The Truth About Crying It Out

Why one Notre Dame professor says sleep training can be dangerous.

“Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?”

It seems like a simple enough question, especially when you take in to consideration the fact that parenting a newborn is hard and exhausting. If the baby is sleeping well, that hopefully means the parent is also. But, that simple question sometimes leads parents to believe that a young infant should be sleeping through the night immediately. It can make parents wonder why their baby isn’t, what they are doing wrong and how they can remedy the situation. Sometimes it leads desperate and exhausted parents to attempt the cry-it-out (CIO) sleep training method. But according to one professor of psychology at Notre Dame, the consequences of CIO can be down right dangerous.

“Cry-it-out seems contrary to our evolution to raising a happy and smart child,” said Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D. “In traditional societies, babies aren’t allowed to cry.” Narvaez has studied how early life experiences can influence moral function and character in adults and children. What she has come to realize through her studies is that the CIO sleep training method is dangerous to babies.

Narvaez explained that infants have a lot of developing to do after birth. “We emerge from the womb so immature that our social support creates our brains. We are born with these survival systems and stress responses. We must nurture the empathy and pro-social network of the brain.”

An infant’s development can be nurtured through practices, such as nearly constant touch, on-demand breastfeeding, responsiveness to need, supportive caregivers and more. Narvaez explained that 99 percent of human history has included these parenting practices. Methods such as CIO show that our current society is operating outside of that history. Narvaez warned, “If you are going to violate one of these practices, you need to have huge research that shows otherwise.”

This brings us back to the “is your baby sleeping through the night” question. Many parents see sleeping through the night as a desirable outcome and one that should be achieved as quickly as possible. Some even view consistently and quickly answering an infant’s cries as spoiling the baby and not teaching them independence. “Spoiling to them means your child will want to be with them,” Narvaez said. “You can train the baby to not want to be with you and find pleasure in other things, but then we are not fostering our human essence where we connect with one another. Instead, you are making them people who can sit before a screen; you are making more robotic people.”

According to Narvaez, how a parent responds to an infant and meets that child’s needs can have long-lasting positive or negative effects. She believes that the CIO method has negative consequences on an infants’ neurological and moral development. “Any extensive distress to the baby is a bad idea. You don’t know what systems are being undermined when you let the baby cry.”

In an article titled “Dangers of ‘Crying It Out’” that Narvaez wrote for “Psychology Today,” she explained the specific dangers of allowing an infant to cry it out, including:

  • Neuronal interconnections are damaged.
  • Disordered stress reactivity can be established as a pattern for life.
  • Self-regulation is undermined.
  • Trust is undermined.
  • Caregiver sensitivity may be harmed.

In the end, Narvaez said parents “should follow their compassionate instincts. Their compassionate instincts say the baby should be picked up and not cry. We have encouraged adults to ignore their cries. I suggest, follow the baby. The baby will tell you what it needs. Keep it calm and happy for the first month especially. Be immediately responsive. You’ll foster a personality that is much more pleasant.”

So, next time someone asks you that dreaded question, don’t sweat the response even if you were up five times last night. Rest assured that if you are responding to your baby’s needs and cries no matter what time of the day it is, then you are giving him exactly what he needs—a safe, comfortable environment to thrive in. At some point sleep will come…and typically before college.

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