Crying it Out                                by Lakeshore Medical Breastfeeding Medicine Clinic                                                                                                    


Sleep deprivation is one of the hardest parts of being a new parent.  Or an experienced one.  Or being a person in general. I would guess that most parents are trying a "crying it out" method because they are tired and other things they have tried haven't worked. I think that's because we are placing 21st century values onto an infant who is obeying instinct and maybe we don't understand that instinct.   We have to understand that the way we do things is a new idea...but the babies we bring into this world don't know about the way we do things. They are programmed to do things that normal, vulnerable human babies have been doing for all time.


Human babies are really vulnerable. If you've ever seen what baby elephants or horses can do at birth, you know that they can walk shortly after birth, and are running soon afterwards. Why can't humans do that? Well, if we waited until the brain was mature enough for our kids to walk, never mind run, the baby's head would be too big to come out safely. We don't need to run to stay safe. Our gestation period is designed to make sure that our kids arrive in the world with their future intact-- our kids arrive in the world when it's safest for the brain to come out.


Our children arrive in the world as the most neurologically immature primate of them all, and remain the most dependent on a caregiver for the longest period of time. Our kids can't keep themselves warm, get food, walk, speak, or reason. They can't manipulate us and they can't consciously choose to make you look like a bad parent.


What do we know about their sleep patterns? Well, they need to be near a caregiver-- mostly mom. It makes sense if you think about it. This immature baby, with little in the way of self-preservation skills, needs to hang out with the source of food and warmth, with the person who is most likely to wake up to meet the needs that they express in the middle of the night. There are beautiful videos of moms and babies who are almost totally in sync in terms of sleep cycles, showing them waking at about the same time several times during the night, with mom responding to the baby and the baby, who rarely cries, getting their multiple needs met. 


Normal babies sleep during the day and are up at night. That is normal and expected and nothing we can do to change that. The predators that hunt humans hunt at night.  Instinctively, that means they should be up and night and sleep when the threat is less.  That also means that parents need to sleep when the baby is sleeping to avoid all the great things that go along with sleep deprivation. 


The littlest kids are not crying for any other reason than to communicate displeasure with something.  And it gets our attention.  So much so, that I think kids develop a parent- specific pitch that affects us more than any other person listening to that same cry.  Smart plan-- it keeps the kids safe and lets them know that their parents are there and meeting their needs.


Sleep training techniques that suggest that you allow children to cry to learn to soothe themselves have never been shown to do anything good for children.  They may get the kids to sleep, and therefore help the parents sleep, but they have been associated with attachment issues, behavior problems and anxiety. There is no emotional, social or intellectual benefit to the kids, nor has it ever been shown to help us develop into healthy adult sleepers. 


There is a phenomenon called "learned helplessness" that comes from some experiments that showed that if you ask enough and never get what you need, you stop asking.    You learn, in the case of a crying baby, not that you are "soothed" but that nobody is coming.  That's not something, I imagine, that most people want their kids to learn, no matter how tired you are.  And ask yourself-- can you soothe yourself?  I'm  40 something and I'm pretty sure I can't without shoe shopping or an episode of True Blood.  I see commercial after commercial for Ambien and Lunesta, so I'm pretty sure the adult population has sleep problems.  Plus, as an adult, we can get up, read, watch TV, get on Facebook, get warm milk, or call a friend.  People who don't feel safe in their environment, like those suffering from depression will often say they can't sleep, or can't stay asleep.


What can our kids do if they can't sleep, if they don't feel safe in their environment?  They can't take medication, read, watch TV, or do anything like we can.  My advice, if the kids are crying, is to go in and comfort them.  Nurse them if you are nursing.  Snuggle and enjoy. 


I hear all the time "OOOOH don't do that, once you give in, it'll never stop."  Sure it will.  In fact, there are going to be days when your children are going to be embarrassed to be seen in public with you.  Their childhood will be over before you know it.  Enjoy your time with them while it lasts.



Jenny Thomas, MD, IBCLC, FAAP, FABM