Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Danger of Leaving Babies to Cry

Imagine how you would feel if you were shut in a darkened room, crying in genuine distress, and nobody comes to you - or if they do, it's every few minutes just enough for you to regain your breath before they abandon you again. Eventually you fall into an exhausted and uneasy sleep, and after a while of this process being repeated, you resign yourself that nobody is going to come to help you.

It would be bad enough for this to be done to an adult, but not only is this routinely done to babies, but is even advocated by many, if not most, health visitors. Anyone causing that level of pain and distress to an animal would rightly have the authorities down on them like a tonne of bricks.

In recent years a body of evidence that this process is harmful has been building and Miriam Stoppard recently wrote this excellent article in the Independent bringing the main bits of it together. Here's what the experts reckon things like the practice, euphemistically described as "controlled crying" (controlled for whom, I wonder) can do:

"This is because insecurity in early life leads to lifelong changes in a baby's brain chemistry. The levels of mood-lifting chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are lowered and blueprinted into a baby's brain in the first months of life. The professors believe with the wrong kind of mothering – letting a baby cry for long periods – this alteration of brain chemistry becomes hardwired, leading to timid, clingy children, neurotic, withdrawn teenagers and adults vulnerable to anxiety and depression."

So, given that 1 in 5 people are estimated to suffer from depression, perhaps it's time to try to prevent it from arising in the first place. I think there is now enough evidence for the various Goverment health departments in the UK to issue guidance to their staff that they should not recommend this sort of sleep training to parents under any circumstances.

One of the things that I was really worried about before my daughter came along was sleep deprivation. I really, really need my sleep and I turn into the Bitch Queen from Hell if I don't get enough. The solution for me was to have my baby next to me, then, after the very early days when I'd sussed that I didn't really need to change her nappy after every feed unless there was a good reason, she could get what she needed at night with minimal effort.

I would say that she woke 3-4 times a night until she was probably two and a half, and that was the way that worked for us to ensure that everyone got enough sleep. There are plenty other ways to help babies sleep which don't involve crying, which can be as distressing to the mother as it is for the baby.

In my experience, health visitors rarely have any other solution for sleep issues than controlled crying to offer. I've had mothers say to me that they've been taken apart by their health visitor for having their baby in their room past 6 months and have been told in no uncertain terms to get them out and were given instructions to carry out controlled crying. If a professional tells you to do something then you do tend to take it seriously, so those professionals should not be giving out advice that is potentially harmful to the baby. And, of course, if all your health visitor has to offer you is something you are implacably opposed to, then you are more likely just to struggle on and become more and more sleep deprived over time.

I am glad to see that established experts like Miriam Stoppard are taking the evidence that these sleep training techniques can be harmful seriously.

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5 comments:

Andrea said...

I don't think it is harmful if done currectly. I don't think that the method is to let your baby cry continuously for hours, but to give them a chance to sooth themselves. If anyone leaves their child to cry for a very long period of time, I think they misunderstand the method. If the baby is still crying after twenty minutes pick her up and try again another night. Twenty minutes isn't going to do any long term dammage. Who knows it might work.

Caron said...

20 minutes is a very long time if you are a baby and in distress. Often this sort of technique is tried when the baby is around 6 months old, just as separation anxiety is becoming a factor - the baby gets terribly stressed if their caregiver disappears because they actually think that if they can't see or hear them that they're gone forever.

I'm not particularly receptive to learning new things when I'm completely overwhelmed with distress, so I can't imagine it would be any different for babies.

If you count working as the baby falling into an uneasy and exhausted sleep rather than being gently parented to sleep, then it might, but the evidence is there about the harmful effects of flooding the brain with cortisol and other stress hormones. Who knows what neural pathways are going to be destroyed and what damage is done to the bond of trust between mother and baby which could have far reaching consequences for both of them further down the line.

Karen said...

jeez this stuff is annoying - loging on i mean not your blog

my comment is kind've left field as it was /is a remark about sleep deprived neighbours shuffling to the door and decking the parent
:-)K
ps fooribl is not a word none of these "words" are words

Karen said...

I think i must be stuffing up somehow

Caron said...

I wouldn't expect anything not left field from you. You make a valid point too - loud crying disturbs people which is why many people feel it isn't an option if you have older children who need to get to sleep too.

Re the log in process, the word you have to type in is to prove you are a human being and not some spammer trying to place ads for viagra and god knows what. You always have the option of leaving an anonymous comment, too, which saves you the hassle of logging on.

I am very grateful that you have persevered, though - and certainly you got there in the end, even if the air around you was blue by the time you made it:-). Give my love to your mum, by the way.

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