Is forcing your baby to cry it out dangerous?

You betcha.

Subscribers to this barbaric practice told me for years that the only reason my kid didn’t sleep through the night was because I was incapable of allowing her to “cry it out.” We had a wrinkle in the plans, with her post-nasal drip, which after incessant crying, usually led to choking on snot, which ultimately meant vomit everywhere. We tried it once. Once was enough. I subscribe to the John Rosemond approach: every kid up to the age of 2 should think the universe revolves around him. It’s your job after that to make it clear that it really revolves around you.

But I digress: back to the barbarism of allowing small babies to cry until they learn not to cry since no one will come to their aid. Sounds like Romanian orphanages, doesn’t it? Or the Babywise kooks. In addition to failure to thrive, dehydration, and the like, infants will develop reactive attachment disorder: in short, the inability to form a secure attachment to caregiver. This leads to lifelong problems.

Turns out, it isn’t just social problems. From an article, “Is Crying it Out Dangerous?” that caught my eye on Yahoo:

If the link between parent and child is strong enough that kids can “catch” their parents’ stress, it may stand to reason that babies crave the physical connection that comes with a cuddle. It’s something that plenty of parents are more than happy to provide during the day but, when it comes to bedtime, the modern emphasis has been on teaching good sleep habits — and giving mom and dad a break.

Most sleep-deprived parents get to the point where they’re willing to try almost anything in order to get a good night’s rest. While some decry it as cruel, others have had success with the “cry it out” method — teaching babies to “self-soothe” by letting their nighttime crying go unanswered.

But is “crying it out” about establishing independence? Or is it just a way of making those early years easier for parents?


In an article published this week in Psychology Today, one researcher says that crying it out could be dangerous for children, leading to a lifetime of harm.

A crying baby in our ancestral environment would have signaled predators to tasty morsels,” writes Darcia Narvaez, an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education at the University of Notre Dame. “So our evolved parenting practices alleviated baby distress and precluded crying except in emergencies.”

You mean back in the day, cavewomen didn’t ignore their babies cries? So much for barbaric, eh?

When babies are stressed, their bodies release the hormone cortisol, which can damage or even destroy neurons in their still-developing brains, researchers at Yale University and Harvard Medical School have found. That can lead to a higher incidence of ADHD, poor academic performance, and anti-social tendencies.

Intriguing, isn’t it? Mental, not just social, consequences from the lack of care at night.

Human babies are hardwired for near-constant holding, breastfeeding, and having their other needs met quickly — the hallmarks of Attachment Parenting, Narvaez points out — in order for their brains to develop properly. Even Dr. Richard Ferber, whose sleep-training method is commonly called the Cry It Out Method, says that he never intended parents to completely ignore their babies’ nighttime tears.

But that’s what it turned into. He’s never fully backtracked his methodology, only offered a poor defense of how it’s implemented:

What [Ferber] does encourage is teaching children to soothe themselves during normal nighttime wakings. But many parents extend his advice to include all bedtime-related crying. That’s the type of crying it out sets kids up for stress-related problems, trust issues, anxiety disorders, reduced brain function, and a lack of independence, Narvaez writes. And since the problems are on a genetic level, they can’t necessarily be fixed later in life.

“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,” Narvaez writes. “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, unless drugs are administered to alleviate the anxiety.

Genetic-level problems. Who knew that gene expression isn’t final at birth? Certainly not most sleep-deprived mothers who are led astray by well-meaning friends who sing the praises of “crying it out.”

Nurture your babies. Try to get help when and where you can. But don’t turn your back on an infant in need.

On a related note, Pundette: Daycare is just as bad for your kids, for similar reasons.

UPDATE: linked by Pundette as a “Recommended Read.” Thanks!


15 Responses

  1. I don’t know who John Rosemond is, or what Babywise kooks are. I’m not sure what Attachment Parenting entails, and I’ve never read Ferber.

    Nevertheless, I have let a baby “cry it out” a time or two. So when that phrase is called a “barbaric practice,” I wince.

    Now, you and I may have different definitions of “cry it out,” and without specific parameters I have no idea whether we are diametrically opposed, or actually in agreement.

    So, let me offer a way to compromise thru the Mommy Wars:

    There is a spectrum.

    On one end is the “Romanian orphanage” way of completely neglecting a child. Worst case scenario, think of the boy hero in James and the Giant Peach.

    On the other end is the over-indulging way of completely spoiling a child. Worst case scenario, think of Veruca in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

    (thank you Roald Dahl.)

    Now, most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Even as we argue about the “best way,” most of us are somewhere in the broad middle of the spectrum: the acceptable ways.

    You may be closer to the Veruca Salt end, while I am closer to James Henry Trotter. Your child/ren may be less stubborn, or you may be more patient than I. I’m known to growl impatiently, “come on!” in front of the microwave, so it’s likely you are more patient.

    But so what? We are all individuals. The thing that works best for one family may not work best for the another. Most of us are trying to do what’s best, and most of us instinctually know the difference between regular amounts of crying and genetically damaging amounts of crying. Moreover, most of us are more likely to err on the side of the former than the latter.

    This is why, throughout all the expert, nonexpert, parental and grandparental advice I’ve ever received, one pearl of wisdom has offered more guidance and more support than all of the rest put together. A dear friend who started down the Mommy Path before me said this, and I am forever grateful:

    No kid ever died of cryin’.

    My best

    • Sorry for the gap in responses, we had another round of stomach virus hit. Yea rota!

      Babywise is a parenting-methodology that advocates leaving 6 week old infants to scream through the night to “teach ’em good” how not to cry. Much like those babies in Romanian orphanages. Our *military* (Go Navy) hospital warned us of the book because of the number of infants who presented with failure to thrive (from not getting food or attention). It’s popular in evangelical circles and made a break-through into mainstream culture with the publication of a book a few years ago. It’s written by a preacher who has no business talking baby.

      While no kid ever died of cryin’, infants can suffer needlessly.

      Ferber isn’t quite on the babywise spectrum, though most of the parents I know mis-read his advice and take it further than necessary or recommended.

      I wouldn’t tolerate a Veruca Salt in my home. But there’s a difference between allowing an infant to scream until she vomits and disciplining a toddler who can–and should–learn the difference between right and wrong behavior. I wish I were more patient. But even on the nights I started crying because I had a kid who couldn’t yet sleep through the night, I knew that leaving her to cry until she vomited wasn’t the best thing to do. Go figure. I’ve had friends in the same boat who leave their kids to vomit. And leave the kid in vomit all night. I can’t do that. I don’t really see it as a failing on my part or a means of spoiling my kid, either.

      I didn’t mean to spark a “mommywars” discussion, but I was chastized for years by well-meaning friends who said if I could *only* let the kid wallow in vomit for a few nights, she’d sleep. I refuse to accept that premise. She did quite fine on her own time-table, and I accepted the fact that her schedule and mine woudln’t always mesh. Funny how that goes.

      • Ah, well, perhaps I shouldn’t even use that phrase, since it’s extreme (mommy wars), but dang it’s just catchy.

        Seems like really we agree more than disagree–both trodding along somewhere in the wide center of that parenting spectrum. James and the Giant Peach and Veruca Salt were for the sake of a laugh and I hope not wrongly taken. I have a way of inappropriately joking when others are being serious.

        I’ve never met anyone whose baby literally cried all night long in a “cry it out” session, and never heard of the Babywise stuff til now. Sounds frightful, so maybe I’m lucky. My experience is more the opposite: friends into co-sleeping and stuffing breast/bottle in the mouth at the very first whimper.

        Which, again, is totally cool and I’m not judging if that works for some people, and I think it does. But then I cringe and wonder does that “cry it out” derision apply to me, since I’ve left (not newborn) babes wailing ’til red-faced and snotty more times than I can count. The answer is, I think, no, based on the all night long vomit comparison. Eek.

        I sure know what you mean about hindsight, too. One of mine snored for a year before I realized he had sleep apnea–this is as an older child, not a baby, but I still feel bad about how long he had to deal with the sleep deprivation.

        Merry Christmas PJ!

      • “Ferber isn’t quite on the babywise spectrum, though most of the parents I know mis-read his advice and take it further than necessary or recommended.”
        Ferber (and Weissbluth) are *not* Babywise, and it’s not even a matter of spectrum. I haven’t read Babywise, so I shouldn’t comment… except that I want to. CIO is something based in medical science and psychology, which tells us that leaving a 6-weeks-old to cry to “teach” him anything is futile. Infants that young have no memory. Weissbluth gives lots of hints on how to deal with a colicky baby, and… it’s not CIO. Ferber starts at 6 months of age. But personally, if a mom leaves her colicky baby to cry for some time because she’s going crazy, I’m not going to judge her.
        I’m sure there are people who misread Ferber’s specific easy to follow gradual extinction plan — or don’t read him at all — and proceed to CIO, but that doesn’t mean that Ferber’s method and CIO are unsafe, it means that some parents are stupid.
        But even if some parents got it wrong, I don’t think there is any proof that they are causing any long term damage to their kids. Like Linda said, no kid ever died of crying.

  2. I’m getting into mommy wars against my better judgment, but here it is.
    The article contains no new materials. It’s a summary of a Psychology Today essay by Navareaz which contains no new materials. The article talks about ignoring all cries, but that’s not what loving parents who let their babies cry it out to learn to sleep do.
    Contrary to Narvaez’s claims CIO’s been proven to be safe, see What’s Going on in There by Eliot. It’s a great book on infant development. Eliot is very reassuring; she explained that infant brains are prone to spikes of cortisol and that babies under 6 months of age don’t feel complex emotions like happiness.
    Navarez says it’s only behaviorists who recommend CIO, which is not true. Eliot is a neuropsycologist, and the findings she cited are widely accepted among both psychologists and medical professionals. Narvaez either doesn’t know her field or has an agenda, perhaps both.
    Navaez clams that babies who cry represent some sort of a evolutionary drawback and therefore it’s somehow natural of mothers to not let their babies cry. Like most evolutionary psych “discoveries”, this one is not based in induction. Navarez had a ready-made conclusion and imagined an argument in its support. She does not site any studies of hunter-gatherers, who by the way, are known to abandon unwanted babies. Plus, anyone who’d heard of colicky babies knows that at times babies cry unstoppably.
    The aforementioned Harvard study is a comparative mothering study. It is not a paper on sleep training. See here, for instance:
    Attachment gurus play tricks like that all the time. They find a paper on bad parenting, and then claim that if you let your baby fuss, you might as well leave her at a Romanian orphanage.
    I remember reading it all when my children were babies and before I came to conclusion that CIO is safe and the right course of action for our family. 5 hours of crying over the period of 3 nights at 5 months of age are not going to turn my kids into monsters, I thought. (And they cried much, much less than 5 hours.) Sleep-deprived kids cry, as my oldest still does if she doesn’t nap, and if anything CIO saved us a lot of tears in a long run.
    I’m still making a good use of Ferber. My kids are too old for CIO, but his book is a good guide for dealing with various sleep issues; CIO is just one suggestion. Just like he said.
    I found the last paragraph in Navaraez’s essay most instructive:
    “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.”
    She has an ax to grind.

    • EOTSB: There’s a difference between letting a baby fuss and neglect. You know that. I know that. I’m not arguing for running to every whimper. But some kids aren’t made to CIO. Mine wasn’t. And some parents are willing–I know a few–to let kids scream all night and still never sleep. She couldn’t last an hour of solid crying without gagging on snot and vomiting. Even after cleaning her up, the bawling would start again. As would the vomiting. A 6 month old doesn’t know how to force vomit. We know now she has rather severe post-nasal drip.

      • According to that article there is no difference. Kids *can* CIO with varying results — not the end results, but the duration of crying. Mine did extraordinary well. All parents I know say that their babies cried for 2 hours the first night, and then less on the second, still less on the third and that was it.
        To the best of our knowledge the method is safe. There is no evidence that shows otherwise, and about a century of parents letting their kids CIO and raising healthy well-adjusted adults. That lady who wrote that Psychology Today essay is a hack.
        According to Ferber who recommends checking on babies at increasing intervals, you are supposed to quietly wipe your baby and leave.

  3. I was left to cry it out, and I do not suffer from either ADHD or anti-social tendencies. I also have a master’s degree. So much for the “experts” and their predictions. (I have good reasons to be cynical about findings from “medical school researchers.”)

    That said, I did not choose to let my babies “cry it out,” either. Since a baby’s only way of expressing a need is through crying, I felt that a crying baby should be attended to, no matter how tired I felt. As my children got older and were able to clearly communicate their needs, and as I understood them better, things were handled a little differently. They always felt loved, and never ignored. And while they were hesitant in new situations when they were younger, they now receive rave reviews from other adults on how they handle different situations they encounter (my kids are currently 16, 13, and 10).

    I found the name-calling in this post (“Babywise kooks”) disappointing, however. I found much to help me with my kids in those books, and while I recognize that some people have taken some ideas in these books to extremes (which I don’t think the authors intended, by the way), it seems to me that we should be able to disagree with other points of view without personal attacks.

    BTW, sorry if this is a repeat post … I accidentally clicked somewhere that took me off the page, and I don’t think my first attempted comment posted.

    • Kari, I find it difficult to use any other descriptor in discussing Babywise. It’s a dangerous book written by a preacher who has no business talking baby. The folks–yes, usually evangelicals–who believe in him take it from a religious perspective, which makes it doubly dangerous. Babywise kool-aid might have been more apt.

  4. Thank you for this. 🙂 My just-turned-two-year old has had sleeping issues most of her life. Actually, tonight she’s going in for a sleep study with a specialist. Although my husband and I have often gone around like sleep-deprived zombies because of this (and now having a six-month old at home too) letting her cry it out was never an option, regardless of that being the advice of her pediatrician. I think she’s a much happier kid for it, and a kid who will feel even better when we figure out what’s causing her to sleep so poorly.

  5. Well, this explains a great deal. My mother let me cry it out. So now it is clear what is wrong with me!!!

    I am the youngest child who didn’t sleep through the night. I had my days and nights mixed up and my mom was getting virtually no sleep. Dr. told her to let me cry. My understand is that it took me three nights to realize that I should be sleeping. Can you imagine listening to your baby scream for three nights? I can’t.

  6. Thanks so much for posting this.

    Babies and toddlers (and older kids) need to trust that their parents are there for them, night and day.

    (Thanks for the link!)

    • It’s incredibly sad to me that caring for one’s children has become such an alien concept. You can’t leave a kid alone in a car for 5 minutes to dash into a store, but you can leave her alone for hours while she wails at night. When we were in the Baltics last fall, I was shocked then amused by the fact that the giant prams they prefer (for obvious, weather-related reasons, also easier to walk with!) can’t fit down the narrow stairs to most shops. Thus what’s a busy lady to do? Why, leave her sleeping infant in the pram on the sidewalk for a few minutes.

      (And most welcome for the link! Thanks for the one in kind!)

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