The news media, such as the UK Guardian‘s article “Leaving Baby to Cry Could Damage Brain Development, Parenting Guru Claims,” and the New Zealand Herald‘s article “Babies Left to Cry Can Suffer Brain Damage, Warns Parenting Guru”, are reporting the release of a new book by childcare expert Penelope Leach. Leach works for the Tavistock Clinic and the Institute for the Study of Children, Family and Social Issues. She served as co-director of the UK’s largest research project on the different types of child care available for children under five.
In her new book, The Essential First Year-What Babies Need Parents to Know (DK Publishing), Leach argues that parents who leave their babies to cry themselves to sleep too often may unwittingly cause their infants to suffer from brain damage, which will adversely affect a child’s learning ability later on in life. That claim will likely reignite the ongoing debate over whether crying babies should be picked up and soothed to sleep by parents or left to cry alone for some time before falling asleep themselves.
Scientific Proof of Infants’ Brains Being Damaged From Crying
As proof for claiming that infants’ brains do become damaged from excessive crying Leach, according to the Guardian, stated that scientists found high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva swab tests taken from babies frequently left to cry alone, which neurobiologists state is dangerous for an infant’s developing brain enhancement.
Besides the biological impact, the Guardian reports Leach claiming that babies left to cry on their own too long may suffer from long-term psychological problems later on. She explains that babies need to cry because that is the only way they can get their parents’ attention. When babies realize they are still left unattended to even after long bouts of crying, they start crying less and less over time.
The reason, Leach says, that babies start crying less and going to sleep faster after awhile is not because they have been “trained” to do so. It is because they have started giving up more quickly towards crying for their parents’ attention. This can induce anxiety early on and lead to other emotional issues later such as insecure attachment styles. Besides having distressed babies, the excessive crying can also make parents distraught as well.
Leach also states that her own research work reveals that parental response to a baby’s cries has a significant impact upon their development. She states that prompt parental response can even overcome the effects of poverty and disadvantage for families. Her research involved following 1200 mothers and their babies from birth to state school. It found that the different types of child care practiced by the mothers did not nearly have as much positive impact upon the babies’ development as prompt parental response to their needs.
Scientific Proof Opposing Leach’s Argument
Leach’s argument against leaving babies to cry alone is at loggerheads with the approach popularized by fellow parenting expert Gina Ford, a trained nanny who supports getting children to abide by a strict daily feeding, sleeping, and waking regimen. Known as the “Queen of Routine”, Ford published her ideas in the best seller The Contented Little Baby Book (Vermillion, July 1, 1999).
Ford generally advises parents to allow a baby to cry for as long as 20 minutes if he/she is in no need of being cleaned, fed, or burped. Parents are allowed to visit the baby every few minutes or so while he/she cries but must not pick them up. Parents who followed Ford’s advice have claimed that it helped their babies to sleep throughout the night beginning from a young age.
Even though Leach counters Ford’s parenting approach using scientific proof, some evidence to the contrary throws doubt upon that. The New Zealand Herald cites a study conducted by Australia’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute that evaluated the emotional and behavioral health and well-being of 225 six-year old children put on strict sleeping regimens as babies, as well as the relationships between these children and their parents.
The study revealed no ill effects gained from “controlled crying” upon children’s emotional and behavioral development and upon parent-child relationships. The New Zealand Herald also cites Mandy Gurney, head of the Millpond Sleep Clinic, explaining that other research studies showed the positive impact that babies abiding by a strict sleep regimen had on overall family life.
Debate Over Attendance Towards Crying Babies Continues
Penelope Leach advocates that parents stop leaving their babies to cry for long periods of time, claiming that scientific proof exists for some damaging health consequences. Some of her evidence, however, has been refuted by scientists discovering that no negative psychological effects occurred from “controlled crying”. Thus the jury is still out on this parenting issue.