Screaming to Sleep: The Moral Imperative to End ‘Cry it Out’
I remember the scene vividly.
I’m around 1½ years old. Recently separated from my mother, my grandmother cares for me. I see myself standing in my crib at my grandparents’ home. It’s dark. I am crying and crying. I don’t know what I did that was so wrong. I’m confused, utterly distraught. So, I climb out of my crib and walk through the house. I find my grandmother in the kitchen, cleaning. I cling to her leg, crying, begging. I want to be picked up. “I am a good girl!” I tell her.
Years later my grandmother confirms the story. She said it broke her heart to ignore my cries. She was pressured to make me cry myself to sleep by her husband, my grandfather, and by her son, my biological father.
She tells me she is sorry.
—Victoria Fedden, author of Amateur Night at the Bubblegum Kittikat
“For a baby, being left to cry is like torture,” states Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and executive editor of the Journal of Moral Education.
Pain responses are activated when babies are physically separated from their caregivers. This leads to the “underdevelopment” of receptors for serotonin, oxytocin and endogenous opioids—chemicals essential for our experience of happiness. In particular, the neural pathways formed by oxytocin released in our infancy remain with us and continue to impact our adult physiology. When these pathways are compromised it makes forming healthy attachment relationships challenging at best.
Given this biological reality, Narvaez is deeply concerned about the negative impact that cry-it-out (CIO) methods of approaching infant/toddler sleep have on children.
She warns: “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 resulting inner emptiness.”
CIO is also painful for connected caregivers to experience. Consider the story of a new mother standing in the shower with her hands over her ears so she doesn’t have to hear her daughter scream. Many parents who try CIO eventually succumb to the angels of their better nature and seek wisdom in methods that honor the basics of human physiology. Biology links mothers to children, and when the relationship is in sync, cortisol levels (associated with stress) as well as oxytocin levels (associated with bonding) rise or fall together. CIO breaks this bond. True, parents can numb themselves. Caregivers can be persuaded to ignore their natural physiological urge to respond to their child’s cues of distress. As seen in Victoria Fedden’s reflection, caregivers also can be pressured into practicing CIO.
Yet everything in a baby’s physiology links him to his caregiver. Research done by professor James McKenna at the University of Notre Dame analyzes recordings of co-sleeping, breastfeeding mothers and babies. Babies naturally turn to their mothers, not only for the nourishment of breastfeeding, but to regulate breathing, heart rate and physiological well-being.
“Given a choice, it seems human babies strongly prefer their mother’s body to solitary contact with inert cotton-lined mattresses,” writes McKenna.
To be forcibly separated from the sounds, smells and presence of the only habitat a baby has ever known is frightening enough. To be ignored when cues of distress are repeated until the body physiologically shuts down in order to maintain self-preservation is torturous.
It also has lifelong effects.
Last year, researchers from Princeton University, the University of Bristol, Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science worked together to produce a report titled, “Baby Bonds: Parenting, Attachment and a Secure Base for Children.” Sutton Trust, a London-based institute, funded and published the report. According to their research, 40 percent of 14,000 children born in 2001 lack secure attachment bonds formed by “early parental care.” Children under the age of 3 who do not establish these early vital bonds are “more likely to be aggressive, defiant, and hyperactive as adults.” All concerned about the well-being of our immediate future should take note of this study.
How can parents ensure that children develop secure attachment? It’s simple. When a toddler cries, reassure and hold her. When a baby cries, pick him up.
Susan Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, comments on the above study: “When helpless infants learn early that their cries will be responded to, they also learn that their needs will be met.”
This lays the necessary foundation for the development of secure attachment, upon which future emotional well-being depends. Yet, 40 percent of an upcoming generation has been harmed by misguided negligence and the abdication of sensitive and responsive parenting.
Advocates of CIO carry much of the blame.
Pressure to Cry It Out
“Just let him cry. He’s got to learn to fall to sleep on his own.”
“Don’t let your baby manipulate you.”
“My mommy-shift ends at 8 p.m. sharp.”
Many new parents experience a great deal of pressure to let their babies or toddlers CIO. Whether this pressure comes from medical professionals, loved ones or a parenting partner, it can feel relentless and confusing.
To their credit, professionals advocating CIO do so because it works. Over time, the practice of CIO certainly does end the crying (cueing behavior) of babies and toddlers. Dr. Jodi A. Mindell, a psychology professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, advises parents to be “consistent” when it comes to using CIO. “They need to pick a plan they can absolutely follow through on,” she states.
While there is much to laud about consistency and routine when it comes to best parenting practices, consistency in and of itself is morally neutral. After all, one can be consistently unkind. What matters most is that parents are consistent in nurturing their children, not ignoring them. The only caveat here relates to the emotional stability of the caregiver. In a moment of profound frustration, it is wise to step aside briefly— even from a crying baby—and regain composure so as not to inadvertently harm the child. But this isn’t CIO. When practiced consistently, CIO teaches little ones that no one responds to their cries. They learn to sleep, or suffer, in silence.
We are the only mammal that can be convinced to purposely separate its young from their mothers during sleep and, furthermore, we are the only mammal that can be convinced that it is a good idea to ignore their desperate pleas for nighttime connection. How is this possible? A brief overview of two studies relating to brain development helps answer this question.
Ten years ago, Michael J. Meaney, scientific director at the Ludmer Centre for Neuroinformatics and Mental Health at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, studied why some rats were more anxious than others. First, Meaney divided mother rats into two categories: low-nurturing and high-nurturing. Then, he examined the “critical period” of the first 10 days of a baby rat’s life—which would be roughly equivalent to the first six months of human development. It is during this period of time that genes relating to a rat’s ability to manage anxiety are turned on or off. Rats with low-nurturing mothers remained anxious when facing new situations for their entire lives, unless they received medication. Why? The genes associated with establishing the neural pathways of managing anxiety never turned on. A high-nurturing mother was needed to trigger the gene’s activity.
All mammalian brains work in similar ways. Genes relating to key behaviors turn on and off (permanently) in the early stages of mammalian brain development. By studying rats and other mammals, we can learn a great deal about our own neurobiology. If a human mother is low-nurturing, her children may not develop the needed neural circuitry to manage their own emotional lives with ease. Upon entering parenthood, these children may find it challenging to interpret their own baby’s cues in an appropriate way.
“Responding sensitively to infant crying is a difficult yet important task,” notes Esther M. Leerkes, professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Last September, researchers led by Leerkes sought to determine why some mothers view the crying of infants in a “mother-oriented” way (wherein the cries were interpreted as manipulative nuisances) versus mothers who view the crying of their babies in an “infant-oriented” manner (wherein cries correctly connoted an infant’s need for care). Their findings, published in the journal Child Development, highlight how a mother’s difficulty in processing her own emotions and/or her experience of depression was central in distinguishing between the two groups.
“ The good news is babies are not meant to sleep through the night because it’s not safe for them to. The bad news is babies are not meant to sleep through the night because it’s not safe for them to. So here is the ugly truth, being a parent is hard.” —GENA KIRBY, CO-FOUNDER OF THE PROGRESSIVE PARENTING NETWORK
So, why is CIO advocated and practiced when it goes against the basic fiber of healthy mammalian behavior? Our neural circuitry is damaged. Whether we study anxious rats or mothers who label their crying infants “manipulative,” the answer is the same. The CIO method of approaching infant/toddler sleep advocates either the total absence of any nurturing or the very low presence of nurturing during nighttime hours. Such behavior guarantees that the pattern of damaged neural pathways continues.
When considering the pressure parents face to practice CIO, especially when it comes from medical professionals, Tracy Cassels, founder and primary writer for Evolutionary Parenting, has this to say: “I don’t know what happened in their lives that have led them to promote such cold, inconsiderate practices…. To suggest parents must neglect their children in order to ‘help’ them. It must have been horrible.”
While it may be true that some professionals who advocate CIO are traumatized individuals, I prefer to think of them as simply misinformed. Due to new discoveries relating to brain science, medical practices have changed dramatically with regard to how we treat concussions. The same response is needed today when it comes to advice given to new parents regarding infant and toddler sleep. It’s unconscionable that, once familiar with the basics of how CIO harms the brains of developing children, medical professionals continue to advocate the practice.
A Moral Imperative
Human infants and toddlers naturally wake for nourishment, hydration, comfort and the reassurance of loving touch at night. In fact, many adults naturally wake at night to drink a glass of water, use the bathroom or seek out the comfort of a loved one following a bad dream. CIO advocates a nighttime experience that adults would protest if it were forced upon them. Shouldn’t we be more considerate of our children?
Dr. Gabor Maté used to advise parents to let their children CIO. In 2006, Maté, a Canadian pediatrician and co-author of Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, wrote a compelling co-ed for The Globe and Mail titled, “Why I No Longer Believe Babies Should Cry Themselves to Sleep.”
In his article, Maté highlights how neuropsychological research compels him to speak out publicly against a practice he once advocated for as a physician and practiced as a father. When a child is left to CIO, she doesn’t learn the “skill” of sleep, Maté explains. Rather, her brain escapes from the “overwhelming pain of abandonment” and “shuts down.” While such a shutdown brings quiet reverie for frustrated and exhausted parents, it comes at a steep price. The implicit memory encoded in the brain structure of the CIO baby is that the world is an uncaring place. “This is why, if I could relive my life, I would do much of my parenting differently,” Maté laments.
When I consider what it would be like to purposefully leave my toddler alone to cry his way into an exhausted slumber, I shudder. The reaction is visceral. I don’t need a moral theory to more deeply persuade me that such a course of action goes against the clearly guided instinct I have to care for my son. Nevertheless, I am a scholar of ethics and find affirmation in the fact that ethical systems the world over insist upon our moral obligation to “do no harm.”
Do No Harm
At times, these three words may seem archaic and hopelessly idealistic upon perusing headline news. When considering the billions spent on war, it’s clear that many institutions are relentlessly involved in the profiteering of harm. Nevertheless, each moment offers us a choice. We can add to the collective pain burdening the human family, or we can do what we can to alleviate it. While we may believe that some people (those labeled as terrorists, murderers, rapists, etc.) deserve to be harmed, the intentional harming of innocents is universally condemned and morally repugnant.
Upon discovering how harmful CIO is, we have an obligation to end this practice of purposefully neglecting our children at nighttime. Dr. Richard Ferber himself admitted he had little knowledge of infant psychology. So, why turn to his method for advice? As the popular parenting slogan goes, “When we know better; we do better.”
Research is clear: The school of thought regarding infant/toddler sleep known as CIO (in all of its forms) harms the most precious and innocent among us. To knowingly harm babies and children is wrong. Period. May we work for a day when CIO is looked upon like the ancient practice of Chinese foot binding is today: archaic, harmful and best relegated to the pages of history.
*This is the second part of a series originally printed in PhillyVoice.com. Part one can be accessed online at phillyvoice.com/screaming-sleep.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #46.
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