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I have decided this week to get really controversial. I am taking a stand and I just don’t care. I will do my best to do it in an un-judgy way, but I just can’t hold it in anymore. My topic: Sleep. Baby sleep.
I get really frustrated seeing claims that Cry-it-out (CIO) causes brain damage. It is just an other example of people trying to scare parents into (or out of) making a particular choice in parenting, rather then making decisions based on the unique nature of their child.
(Quick definition of CIO: A Sleep ‘training’ method whereby you put sleepy baby in crib and let them cry themselves to sleep. There are different methods, typically going in to sooth baby at regular intervals. But the main idea is that baby learns to fall asleep on their own without parental intervention.)
I can more then accept if any given parent decides CIO is not for them and not right for their baby. There are lots of babies and families for whom it is just not right for. I have no problem with that. I am not going to tell you how to get your baby to sleep. Do whatever works for you. You know your child better then anyone else- so trust yourself.
But please, oh please, do not give me the ‘letting your baby cry causes brain damage’ line. Now I am sure that my little blog is not going to be able to put this debate to rest, wish as I may. I also realize I may be setting myself up for quite the lashing should this post get read by someone who strongly advocates against CIO. I don’t know what I am thinking taking on this battle. But I am going to give it a go anyway.
Here is an excerpt from an article by Dr. Stephen Juan that sites three different sources/studies regarding brain damage and CIO. I found this article quoted on quite a few blogs, but I think it was originally published here in the National Post.
“According to a University of Pittsburgh study by Dr M DeBellis and seven colleagues, published in Biological Psychiatry in 2004, children who suffer early trauma generally develop smaller brains.
A Harvard University study by Dr M Teicher and five colleagues, also published in Biological Psychiatry, claims that the brain areas affected by severe distress are the limbic system, the left hemisphere, and the corpus callosum. Additional areas that may be involved are the hippocampus and the orbitofrontal cortex.
The Science of Parenting by Dr Margot Sunderland (Dorling Kindersley, 2006) is a recently published book that points out some of the brain damaging effects that can occur if parents fail to properly nurture a baby – and that means not allowing them to “cry it out”.”
“Allowing a baby to “cry it out” when they are upset will probably be regarded as child abuse by future generations.”
My first problem is that this article doesn’t provide any context. How much crying are we talking about? 45 minutes everyday for a week? Three hours every day for six months? Did it look at babies that had colic (who often cry for more then 3 hours a day, especially in the first 3 months)? How old were these babies (most CIO methods discourage using this method for babies under 4 months, usually 6 months)? Were they generally neglected or were they generally loved and responded to? Was CIO used even when they had an unmet need (for example- they were still hungry or wet or sick)? Did they look at babies who had different personalities and responses to CIO (I will explain what I mean below)? How big were these studies? What was the result for the children in terms of their actual abilities? What kind of brain damage are we talking about? (No brain damage is good, but I think it is important to quantify the impacts, as the range of possible impacts of brain damage could vary from undetectable within the normal range of development to unable to function in society.)
I think it is so irresponsible to site and and make claims based on studies without giving the reader at least some context. The author and reader of the original study are making conclusions that could be very biased by their perspective. For example, I found the article in Biological Psychiatry by Dr. Teicher. The study was of children whom had been neglected and abused, not a study of any particular sleep training method.
I suspect that the other studies were also not on the effects of varying sleep ‘training’ or non-training (like co-sleeping) methods, but rather on the effects of excessive crying due to neglect. I very much doubt these were babies older then 6 months whose parents are loving and responsive to their needs, but chose to use CIO because they felt it was the most appropriate method for the personality of their particular baby. If anyone can actually find either of the other studies and wants to send them to me to read, that would be awesome. Otherwise, my best guess is that this a case of taking a study and using it to back up ones beliefs and agenda by going beyond what one could reasonably concluded.
When I read each of these paragraphs I sited above I don’t question the author claims about what these studies are saying: “children who suffer early trauma generally develop smaller brains”; “brain areas affected by severe distress are the limbic system, the left hemisphere, and the corpus callosum”;”the brain damaging effects that can occur if parents fail to properly nurture a baby.” This all seems relatively reasonable to me.
What I question is the leap the author has made that CIO actually causes the type of “early trauma”, “severe distress” and ‘failure of nurturing’ that these studies were looking at.
Don’t get me wrong- I don’t think CIO is the responsible choice for every parent and every child. I 100% agree the concept suggested by Moxie of Ask Moxie that some babies are tension releasers and some babies are tension increasers. This means for some babies, the act of crying gets them more and more upset. They can very quickly reach full panic that I don’t doubt isn’t in the child’s best interest if parents let it go on too long on a regular basis. If you have a ‘tension increaser’ baby CIO is probably not the best option, especially if used very strictly. Then again, I don’t have a ‘tension increaser’ baby; I trust that each parent can make the decision for their particular child as to the appropriateness and effectiveness of CIO. However, if you happen to have a ‘tension decreaser’ baby, in that they fuss and cry on and off and in decreasing severity until they are relaxed and fall asleep, I very much doubt it would have any ill effects. Especially if that child is well bonded to their parents and it shown lots of love and affection throughout the day.
I also have to say that I don’t think we give babies enough credit in terms of their ability to learn limitations. If my daughter can learn at 9 months to “pat your head” when you say that phrase, then she can understand that at night, when all her needs are meet and Mommy and Daddy have shown her love all day, that it is time to sleep. It is a reasonable boundary and limitation that is set there. It is not ignoring her for the sake of ignoring her. It is telling her that it is time to sleep, something that is very important to her well-being. Babies are far more aware of what is happening around them then we think. When we assume that they won’t understand that letting them fuss to sleep doesn’t mean we are not responsive to their needs, then we are doing them a disservice, in my opinion. Again, this is not an argument for any given parent to use CIO, just an argument against branding CIO as being unresponsive and neglectful by definition.
There are so many choices that we make as parents that someone will try and tell us are harmful, even abusive, to our children. I will say it again, I think this is irresponsible. If you want to promote your suggested method of getting babies to sleep as being the most beneficial and effective- go for it. Any tired parent is up for suggestions. But don’t build your method up by leveling ridiculous claims of harm and abuse on an other method. Or by making a false connection beyond the scope of a study to the application of a particular parenting choice. Furthermore, if you are going to critique a particular parenting choice do by looking at the way that parenting choice is typically applied, rather then its extreme application. I have seen many Anti-CIO posts that refer to how cruel it is to put a baby in a crib and leave them there for 12 hours come hell or high water. But very few, if any, parents I have heard of actually apply CIO this strictly. Most parents I have talked to using CIO err on the side of responding too much crying rather then ignoring it.
Because I think context is important, I will share with you how we have used CIO:
Based on the suggestions of the book “Bed Timing” we waited until our daughter was 5 1/2 months to try CIO. As the book argues, that is the first window of opportunity where it is appropriate in the babies development to attempt any type of sleep ‘training’ method, be it CIO or ‘No-Cry’. At about the same time, our daughter, who we rocked and held until she feel asleep from birth, suddenly rejected any attempt on our part to help her fall asleep by soothing her. She would SCREAM and arch her back. We tried everything. We tried all the “No Cry Sleep Solution” techniques, which are fabulous, by the way. That book really helped us to create a soothing, calming, predictable routine that helped her get ready for bed. But in terms of actually falling asleep- if either my husband or I were within eye sight of her, she would not fall asleep. It was taking hours to put her down. There was A LOT of crying going on. A LOT, A LOT. Our baby was not a happy baby at bedtime and I am sure it was possible that she felt her need (which we discovered was to be left alone) was not being met. Eventually, we used a calm, soothing bedtime routine and then put her down in her crib and walked away.
The first night she cried, on and off, for about 45 minutes. The next night it was about 30. I think the next night was about 25. Within a week or so she fussed for a couple minutes on and off and then went to sleep. From then on, she was good. She doesn’t always go to sleep right away, sometimes she fusses or babbles for up to 45 minutes- but she rarely crys. When she does cry it is typically for only 5 minutes. This will sometimes happen during a change of routine (like being on vacation as I recently found out), or if she can tell I am a bit stressed out (like when I do our monthly budget- ekk!), or if she is going through a particularly clingy developmental stage (like the onset of separation anxiety at 8 months) or if she is sick (like the ‘flu like symptoms’ she got after her H1N1 shot). These are exceptions and we treat them as such.
I should also note, that when we started CIO we went in at regular intervals to soothe her. She would have none of it; holding her up, talking to her, rubbing her back, all of this just seemed to keep her awake, rather then help her fall asleep. My instinct told me to let her be. So we did, and she had a much easier time falling asleep after that.
We also learned pretty quickly that there was a difference between her “I just need to fuss to fall asleep cry” and her “come and get me because I need something” cry. And if she did the “I need something” cry we are in their faster then you can say ‘baby.’ She gets what she needs: new diaper, more formula, an extra hug, a kind soothing word, advil if she has some serious teething going on, ect. She is never neglected. But she will not fall asleep unless we leave her be. That is just how she is.
I have said this a number of times, but I am going to say it again. We need to stop judging and making broad universal claims about how to raise our kids. They are all built differently, they all need different things and they are all unique. We need to treat them as such. I believe it is important to take into account their uniqueness when we making parenting decisions. And accept that we aren’t all going to do this gig they call parenting the same way. This is a good thing- not a bad thing. Trust your fellow parents that they know their kids better then anyone else and they are trying their best to do what is right by their kid. Share ideas, great tips and support. But enough with the scare tactic bull, its not helping anyone.