In my previous post, I invited readers to begin thinking about the possible connections between brain science and the somewhat popular cry-it-out method for sleep training. I believe it is extremely important for parents to understand the neurobiological fact that high levels of repeated stress can cause a baby’s brain to release neurochemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline that can have negative long-term effects on the architecture of the baby’s brain.
A crying baby and negative stress hormones
One only needs to watch or listen to the distressed cries of the baby left to cry-it-out to know intuitively that the child is experiencing extremely high levels of stress. That stress is outwardly visible, but I am encouraging parents to appreciate what is going on in the baby’s brain and entire nervous system. The internal stress may be creating the kinds of implicit memories that potentially lead to struggles around feeling anxious, abandoned, fearful and less able to trust the adults who are supposed to be caring, attentive resources.
Here’s more evidence for parents to consider:
Crying: Anything but “Good for Their Lungs,”
“Crying is very bad for infants because it decreases lung capacity, increases intracranial pressure, reestablishes some fetal circulatory patterns and starts stress reactions within the body” (Anderson 1999).
“Crying isn’t ‘good for baby’s lungs.’ One of the most ridiculous pieces of medical folklore is the dictum: ‘Let baby cry, it’s good for his lungs.’ In the late 1970’s, research showed that babies who were left to cry had heart rates that reached worrisome levels, and lowered oxygen levels in their blood.
When these infants’ cries were soothed, their cardiovascular system rapidly returned to normal, showing how quickly babies recognize the status of well-being on a physiologic level. When a baby’s cries are not soothed, he remains in physiological as well as psychological distress.
The pair examined childrearing practices here and in other cultures and say the widespread American practice of putting babies in separate beds – even separate rooms – and not responding quickly to their cries may lead to incidents of post-traumatic stress and panic disorders when these children reach adulthood.
‘The early stress resulting from separation causes changes in infant brains that makes future adults more susceptible to stress in their lives,’ say Commons and Miller.
‘Parents should recognize that having their babies cry unnecessarily harms the baby permanently,’ Commons said. ‘It changes the nervous system so they’re overly sensitive to future trauma.’
I want to be clear here.
I’m talking about excessive crying on the part of the child, not those times when a very tired and cranky baby or toddler is whiny and impossible to soothe.
Sometimes when a child has a few minutes of crying that leads to sleep, that child is probably not internally bombarded by excessive amounts of stress hormones. Parents need to be thinking of crying on a continuum. This includes minor, low-level crying, to crying that indicates greater levels of stress, to crying that is frantic, and finally crying where a child is terrified and experiencing extreme abandonment. Short amounts of crying time–5 to 10 minutes – for the most part is probably not excessive.
We happen to live in a society that puts huge emphasis on creating independent children because we value independence. Somebody very wise once told me that the road to independence is created by interdependence. Babies aren’t meant to be independent sleepers. Parents are fooling themselves when they think they have succeeded in “training” their babies to sleep because they basically have given up and have learned that no nobody comes when they call out for help.
Memories that create deep, non-verbal “forever” beliefs are created in the brain even before birth. Before the age of two or three these are implicit memories stored in lower areas of the brain. The brain remembers certain things somatically (in the body) and through sensory messages. Fears and anxieties about abandonment are often rooted in these earliest memories even through children have “learned to sleep.”
Again, this information is not meant to cause parents who have used sleep training methods to feel deep regret and guilt. It is important to note that not every baby left to cry-it-out experiences extreme consequences.
There is no way to measure the impact later in a child’s life.
The idea is to provide the neuroscientific data that can equip parents with information to guide their decisions and debunk what some “experts” and well-meaning but uninformed parents, peers and people on Facebook think.
In addition to making changes in your beliefs and behaviors as a parent, you can be an advocate for promoting accurate information about the potential damage to brain architecture resulting from parenting practice that causes a child to release toxic amounts of stress hormones into their system.
Invitation for Reflection
- Do you know if you were raised by parents who used the cry-it-out method to make you a better sleeper? Do you struggle at times with anxiety around being abandoned? Is it possible there is a connection between parenting practices you experienced and your anxiety?
- What are some of your beliefs about children and sleep? What was/were your source(s) for the information? Is it based on solid neuroscience around stress and brain architecture?
- As a parent, does this information change any of your beliefs about sleep training?
[FYI: if you ever have the opportunity to see Episode 8 from the old sitcom Mad About You called The Conversation, it shows a couple struggling for almost 20 minutes, trying to use a sleep-training method. To read more about it check out http://splitsider.com/2015/03/how-mad-about-you-made-one-of-the-boldest-bottle-episodes-ever/ ]