Saturday, March 3, 2012

Unnatural to Let Babies Cry

This article was published in the Norwegian Newspaper Dagbladet on February 28th 2012. Here is my English translation. 
Denne kronikken: Unaturlig å la babyer gråte sto på trykk i Dagbladet tirsdag 28. februar 2012. Jeg har her oversatt den til engelsk.
In Norway, we can  frequently read about sleep problems in children. As a mother of four and a breastfeeding / new parent educator, I'm interested in this topic, but I find it frustrating that it is often argued that infants have a sleep problem when they can't fall asleep by themselves. This is a huge misunderstanding that largely comes from the 1950s, when parents were encouraged to let babies cry it out, until they fell asleep.

"Sleep Experts" say that children from approximately 6 months  should sleep alone, in a crib, and that one should not pick them up and comfort them if they cry, but only show up in the doorway with increasingly longer intervals. This is also known as the Ferber method and it's really about letting babies cry themselves to sleep. Parents are encouraged to persevere, be strong, for their child's and their own good.

The Ferber method should already have been dismissed a long time ago, as something fundamentally wrong. To tell new parents that they should just sit there, while their child is crying alone in another room, is to me incomprehensible. The term sleep problem is in my opinion misused. It is not a problem when a little baby can't sleep alone. Nor, when she needs milk or comfort at night. It is perfectly normal. For an infant, it's natural to sleep close to mom or dad, and it is necessary to be fed during the night for many months.

It makes me so upset when they keep publishing articles that tell parents that their baby has a sleep problem, when this is not the case. They problematize what's normal, and spread unnecessary stress and frustration. New parents often have unrealistic expectations and concepts of what it's like to have a baby. It is not a hobby project or a pet they're  having in the house, but a child, a brand new person with her own specific needs, and parents have the responsibility to provide nurturing, comfort and security, which is extremely important for a newborn.

To quote midwife Rachel Myr: "You do not become parents to sleep better. Now it appears that parental sleep is more important than that the children feel safe and loved. "And those who smilingly can confirm that  CIO work, they see the issue from only one side. They may have noticed that the child, after a few days (or weeks ...) no longer cries at night, but is calm throughout the evening and night. Yes, it does "work", but why do they usually stop crying? Simply because they give up. Because they understand, without being able to understand, that it is useless to call for help. They resign

And this is what British researchers describe as dangerous. A comprehensive study from 2004 by neurologist Dr. DeBellis and colleagues, tells us how large amounts of cortisol is flushed through the brain when the baby cries a long time without being comforted. This inhibits the development of some parts of the child's brain. Dr. DeBellis calls it a brain defect,  that is mainly about the greater propensity to aggression, anxiety and depression in adulthood.
Margot Sunderland says in her book "The Science of Parenting" that the brain is formed in the first few months of life, and that comfort and care is essential. Sue Gerhardt writes in "Why Love Matters" that emotional experiences in early childhood have a measurable effect on how we evolve as human beings. Both of these psychologists have been working for years with the results from the British brain research.

Few people would let their partner, or a good friend, just "cry it out". They would do everything possible to find out what is wrong, or at least try to comfort. It is interesting that so many out there look upon it differently when it's about a baby, because it is probably much, much worse for this little one to lie there crying alone. As an adult, we know, after all,  that this is now and not forever, and, we can actively seek help. The infant, however, is a 100 percent at the mercy of us and it should be obvious to react very quickly when she tries to tell us something. This is the beginning of communication, something extremely important for us humans.

The American pediatrician William Sears says: "
Needs that are met disappear. Needs that are not met,  never disappear completely, but come back in other forms, often as anxiety, depression or aggression." The baby can't get up on her own, or put her problems into words. If she is met when she cries, she learns that when she is hurting, scared or unsure, there will be comfort and help. "I am not alone." This will, according to the English scientists, be part of the brain's structure, and the child learns, unconsciously, that a problem is followed by a solution. Later on, she is more likely to have an "it'll be all right" - attitude to life.
But, if she instead learns that she can just as well stop crying, because help is not coming, then even the smallest things may lead to a  "disaster scenario" later in life, and she is more likely to be the type who become depressed or angry at the slightest problem.

A common argument is that when the child is fed, and has a dry diaper, there is no reason to pick it up. This is a severe simplification, and turns children into machines. There is an ocean of possible reasons why she is crying. Everything from itching, that some of the clothes feel uncomfortable, that she was a little thirsty, is hurting or simply is afraid and feels alone in the dark. Infant needs and wants are the same thing. The babies are not trying to test us as parents, they are not "persistent" with screaming to get parents to do what they want them to.
And, if mom or dad comes back every 10 minutes, they could as well stay out all the time. Because in the baby's world, those minutes are like an eternity. What can not be seen, is gone. They are unable to imagine that Mom or Dad ever will come back.

Babies are not monkeys or dogs that we train to adapt to our desired lifestyles. They are new persons in a big, scary world, and the parents' job is to teach them that they are not alone, just so that they may develop as confident, independent human beings.


  1. I'm glad to hear that (even though I knew :-) ), but sadly there are many out there believing that CIO is the only way...


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