There is a lot of controversy around the subject of leaving a baby to cry it out.
Rebrand it however you like; self-soothing, self-settling, controlled comforting, controlled crying… It’s the same thing, and it’s a contentious issue.
It’s probably been recommended to you by all sorts of ‘experts’, from a medical professional to well-meaning friend. It’s also been condemned by another bunch of experts, possibly also including a medical professional and a well-meaning friend. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t!
We know that when babies cry alone, cortisol is released in their brains, and when these babies learn to stop crying, cortisol is still being released. Crying alone is stressful for your baby, and I’ll bet it’s stressful for you too. Stress hormones, including cortisol, inhibit oxytocin.
However, it is impossible to prove the long-term implications of control crying, because there are so many other factors involved in becoming a happy adult. Brain scientist, John Medina, shows in his awesome book, Brain Rules For Baby, that 50% of happiness is determined by your baby’s genes, and has nothing at all to do with your parenting. So, there is no need to freak out if you leave your baby to cry alone every now and then so that you may restore your own sanity.
The truth about controlled crying is this, “These strategies have not been shown to decrease infant crying, prevent sleep and behavioural problems in later childhood, or protect against postnatal depression.” The article, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, found that, “The belief that behavioural intervention for sleep in the first six months of life improves outcomes for mothers and babies is historically constructed.”
In other words, our culture has invented the idea that leaving your baby to cry is a good idea. Basically control crying is stressful for babies, stressful for parents, and it doesn’t work before the age of six months anyway. I’ve never found any evidence that it works after that either.
So, what’s the alternative?
If your baby is crying a lot, I know you really want a solution. But, you are not going to find it by putting your thinking cap on. This is not an analytical question. Crying is a matter of the heart. It requires an emotional answer, an intuitive and connected solution.
Here is the real kicker; the little fact about crying that most people don’t know. When babies cry in loving arms, cortisol is NOT released. Time and again research has found that babies who cry in loving arms do not release the same hormonal stress response in their brains, as babies who are left to cry alone. If a baby cries whilst being held, the brain does NOT show the same level of HPA axis activation, if it even shows any activation at all.
So, when you’ve gone through the usual rigmarole of changing nappies, checking if your baby is too hot or too cold, or uncomfortable, or tired, or hungry… When you are done with rocking and bouncing and shushing and patting… Maybe your baby is not crying because of an unmet need. Maybe your baby is crying because your baby feels sad, and really just needs you to listen.
There is a theory that tears are a waste product of the body. When there has been trauma or stress, crying is the body’s way of releasing those hormones, like cortisol, so that the body is cleansed.
There are many reasons why your baby may be feeling upset. A difficult birth or being separated from you may cause stress in a newborn. Sometimes small things like a fright or picking up on your emotions can stress a tiny baby too. Because half of our happiness is genetic, different babies will respond to stressful situations differently. Some babies will be incredibly sensitive and expressive. Others are naturally more resilient and won’t need to cry as often.
If you have met all of your baby’s physical needs and your baby still won't settle, then it is ok to hold your baby and allow them a safe space to express their emotions. You don't always have to stop your baby from crying; you can hold them through their suffering and reassure them of your unconditional love. In the pauses between crying you can say to your baby, "I love you when you feel happy and I love you when you feel sad," or whatever else your heart moves you to say.
If it’s all too much?
Just hold your baby, you may even find yourself having a cry with your baby too! This is release crying, and it’s not just control crying rebranded. It’s about sharing and expressing your emotions together, and can be very healing, for both of you.