Crying It Out

A friend told me a story this morning that is still bothering me as I write this post.  She told me of a couple with a young baby that had been crying and screaming loudly in the middle of the night.  Apparently the parents, who are proponents of the “cry it out” method of sleep training, chose to ignore the baby’s cries from the other room, hoping their child would just go back to sleep.  Eventually the baby did stop crying.  The next morning, much to the parents’ surprise, they discovered their child had been lying all night in the crib…in a pool of vomit.

Having recently cared for my own sick child, this story really got to me at a personal level.   I get tears in my eyes thinking of that frightened baby needing help and not being able to get it.  From what I could piece together, I doubt the parents intended for any of this to happen.  Nonethless, this situation got me thinking about the American obsession with independence–even that of a small child! 

Ironically, as we become more dependent on experts and technology to help with parenting, neuroscience is helping us understand the importance of human connection in the proper development of a baby’s nervous system.  Consider these interesting facts about brain development:

  • Immature brains at birth.  At birth, human beings are the least mature (and most vulnerable) of any mammal.  75% of our brain development happens after birth.
  • Neuroplasticity.  The brain is more malleable in the first few years than at any other time in life.  This is called neuroplasticity.
  • Environment affects wiring.  The infant brain is designed to be molded by the environment it encounters.  Early experiences directly affect the way the brain is wired.
  • Rapid growth of connections in early childhood.  During the first two years of life, connections among brain cells are undergoing their fastest growth.  In the first decade of life, a child’s brain literally forms trillions of connections.  By age three, the brain has developed to 75% of its adult size.
  • We are hardwired to connect.  Because our brains develop through interaction with the environment, social interactions have a tremendous impact on our development. Active and engaged care is essential for children’s brain maturation and for social, emotional, and intellectual development. Loving, attuned interactions and human touch help the neurons grow and connect with other neurons properly. Aversive experiences have the opposite effect.
  • Excessive stress is toxic to developing brain.  Brain research indicates that levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline increase when a person experiences trauma or stress.  Cortisol is actually toxic to the developing brain and reduces the number of connections in certain parts of the brain.
  • Life-long patterns.  Around ages 5 and 12, the brain begins to prune extra connections at a rapid rate. Connections that are used repeatedly in the early years become permanent; those that are not are eliminated

According to research, the average American parent takes longer to respond to a crying child than parents in other parts of the world.  Sadly, letting babies “cry it out” is now linked to higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder as an adult.  Babies have a very immature nervous system and cannot soothe or calm themselves.  They actually need a caregiver to perform that function for them.  Responding in a sensitive manner to their cries lets them know the world is a safe, secure place where their needs will be met.  It is through this experience that  a child eventually grows toward true independence.

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Licensed psychologist in San Antonio, Texas.
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