But a few days ago I watched a video posted on Facebook of a nursery door, and the cries of a sweet baby could be heard coming from behind the door. The caption read, "It's going to be a long night."
I had to say something. So I wrote, "Don't do it!"
You see we did it.
I know it "works".
But since then I have cried many tears as a result. I let our baby cry it out because I thought I was doing what was best. Because that's what I was taught by well meaning people. Since then I have learned the long lasting effects of letting our babies "cry it out" . It effects their brains, their hearts, and their attachment long term.
( I'm horrified at myself when I remember the Christian circles I walked in then and how we looked down upon those who chose to have their children control them, be the center of their marriage, or who just wouldn't be strict enough to teach their babies to sleep. To you, I am so so so sorry.)
All of this was racing through my mind Sunday night after I saw the Facebook post. Yet I knew I couldn't express my heart, my sorrow, and the science behind why we will never let any of our babies "cry it out" again, on a Facebook news feed. In fact the comments started rolling in.
"Baby manipulation, don't give in!"
"It's the hardest thing you'll ever do, but its worth it."
"Hard to do, but something that has to be done."
"It's harder on you than it is on her."
All friends, just trying to encourage another sleep deprived friend on this incredibly tough road we call parenthood. I know I've said all those things and more before.
But I was wrong. And I'm so sorry.
With our first baby we took "the class". We worked "the schedule". And as the time drew nearer and nearer to the six week mark I knew, we HAD to get him to sleep through the night.
I remember my entire body breaking out in a sweat. I remember my milk coming down, I remember David holding my hand, physically holding me in the bed so I wouldn't "break". Setting the timers so that I would know when I could get up and comfort him. And crying as I listened to him wail.
I often think that in America, from the very beginning of motherhood, we are taught to ignore our maternal instinct or our gut. Whether by medical "professionals" or well meaning friends, or even parents. And that's exactly what we do when we let our babies "cry it out". We ignore our gut. My body was screaming for me to go get my baby, my heart was crying to stop his cries, but I thought I had to do what I "knew" was best. When people comment "it's so hard" or "it's harder on you" that is us acknowledging that it feels so so wrong to do this.
So here is what I have learned.
Babies have needs. They weren't born manipulative, or selfish. They're not trying to mess up your marriage or your family system. They need YOU.
As you can see in my great drawing, a baby has a need, they are hungry, they express that need, they begin squirming, chewing their hands rooting, crying, you meet that need. You help them calm down. You hold them, you feed them, you rock them, you shush them, you bounce them. We do this hundreds of times each day. This cycle, that repeats itself over and over again, is the basis for trust, self-worth and efficacy.
You can also see on the outside I wrote "excitatory nt's" and "inhibitory nt's". This stands for excitatory neurotransmitters (for example norepinephrine, glutamate) and inhibitory or calming neurotransmitters (for example GABA or seratonin). These are the chemicals that are released in the body and brain during the right side of the cycle (the red side) and the left side (the blue side). On the right side, when our children are hungry for example, they begin to cry, their brains are flooded with stress hormones, these are the things that make their hearts race, their screams get louder, their faces red, their pupils dialate. These are the same neurotransmitters that flood the brain in fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is a stress situation.
But then we come.
We feed them, we rock them, we shush them. This is how we teach our children to calm down. This is how we build the foundation of mental health and self regulation, and trust, and self worth.
(Did you know that the largest, percent-wise, area of growth in a woman's body while she is pregnant is the synapsis in her brain for hearing?! We were created to HEAR OUR BABIES!)
When we do not respond to our children's cry the only thing we teach them is that their voice does not matter to us. That we will not hear them. They will stop crying. I promise. And you will have a full nights sleep around six to eight weeks. You will.
But it will be at a cost.
There are several studies I could talk about here. Ones where they put baby monkeys in a separate cage at night and didn't let their moms feed them. The monkeys became psychotic, they had less brain connections than those who were raised with their moms attending to them when they cried. Or others of gagged orphans, or babies who were not held when they cried.
But there is one I want to talk about, the research by Provence and Lupton. They found that within 30-60 days of an infants needs not being met when they cry, they will stop crying.
It doesn't mean they don't have the need.
It doesn't mean that we have "trained" them how to sleep.
It means we have taught them that their needs do not matter to us. That we will not come. (And the psychological research that has been done as a result of this message being sent to our children was done by Megan Gunnar at the University of Michigan, and it is so great, I don't want to talk about it here in fear of making most of us feel awful.)
But they stop crying. And we get to sleep.
Yet their little bodies still have the needs, those didn't go away when we stripped them of their voice. They're still hungry, or just a little scared, or cold, or hot, or wet.
Their brains are not developed in a way yet for them to possibly calm themselves. Not until three YEARS is this even physiologically possible, and truly this portion of the brain doesn't fully mature until around age 30!!
So whats happening to all of our babies that we've "trained" to sleep through the night?
Our babies are living on the right side of this chart. Their brains are being flooded with all those stress hormones, which act like bleach to the brain when they get too much without the calming neurotransmitters flooding over them. They are actually designed to almost paralyze the upper portions, the learning, expression, attachment, parts of our brains so that we only use our fight fight or freeze, base area.
Studies show, that although a baby who has been "trained" to sleep through the night, will not cry (and even sometimes, they won't show the physical signs of being awakened), their brains will still flood with these stress hormones. Their pulse will increase, they will begin to sweat, etc. But because they believe that their voice does not matter, they will not cry... This is still happening even thought we've taught them that we won't respond. So they live on the right side.
We don't want our children living in this place.
I know none of us want this. None of us hope that we paralyze our children's brain and incapacitate it to function properly or lack cohesiveness. None of us hope to risk our attachment and trust that we have with our babies. None of us want to negatively effect our children's self-worth. No one wants to shake the foundations of mental health and self regulation for our children. And yet by letting them "cry it out" we do.
If I could change anything, out of the millions of mistakes I've made as a mom, this would be the one.
There are lots of resources out there.
Here is a great, all around one. If you're looking for more. Let me know.
I would love to hear your comments and such. But let's keep it constructive. I know for some reason this is a dividing line for people. But I just want to remind you, I am not a scientist. I am a mom with five kids ages 6 and under. I am in the trenches! I get it! It's so so hard!
(I will follow this up with some strategies for those of us who have already made the mistake, ways to repair attachment and heal the brain, because there is hope.)
(Thank you Karen for your moral and educational support on all this. I hope I did it justice.)