Psychology Today: Crying-It-Out Can Cause Lasting Anxiety

Crying-it-out may not, in fact, create independent sleepers.

In the new issue of Psychology Today, Associate Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame, Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., writes about the dangers of letting a baby “cry it out.”

This controversial practice–which involves letting infants cry themselves to sleep so they learn to “self-soothe” from a very early age– has been debated in America for over over a century. To this day there are passionate arguments for and against crying-it-out which is also sometimes called “controlled crying” or “Ferberizing” after Dr. Ferber’s popular crying-it-out sleep training program.

Narvaez challenges the claims of the cry-it-out advocates with new research about how baby’s brains work. She writes that leaving a baby to cry can cause a lifetime of anxiety and, ironically, a lack of independence in those infants who are put through it.

“With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted—that letting babies cry is a practice that damages children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that letting babies 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 next generation….

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 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 (Stein & Newcomb, 1994). Soothing care is best from the outset. Once patterns get established, it’s much harder to change them.”

This certainly does seem to validate what mothers have instinctively known for years. That we’re made to feel like failures for responding to our babies, and not getting them on schedules lickety split, is very disturbing. It makes us feel torn and resentful, and that resentment can get directed at the baby instead of towards a culture with unreasonable expectations.

But it’s also so important that a discussion about sleep and crying it out include heaps of nuance. There are huge variations in how this practice plays out in real homes with real people. Some babies fuss a little and conk out; others cry to the point of vomiting or exhibiting otherwise extreme stress reactions. These are obviously two totally different scenarios, but both can be called “crying it out.” Likewise, repeated episodes of not responding to a crying baby is one thing, a one-time “letting the baby cry” is another. I would caution any sweeping generalizations by parents and sleep gurus. I know a doctor who recommends “crying it out” as soon as three weeks. I am not alone in thinking this a very dangerous blanket recommendation. Emotional development aside, there’s the issue of disrupting healthy, necessary feedings.  Some babies actually do sleep through the night (5+ consecutive hours) from an early age (pre 6 months). Great. But most babies are not ready for that, and to push them towards it creates all manner of issues as outlined in Narvaez’s article.

Raising a child is all about holding on and letting go– the push and pull, dependence and independence. The slow weaning from comfort (at night, from nursing, etc) is a process. You’re always checking in. Oh, he’s pulling away… oh, he needs more reassurance… Mothers and fathers can find so much more comfort when they look at their baby and the overall balance as oppose to *a prescribed method.*

When I had my first baby I remember calling a friend and saying, I read the sleep books and it seems my choice is, I let him cry-it-out or end up with a kid in my bed forever. But this is not a real choice! There is a much more subtle and complex story about how this can all play out. In our house it ended up being a slow, evolving process. It wasn’t one stark extreme or the other. We did crib and co-sleeping, depending on all kinds of variables. No one cried it out. And now both kids are in their beds asleep at 8PM, in the dark, no major dramas aside from the usual kid stuff. We had hard times, we had doubts we’d ever sleep again but we tried our best to make bedtime a calm, undramatic time of the day. I know a lot of people like us who just muddled though. But by the standards of several sleep books we were flat-out failures. I have no idea when my babies were “sleeping through,” but it definitely wasn’t within the first year.

I know this is a hot-button issue, but I hope one result of reading articles like Narvaez’s is relief. Relief to know that your baby is totally normal for wanting to be soothed. Relief to know that you can get back to the business of holding and comforting your baby without feeling that you’ll be punished for it one day.

And now, I open it to you. Thoughts?


Read the full Psychology Today article here.


Relevant article: Baby Sleep Training– does the cry-it-out method harm kids?

Article Posted 5 years Ago

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