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Crying for Comfort: Distressed Babies Need to be Held

Written by Aletha Solter, PhD   
Friday, 01 December 2006 00:00
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The term “cry it out” refers to the practice of leaving babies in their cribs without picking them up, and letting them cry themselves to sleep. A modified version of this approach is to go to the baby every few minutes to pat her on the back or reassure her verbally (but not pick the baby up), and to increase the length of time gradually so that the baby eventually “learns” to fall asleep alone.

But there is no doubt that repeated lack of responsiveness to a baby’s cries—even for only five minutes at a time—is potentially damaging to the baby’s mental health. Babies who are left to cry it out alone may fail to develop a basic sense of trust or an understanding of themselves as a causal agent, possibly leading to feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem and chronic anxiety later in life. The cry-it-out approach undermines the very basis of secure attachment, which requires prompt responsiveness and sensitive attunement during the first year after birth.1

The attachment parenting movement is a healthy reaction to the harmful promotion of crying it out found in many parenting books. Attachment parents are aware of the possible emotional damage from leaving babies to cry alone, so they strive to meet their babies’ needs for physical closeness and responsiveness. However, attachment parents can overlook the beneficial, healing function of crying, and believe that their job is not only to respond to, but to stop all crying. This article describes how parents can further promote babies’ mental health by learning to recognize stress-release crying, and implementing what I call the “crying-in-arms” approach.

Crying for ComfortHistory of the Cry-It-Out Approach

The question of whether or not to let a baby cry it out at night does not arise when a baby sleeps close to his mother. The history of the cry-it-out approach is therefore linked to the history of cosleeping. There is sufficient anthropological evidence to assume that, during prehistoric times, babies slept on their mothers’ bodies or very near their mothers, and that babies were never ignored when they cried. Cosleeping is a common practice in many traditional tribal cultures today. However, where civilizations became more technologically complex, parents gradually abandoned the practice of sleeping with their infants and adopted the practice of separate sleeping arrangements, especially in Europe and North America.

When and why did parents in Western cultures abandon the natural practice of sleeping with their infants? During the 13th century in Europe, Catholic priests first began recommending that mothers stop sleeping with their infants. It is likely that the primary, perhaps unconscious reason for this advice was the rise of patriarchy and the fear of too much feminine influence on infants—especially male infants. However, the reason the priests gave for this advice was the danger of smothering the infants, commonly known as “overlaying.” Historians now believe that most of the infant deaths during the Middle Ages in Europe were caused by illness or infanticide. When accidental smothering occurred, it was probably caused by parents who were under the influence of alcohol.