The Dangers of Letting your Baby ‘Cry it Out’

Your heart starts pounding and tension ripples over your body in waves, you can literally feel your blood pressure rising and the twinges of panic setting in, all because your baby is crying and there is nothing you can do. This fear like response can happen any time your baby is crying and you are either unable to find the right way to soothe them or are not able to soothe them, such as when you are driving.

There are biological reasons why your body reacts so intensely to your baby’s cries. In ancestral environments, babies that were alone and not in arms were vulnerable. Without being able to strongly communicate their needs, infants would be easily neglected. Nature does not give our infants many ways to clearly communicate, but those cries… they get the job done.

Science has proven what we women already knew: a baby crying stimulates the part of the brain that triggers a fear response, increasing the heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. A mother goes into full fight or flight mode upon hearing her offspring cry.

Science also tells us that when we hear an infant’s cries we get a flood of oxytocin to the brain. Anyone who has ever had the front of their shirt soaked with heavy breastmilk flow upon hearing a baby cry knows all about it.

So why, when we are so obviously programmed to respond to the cries of infants, do people choose and even recommend placing infants in another room and leaving them to cry? We are programmed to respond to those cries. Our babies are clearly communicating a need to us, even if it is only a need for comfort and security.   

“Crying It Out” is a blanket term used to refer to sleep training methods where a baby is left to cry in a safe place, usually a crib. Cry It Out methods tend to be based on the belief that falling asleep is a skill your infant can learn on their own. Crying is obviously not the goal, but an unavoidable part of the process.

Parents often resort to Cry It Out sleep training methods when they are very tired and would like to be able to put their baby to bed at night and come and get them in the morning when they are ready to begin the day. The baby is thought to learn to soothe himself by crying to sleep.

Cry It Out has been shown to have long term negative effects on infants time and again. Leaving a baby to Cry It Out can:

  • Damage neuronal connections
  • Increase cortisol (stress hormone) production
  • Establish a pattern for disordered stress reactivity resulting in conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome in later life
  • Undermine self regulation and cause the baby to stop growing and developing
  • Undermine trust
  • Damage caregiver sensitivity

Babies cry as a last resort to get a caregiver’s attention. When gestures have not been responded to or properly deciphered, the infant cries. In a primitive environment, crying would have attracted predators and been undesirable.

Babies are designed to have their needs met and regulate their bodily functions by being close to their caregivers. You cannot spoil or damage your baby by spending too much time with them or being too attentive to their needs. Ignoring a baby’s cries can potentially impact their intellect, physical health and mental health, even into adulthood.

“…the first year of life is a sensitive period for establishing a sense of trust in the world, the world of caregiver and the world of self.  When a baby’s needs are met without distress, the child learns that the world is a trustworthy place, that relationships are supportive, and that the self is a positive entity that can get its needs met. 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.” — Psychology Today

I believe that two of the reasons that the Cry it Out method has become popular advice is (1) due to women continually giving away their power to outside authorities and not questioning advice or books that go completely against their instincts, and (2) the loss of a community. The disempowerment of mothers in such a potent time of their life (pregnancy and motherhood) does the entire world a grave disservice, on many levels. While the loss of a community means a child is raised by one to two parents only, therefore placing an incredible strain on the parents. This kind of modern day isolated family unit is anything but natural so parents are often desperate to get at least a few hours of sleep with this much pressure on them every day. I think parents would be less likely to let their babies cry themselves to sleep if they were able to receive more help throughout the day.

Awaken your inner wise woman and remember that your intuition will guide you better than any book that tells you that is “normal” to let a baby cry herself to sleep alone every night. Build community, ideally before you give birth, so you have a strong foundation of support and help to get you through the first year of often sleepless nights. Getting help with cooking and cleaning from friends, family and neighbors can go a really long way.

Nurture your baby, listen to your instincts, respond to your baby when they communicate with you through gestures or cries. You’ll build a strong loving bond that will foster confidence, independence, and health throughout their life. I know those first few years can be really tough and lead to many sleepless nights when you are responding to all of your baby’s cues, but they really do pass faster than you think. My daughter didn’t sleep through the night until she was five years old. I was tired. But I was also dedicated to listening to her cues and creating an environment where she could truly learn to trust life. Now, just 4 years later, I have an independent, bright, empathic daughter who is full of trust for the world as a result. 

Looking for alternative ways to establish a healthy sleep routine for your baby? Check out these 8 tips from Sarah Ockwell-Smith: 8 Ways to Encourage Better Baby & Toddler Sleep Without Sleep Training

**Prepare for an unmedicated, sacred birth with the Birth Like a Goddess online birthing classes. Learn more here.**

Nancy Lucina

Nancy Lucina

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