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Hear My Cry

Why “cry it out” may be one of the most misguided parenting philosophies of our generation.

Babies cry. Then they angry cry. Then they stop.

Imagine you’re hanging out by a riverbank with some co-gatherers a couple million years ago, looking for some fish, and you hear a low and menacing growl behind you. To your right, the net-mender’s little baby has dropped her straw doll into the water and starts crying. You look over your shoulder and emerging from the distant cypress grove is the hairiest, toothiest, meanest-looking beast you’ve ever seen. He glistens with drool in anticipation of making you his dinner.

This is a stressful situation. On one hand, it would make complete, logical sense to toss the beast an appetizer in the form of a screaming baby and make your getaway. If you think about the common sense of it, that would be the best route for self-preservation. Yet everyone reading this is thinking, “Are you insane?” The frontal cortex and other relationship centers in the brain have evolved not for personal benefit, but for the benefit of the community.

We wouldn’t have gotten very far as a species if it weren’t for a couple of rather amazing developments. For one, the round shape of a baby’s head and face, and the disproportionate size of their eyes with the rest of the face, is something we find absolutely adorable.

Second—and this is something I teach to all of my new parents—babies have developed a set of sounds that tell their caretakers exactly what they need. Priscilla Dunstan has an echoic memory, which means she has perfect recall of sounds. She’s been a violinist in several world-renowned orchestras. Priscilla has used her talent for good. When her son was born she noticed he kept making the same five noises before he’d start to cry. When she went out with her new “mom” ears, she started noticing every other baby made essentially the same sounds, regardless of language or ethnic background. Brown University researchers came to Australia to test out what she was claiming, and credited her with discovering pre-cry, a set of noises that were expressions of need, which if left unmet would predictably lead to crying.

So now we have evidence of structural and behavioral adaptations that let an adult know when an infant has a stress response. These come packaged with a baby for a reason.

In my article “The Social Vagus”, I discussed the programming we incur at an early age. The reason “cry it out” may be one of the most misguided parenting philosophies in our generation is because of this social aspect of our nerve system. As adults, we are designed in part to help babies survive. The programming that happens during that first year of life tells the infant’s brain which aspect of the nerve system needs to be active during times of stress in order to adapt to the environment—the preferred system being the one that gets your needs met. As a tired baby, you try communicating the sound “owwww” to your parents to tell them you’re tired (social nerve system). They either respond to your cue, in which case this communication strategy seems to work, or you go further down the evolutionary aspect of the nerve system to the sympathetic nerve system.

What does sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, look like in a baby? It’s an angry cry. It looks pretty much like the personification of a hornet’s nest. The baby’s arms are shaking, the fists are clenched, face is flushed, eyes are squeezed shut with tears coming out. And holy Moses, did you ever know your child had that kind of lung capacity?

Reptiles have the most ancient brains of the vertebrates, and their initial response to my dog discovering them is to freeze and be still. This parasympathetic response to stress is the first resort of the lizard and the last resort of the frustrated baby. If the sympathetic response of yelling for attention doesn’t work, the baby will think that maybe this simply isn’t an environment where needs are met. The body shuts down the emergency response and begins to focus on conservation and survival.

A cell can only have one of two states: growth or protection. Why waste the fuel on growth? Who needs higher brain functions or has time for concepts like fairness, compassion, and cooperation when the message being programmed is to adapt to the harshness of this world?

A healthy, mature frontal cortex not only allows these positive behaviors to manifest, it also actively suppresses the nerve system’s fight-or-flight survival mode. If the frontal cortex isn’t being properly stimulated, the brain operates from the temporal lobes and the personality becomes aggressive, selfish, and primitive. After all, it evolved for survival using limited environmental resources. Cooperative play-dates with other children and playing with tangible natural materials does double-duty in toddlers as their brains mature, because spatial awareness and social interaction work the frontal cortex in a way that video games don’t. Our A-V culture hyper-stimulates the temporal lobes and the occipital part of the brain, where the auditory and visual centers reside.

There is so much intersection between the three autonomic states, and with the sensory overload in our society it makes sense to build the dominance of the frontal cortex as early as possible, through development of the social nerve system.

I’ve cared for hundreds of infants of stressed-to-tears parents, and I’ve yet to meet one baby that was crying to be annoying or a jerk. I’m usually told by the parent of a colicky child that the pediatrician said he’d grow out of it. Well, the crying may stop, true, but the neurological programming will persist. It breaks my heart to see parents so pushed to the brink by their baby that they’d consider doing him or her harm. I always wonder if the outcome would have been different if someone recommended pediatric chiropractic to those parents—if the crying would have reduced or stopped enough to give that mom or dad the ability to pause and listen to a healthier natural instinct.

The three aspects of the autonomic nerve systems have a purpose. Having the functional capacity to glide between the three as appropriate is a great marker of a robust nerve system. For more than 100 years, chiropractors have discussed how mental stress can create subluxation, or interference in how the brain and body communicate. The neuroscience is now starting to show the connection between stimulating certain tracts of nerves in the spine and the two-part relay system between the cerebellum and the frontal cortex. Activating these pathways helps mature or repair the brain structures that house the social nerve system. So not only do we know that stress can create interference in the nerve system, but we know that adjustments can build our neurological defenses to stress!

If we’re attempting to enhance our children’s resilience to our environment, it would make sense for us to introduce balance to those three systems—to encourage healthy input physically through activities and adjustments, mentally and emotionally by recognizing a child’s needs, and socially by helping them engage the part of the brain that distinguishes us as a special kind of mammal. What would happen if we programmed a generation with a subconscious wave pattern that says “your needs will be met if you simply communicate them”? Could you imagine if we addressed this a step earlier, by regulating the autonomic tone of the mother as the child develops within her womb? It’s certainly a concept worth exploring.