By Janaiah von Hassel
When my first son was born I remember attending to every cry so instinctively that I was almost on autopilot. Those first few weeks were hard. Night and day ceased to exist for us, and a new cycle began to take its place. Our pediatrician at the time, along with many well-meaning friends and family encouraged us to let my son cry it out so that he would learn to sooth himself to sleep. But I was head over heels in love with 8lbs of absolute perfection.
Generally speaking I’m not one to follow suite unless it really makes sense to me. Everyone seemed so certain that I would be depriving my baby of an important life skill, and that if I kept answering his every cry I would teach him that he was the center of the universe and it would create a needy, spoiled baby. They even said his need to be comforted throughout the night might exist well after his college years!
Truth be told, I was feeling exhausted from the schedule, and the thought of a well-rested night for me was enticing. But instinctively I could not resist my child’s need for comfort when he cried. I tried to think of a time that I let anyone I loved self-soothe. A few months prior to having my son, I was woken up at 1:00 AM by a phone call from my sister who was crying. She was feeling overwhelmed and heartbroken by some challenges in her life at the time. Because she lived so close to me, I got in my car and drove over to hug her and let her know she was not alone. I could not imagine having hung up the phone saying, “You really need to learn to deal with this on your own.”
In the most recent edition of Pathways, Dr. John Edwards explains why ‘cry it out’ may be one of the most misguided parenting philosophies of our generation. Edwards’ article relays the fact that babies have stages of responding to stress just like everyone else. When the baby ceases his/her crying after a period of ‘cry it out’, the silence that follows—what most would refer to as self-soothing—is actually the body shutting down and resorting to conservation and survival or the last stage of the stress response. Reaching this stage does indeed train the baby, subconsciously, to deal with stressful situations in a particular way. “What would happen,” Edwards asks, “if [instead] we programmed a generation with a subconscious wave pattern that says ‘your needs will be met if you simply communicate them’?”
The media totes studies which suggest there is no harm in letting your baby ‘cry it out,’ but one study suggests the opposite. In this study, Dr. Middlemiss measured the stress hormone, cortisol, in babies during the ‘cry it out’ method. He discovered that even after the baby is sleep trained, the high levels of cortisol still persist. Even while the baby learns that crying for comfort won’t help, the stress continues to exist. This is not the case for the mother, researchers found. The study measured the mother’s cortisol levels during these times and found cortisol to drop once the baby stopped crying.
So why do so many people support sleep training methods like ‘cry it out?’ The answer, in my opinion, is that most of us just don’t live in a world that supports the nurturance that every baby deserves. For most, it is seemingly impossible to continue with the fast pace of our western society while meeting the unending needs of a baby who has his own schedule. In addition to that, there is far more stress on babies now than ever before due to environmental toxins, vaccines, and the emotional stress of parents that all contribute to a baby’s exhaustive need for comfort.
Many parents exhaust themselves to unhealthy ends attempting to answer every cry and meet the unending needs of a fussy baby. I have had times where I was just so exhausted it made me grumpy and miserable and I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if I just let them cry it out? How long can I go on like this?” Tired parents. Cranky babies. No end in sight. These are the scenarios I believe that have precipitated the ‘cry it out’ movement. It started out as the “lesser evil.” The issue, however, is when we try to suggest that all of this is best for the baby.
We live in a society that demands very much from us. The notion that it is good to take five minutes for yourself rather than lose your mind, I will agree, is perfectly fine. Put your baby in a safe place and center yourself, have a good cry, meditate, put on a song, call a friend, or do whatever you need to because babies do pick up on our energy. I often call a friend when I’m overwhelmed, scared, hurt, or angry. I’ve cried on my husband’s shoulders many times when the day was bigger than me. I’m so glad that I’ve never been asked to go away and self-soothe. And if I don’t self-soothe, why should my baby?
I write about this topic for the mom who is like me—the mom who wants to pick up their baby and who can’t stand the idea of letting their baby cry it out but is made to feel she’s doing something wrong by answering that cry. Please know you are not wrong! It is okay to let your baby know that when he or she feels scared and alone they can call you and you will come. The days of believing that babies are only born with physical needs like food, sleep, and diaper changes are gone. Babies have emotional needs as well. Babies cry when they have any need: A need to be fed, to be dry, or to be comforted and loved. Mothers, it’s okay to pick up your babies.
And in case you’re wondering, my children, now 6 and 4 years old, sleep soundly through the night.
Janaiah, Pathways Gathering Group Coordinator