Tales From 2AM Feedings: How Crying It Out Impacts Brain Development

Lately my baby boy has been super clingy, refusing to sleep on his own for more than 2 hours at a time. I’m envious of parents whose babies are doing well in the sleep department; I’ve yet to experience 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Heck, I’m up every 2 to 3 hours feeding my baby boy.

Letting him “cry it out” is not an option for me, especially given the scientific evidence that leaving a distressed baby to cry on a regular basis could be damaging to their developing brain. Moreover, according to Psychology Today, “we should understand the mother and child as a mutually responsive dyad. They are a symbiotic unit that make each other healthier and happier in mutual responsiveness. This expands to other caregivers too.”

Psychologists believe that the “cry it out” concept comes from a misunderstanding of child brain development and offer the following reasons:

  1. Babies grow from being held. Their bodies get dysregulated when they are physically separated from caregivers.
  2. Babies communicate a need through gesture and eventually, if necessary, through crying. Just as adults reach for liquid when thirsty, children search for what they need in the moment. Just as adults become calm once the need is met, so do babies.
  3. There are many longterm effects of undercare or need-neglect in babies.
  4. Secure attachment is related to responsive parenting—meeting the baby’s needs before they get distressed, such as comforting babies when they wake up and cry at night.
  5. 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.
  6. Soothing care is best from the outset. Once patterns of distress get established, it’s much harder to change them.

So the science supports what most of us have believed all along: You cannot spoil a crying baby. You cannot give a baby too much love. In fact, crying it out has detrimental effects on the baby and is more likely to foster a whiney, unhappy, and/or demanding child.

More importantly, I’m going to keep things in perspective by reminding myself why responsive parenting is critical, as wonderfully articulated by child development expert Penelope Leach in Your Baby & Child:

Why They Cry

You are the center of his world, the mirror in which he sees himself and everything else, his manager who copes with him and helps him cope with other things. When you go away from him, you know where you are going and how soon you will return, but he does not…he only knows that you have vanished and that he feels bereft.

This quote helped frame my situation. I’m in a wonderfully unique position to be the answer and solution to my baby’s needs. Not only that, it’s a huge boost in self-confidence to know that I am the “centre of his world” and my presence is enough. This feeling or perception will not last forever, so I’ll savor it while it lasts.

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