS awake, you are positive and engaging with your child, that you meet your child’s needs as quickly as possible. That you create a warm, secure, enriching environment for your child. Is there harm in letting your child “cry it out” at bed time then?

Here’s the other thing about soothing which was NEVER mentioned. Every child is different. Every parent is different. A child’s time to soothe (i.e., the time it takes for the child to calm down) will vary by child. If your child has a difficult temperament, the experience will be more challenging for the parent who feels exhausted, incompetent, and helpless because they can’t ever soothe their own baby for crying out loud. And the parent can become less inclined to engage with the child and less inclined to soothe distress. If this continues to occur over time, it CAN lead to psychopathology (e.g., anxiety, depression, attachment difficulties) (note I did not say psychopath…as in Silence of the Lambs. We have this generic label of psychopathology for ALL disorders lumped together).

One of the leading infant researchers, T. Berry Brazelton, suggests that if parents strike a balance between letting an infant cry for a brief period (i.e., 5-10 minutes) and providing comfort, babies gradually learn to soothe themselves better.

One of the parents who discussed the Psychology Today article on the Facey Face said that she and her husband basically do just that. If the baby cries, the wait a bit, then go in, rub her back and help relocate the pacifier. The baby calms down and they can leave. Sometimes return trips are necessary. The more regularly they do this, however, the less they are having to do it at all.

I know parents who let their baby “cry it out” at bedtime, and the parents found, in the long run, that bedtime became easier over time and that the baby grew into a competent, well-adjusted child/teen/adult (raises hand). I also know parents who respond to every cry or expressed “need” at bedtime and STILL have difficulty with putting their child to bed (i.e., the child is harder to put to bed) 3, 4, 5, or more years later.

Again, this is a practice that will vary by parent. And child. And you have to find what works (within reason, folks) because SLEEP IS IMPORTANT. I cannot stress that enough. But you also have to find balance and ways to engage in positive parenting behaviors with your child(ren). Because ultimately, that’s what seems to make all the difference in the world.


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