Today, Kathleen at A Moment to Think wrote a thoughtful post on babies, crying, communication, and the Cry It Out method today – aptly titled Hear Me Out. Her messages are important: that babies deserve to be heard. And, that sometimes (often) what we’re hearing from babies is crying - and that while that might make us uncomfortable (because negative emotions do tend to make a lot of people uncomfortable), crying isn’t always bad.
I agree with all of these things. Additionally, I believe examining our reactions to baby’s and children’s cries is worthwhile. Are we truly listening to our children when they cry? Or just desperately trying to “fix it”, so they stop crying? And if it’s the latter, why? Isn’t it okay sometimes for a baby to cry, just like we, as adults sometimes cry?
Crying in babies and children isn’t inherently bad. I also agree that children need to be heard. Children, like all people, need to be able to express their emotions in a supported environment (as Annie at PhD in Parenting eloquently expressed in her post, I’ll Hold You While You Cry) – whether they are tiny babies or toddlers having a tantrum or young children having difficulty expressing all the grown up emotions they are starting to feel within their still-small bodies and inexperienced brains. Crying isn’t bad, and doesn’t always need to be fixed, (and certainly doesn’t need to be punished).
However, as much as I agree with children’s need to be heard and allowed to express all of their emotions, I strongly disagree with the example used in her post that the Cry It Out (CIO) sleep training method (in case you aren’t familiar, CIO is leaving a baby to cry deliberately, usually at increasingly lengthened intervals, often without physical contact, as a way to get baby to sleep at night without assistance) is a valid way of doing this.
(Source: Flikr Artist: Brian Baunach)
Crying is normal. Crying can be okay. But an infant crying alone, without a caregiver to comfort her, as is the key of the cry it out method of sleep training, is not normal, and is not okay. While there are many variations of the CIO method; the essence of the method is giving a parent the okay to ignore baby’s only option of communication – crying – in an effort and in anticipation of a “better night sleep” (whether that “betterness” is for the parent’s “sanity” or the baby’s “health” depends on the book you read/follow to apply the CIO method).
To quote Kathleen: “I do not accept that a parent that gives a infant the opportunity, in a loving and compassionate way, to feel the full range of emotions is causing harm.” I absolutely agree; I don't accept that either. Allowing a baby to cry - it iself - is not what is harmful. Babies need to cry. But all babies need to and deserve to be heard when they cry; to be honored and listened to. And crying it out is at its essence about NOT hearing, and thus, about not being compassionate, not giving an infant the opportunity to feel the full range of emotions in an supported environment. CIO is essentially ignoring baby's full range of emotions by allowing - encouraging - a parent not to attend to baby. I do not see this method as compassionate nor allowing baby to express emotions in a safe way. So I don't think it belongs in a discussion about ways to honor and accept crying as emotional release.
Cry it out has the potential to endanger a mother’s natural ability to respond to baby and empathize with baby’s expression. It teaches parents to ignore baby’s signals. If a baby is put to the cry it out method before a parent has the opportunity to determine the differing and continually changing minutia of baby’s expressions, the potential to miss important signals is increased – and this can be dangerous. Through repeated exposure to being ignored, baby can learn not to cry to express himself, which can translate into repressed feelings – the very thing Kathleen’s essay is saying we need avoid doing to our children; the very thing which I agree with her we need not to do.
I know some babies have a greater tendency to cry as expression. Some babies cry louder and longer and harder than others. I KNOW it can be hard; I know it firsthand. There are many ways of helping a baby through their expression, and helping them to sleep – and not all of them involve full-body contact; because not every child wants or needs the same thing – but leaving a baby alone isn’t helping them through their feelings. When I say cry it out has the potential to be detrimental, understand I am not talking about a parent who has determined her infant needs space before sleeping (my son often preferred to be put down and patted to sleep instead of held). I am not talking about a parent determining that their infant prefers to sleep in a baby carrier instead of in arms (my daughter often calmed more quickly this way). I am not talking about a parent recognizing that their infant fusses for a few minutes without escalating, until settling into sleep. These things are not cry it out, and they aren’t examples of ignoring emotions. These are examples of parenting by listening to and understanding baby’s differing needs for space and expression. Learning about your baby’s individuality and preferences, and honoring those. Some babies do fuss before sleep. But a parent can’t be expected to adequately learn to understand these subtleties if they are encouraged or instructed to move right into repeated structured enforced separation cry times at bedtime - because they believe they “need” to let their babies cry in order to allow them freedom of expression (or because they think it’s the only way baby will ever sleep, or because they are told baby needs to exercise her lungs through extended bouts of crying).
Putting a baby in a separate room, closing the door or putting in earplugs, setting a timer, in an effort to get baby to sleep is what I consider to be cry it out, and that is not the same thing as honoring a baby’s need to cry and express emotion and need for connection. Baby’s need for expression through crying cannot be met alone in a room without a trusted caregiver at least nearby, offering support, comfort, presence, or touch. Humans are naturally social, and babies need connection; it's instinctual and necessary for survival. Closing a door and tuning out baby is severing that connection.
I believe in supporting your baby in their crying from a place of empathy and openness and peacefulness. Whether baby needs full-body holding or just hand-holding, rocking, or walking, or soft talking, responding in a caring gentle way – just as we would like to be responded to – is never the wrong approach. Connecting with your baby through presence and touch and responsiveness, letting them know you are there – no matter how they are acting – goes a long way in building trust and emotional security throughout life.
For more information on crying, Cry It Out, connection, and attachment parenting, I recommend:
Cry for Connection by Patty Wipfler
Crying for Comfort by Althea Solter
Letting Baby Cry It Out – Yes? No! by Dr. Sears
Cry it Out (CIO): 10 Reasons Why It Is Not For Us by Annie at Phd in Parenting
I want to thank Kathleen for giving me a jumping off point from which to clarify my thoughts on crying it out and emotional release – I responded in her post comments as well; if you care to check it out. While we don’t always agree; she is outspoken, respectful, and thought-provoking in her posts, and comments and I encourage you to read her blog & comment if you feel so inclined!