A common sleep training technique is to leave babies to cry themselves to sleep – for however long it takes. Doula Donna Bland explains what happens when you take this approach.
Leaving a baby to “cry it out”, simply means letting a baby cry alone for as long as it takes to self-soothe or to fall asleep.
Crying is how babies communicate with their parents. It is normal for babies to have bouts of crying, but prolonged crying and lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on a household, and sometimes action needs to be taken to resolve the problem.
We need to look at this topic in context to a baby’s age, however, because a newborn’s needs are quite different to that of an older baby or toddler.
Newborns are born with the expectation of the equivalent of an external womb. Having their needs met quickly, being fed on demand and held constantly is all part of this. The result is a content baby with good brain and body development.
Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), often defined as skin-to-skin care, has almost become the norm after birth. This is when your baby is placed belly-down, directly on your chest, wearing only a nappy. It has been proven to be effective in reducing the risk of mortality, particularly among pre-term and low birth weight infants.
It can also be extremely effective in bonding and improving breastfeeding outcomes. It gives the baby a sense of comfort and assurance that they will be loved and cared for, especially seeing that they have recently undergone such a sudden and drastic change of environment.
In some cases, if a baby or mother needs medical assistance, they may be separated for an extended period after the birth. In this case, a baby may cry uncontrollably, communicating that they want to be reunited with their mother. If the baby is left to cry for long enough, they will eventually give up and stop crying, thinking they have been abandoned.
Neuroscience has recently proven that allowing babies to “cry it out” can harm them in the long term, causing neurological damage and weakening their immune system.
The physical effects
Babies’ brains develop quickly, particularly in the first year of life. Distress in infancy can cause damage to the synapses (connection network) in the brain. Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, is released during stressful situations. In adults, higher and prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream, impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, irregular blood pressure, blood sugar imbalances and inflammation response may be experienced. In extreme cases, neurons within the baby’s growing brain can be damaged or fail to connect due to high levels of distress.
Disordered stress reactivity may also be established in the body through the vagus nerve, a nerve that is connected to multiple systems in the body and which plays an integral role in their functioning. The digestive system is an example of one of these systems and may result in colic symptoms in a baby, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in a child or adult.
Responding to your baby before they become distressed is known as responsive care, and helps the body and brain retain a sense of calm and good health, reassuring the baby that they have not been abandoned.
Interestingly, a baby that is tended to and soothed when they are scared or upset, will later be able self-soothe more easily, with a higher level of ease. This is because the baby soon learns that their mom or dad (or other caregiver) will respond quickly, if they are in need.
Babies who are left to cry in isolation, “shut down”. They fail to thrive, they don’t meet their growth milestones, they stop feeling and they stop trusting. This can create feelings of mistrust towards the world they live in and relationships they are part of, resulting in a lack of self-confidence and self-worth.
Unfortunately, deficits as a result of regular distressing experiences, may only be detected later in life. A child may demonstrate signs of learning difficulties or have difficulty in relationships of any kind and may even grow up showing signs of aggression or violence. This is largely due to self-regulation being undermined.
In contrast, good responsiveness to the needs of a baby is related to intelligence, empathy and a lack of aggression or depression. In other words, early stress is toxic for lifelong health.
Sleep training has become a popular way of dealing with an infant who won’t sleep through the night. In sleep training, babies or toddlers are given time to fall asleep on their own, but are not left to do so for indefinite periods. One of the parents is always around, giving a limited amount of time before re-entering the room and assuring their child that they are not alone.
While this may be necessary to keep everyone in the house sane and functioning, a preferred sleep therapist will only recommend trying this method once your baby is six months or older. I would only advise that you attempt this method once you have consulted a professional and they have confirmed that this approach would be conducive to your baby’s wellbeing and growth.
Becoming a parent for the first time can be overwhelming, and is uncharted territory for most people, but thanks to an abundance of evidence-based research, parents have more information available to them than ever before.
If, at any stage, however, you are feeling unsure of how to deal with any particular area of parenting, I would recommend finding professional assistance to help you feel equipped and confident about your parenting techniques.