DC Metro Mom

Posted by Let Mommy Sleep
Let Mommy Sleep
Denise Stern, Agency Director of DC’s only Baby Nurse agency; Let Mommy Sleep LL
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on Thursday, 29 December 2011
in Parenting & Pregnancy

“Crying it out Causes Brain Damage?” – Parental Urban Legend or Scientific Fact?

“Crying it out Causes Brain Damage?” – Parental Urban Legend or Scientific Fact?




We are in the business of sleep – and believe me, we review study after study dealing with infants, sleep training and the opinions of various experts. We’ve noticed of late, that every few months a new nervous mother worriedly asks if the “crying it out” method of sleep training will cause brain damage to their sweet little bundle.


We know where this question comes from. It is courtesy of a pesky paper that came out of Harvard and has gone somewhat viral (or as viral as a Harvard paper can get).


Most recently this article was referenced in a Huffington Post story with the startling headline “Cry It Out: The Method That Kills Baby Brain Cells” (December 22, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/denene-millner/cry-it-out_b_1163864.html).


Let me be pretty blunt here: I hate this paper.


It has gained notoriety because it contains all the ingredients of a good news story: extreme shock value (merely reread that headline if you question this), it plays on a parent’s worst fear (that a simple act of parental decision making will have disastrous consequences) and a seemingly innocuous scientific fact (that the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, can be brought on by excessive crying), which in turn can damage a baby’s developing brain cells.  


The truth of the matter is that this paper is not being properly quoted, and the ensuing panic this it’s creating for parents is shameful.


One of our missions at LMS is to provide evidence based education coupled with real life experience to new parents. In that spirit, please let me talk you off the ledge if you fear that deciding to let baby cry it out has or will do detrimental damage to your child.

Here are the facts:

1. The Cry-It-Out Study is NOT a study. Rather, it is a paper titled: “Emotional Learning in Infants: A Cross-Cultural Examination.” The difference between a paper and a study is that a paper is opinion driven, and a study must have data, research and scientific fact to support its assertions. In this instance, there is no data produced and no quantified statistics. Instead, it is a general comparison of the practices of North American parents of infants and those of other cultures, namely the Gusii tribe of Kenya.   This paper specifically pertains to their nighttime habits, including the preference of the Gusii to co-sleep with their babies.

2. Hard medical evidence suggests cortisol DOES NOT cause changes in the brain. Several groups have corroborated that “chronic infusion, release, or otherwise applicatio­n of cortisol itself does not cause significan­t neuronal loss or volume changes” (Leverenz et al., 1999; Bao et al., 2008; Schubert et al., 2008). Meaning this: that the simple act of crying it out does not have a lasting, detrimental effect on a baby’s developing neurological system.  Further, these studies refer to “chronic release of cortisol” – chronic is a long lasting, continual condition.

Additionally, in a super quick Google search, I found multiple, credible and scientifically supported sources that recognize that for many parents, in many situations, crying does not cause harm. The Mayo Clinic (for one!) says this: If you've tried everything and your baby is still upset, consider letting your baby cry it out. (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-baby/PR00037)

3. Common sense! I will never forget the time when my 22 month old had night terrors and my twins were still getting up at night to eat. One night, after soothing my son back to sleep after a night terror, he got out of bed and inadvertently locked himself in his room. When he could not get out of his room he started screaming with fright. Naturally, this was the exact moment the twins loudly awakened for their 1am feeding.

And of course, the little key we use to pop open locked doors had fallen behind the doorframe. And of course, the back-up key fell behind another doorframe. And of course, my husband was away for work.


Now - all 3 of my babies were screaming and crying. Screaming from fright, from hunger, from confusion. From not knowing where mom was or if I would ever come to comfort them. Then they realized their siblings were screaming which led to more hysteria. Three children in a red alert screaming panic in the middle of the night is a very special brand of parental torture I don’t wish you to know.


So what door do you choose? Help the anxiety-riddled toddler with no quick way to get him out of his room? Or begin the hour long cycle of feeding the hunger-scream twins?

In any scenario – SOMEONE is going to spend a decent amount of time crying. A mother only has but so many hands!


Because I know you’re wondering, I chose to go into the garage and dump random drawers until I found something to break my son out of his room. Then I held him as tightly as I could while I did the world’s worst job of preparing 2 bottles for 2 babies with 1 hand. I am not sure how long the house resonated with screams at 1 am, but I do know that if any brain cells were destroyed from excessive crying - they were surely mine.


What I am trying to say is this: for every handful of times baby has to cry because you have to go to the bathroom, or you are having a crisis with another child or you yourself are in crisis, it does not negate the 40 million other times you respond swiftly and efficiently.


Otherwise every mother of multiples, and every mom with 5 or 6 kids, or the urge to pee occasionally would be raising brain damaged children. Children cannot get held every single time they cry, day or night. And if excessive crying causes harm, then every parent of a colicky infant who did the right thing by placing baby in the crib and walking away because the alternative might be to hurt the child was wrong.


I don’t buy that for one second.  Now for the disclaimer: The above is not to say I love “crying it out.”  


It pains my heart as it does yours, to hear a baby cry. I would never advocate that a parent’s right to sleep trumps a child’s physical or emotional needs. No, it’s not right to dump the child in the crib and walk out because you need some Z’s.


In my opinion, the best way to help a child learn to sleep through the night is with gradual, incremental change. But at the end of their day (and yours!) the best way to help a child learn to sleep through the night is by making educated decisions that parents feel are right for their baby and their family.

Without judgement. Without guilt. And without conjecture disguised as science. Trust your mother’s intuition and do what’s right for your baby.


And of course, because we aim for complete transparency, please read the paper for yourself, and draw your own conclusions: http://www.dareassociation.org/Papers/AAAS%20Interviews.pdf


Denise Stern is the owner of Let Mommy Sleep, DC and Baltimore's only baby nurse agency.  She is also a mother of 3 under 4.  Visit LMS at: www.letmommysleep.com



Image Credit: drmomma.org