Should You Let Your Baby 'Cry It Out'? A Christian Response
When Psychology Today ran an article titled "Dangers of 'Crying it Out'," my response was, perhaps predictably, jaded. I read the article, then clicked over to one of my "Birth Clubs" on BabyCenter to watch the ensuing fun while I nursed my seven-month-old. It took a while for the drama to start—when I landed on the page, everyone was up in arms about extended-rear-facing versus forward-facing car seats—but before my daughter had finished nursing, someone had linked to the Psychology Today article. And the insults and name-calling began.
In case anyone is curious, the Mommy Wars are alive and well.
"Dangers of 'Crying it Out'" didn't cover any earth-shattering territory. Written by Notre Dame psychologist Darcia Narvaez, the article described the psychological harm done by leaving an infant to cry to teach "self-soothing." Mommy War veterans will recognize many of Narvaez's points as reminiscent of Penelope Leach's headline-making arguments of 2010, and William Sears's headline-making arguments that date back a lot longer. Their conclusion: Leaving a baby to "cry it out" increases their stress hormone cortisol, which can be toxic to the developing neurons in baby's brain. "Crying it out" can also undermine trust, impair self-regulation, and threaten lifelong health.
Narvaez credits behaviorist John Watson with launching the "crusade against affection" in his 1928 book Psychological Care of Infant and Child. So far-reaching were Watson's anti-affection endeavors that a government pamphlet from that time instructed new mothers to "stop [holding the baby] immediately if her arms feel tired," as "the baby is never to inconvenience the adult."
(As the mother of four, I find the idea of a baby never inconveniencing an adult hilarious.)
Fast-forward to today, Narvaez states, and we have a plethora of parenting theories and manuals that are just as damaging as Watson's. Specifically, "letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term."
Personally, I'm not a fan of "crying it out." The science behind theories such as Narvaez's seems plausible. I also find it noteworthy that the Creator both designed babies' cries to be highly grating on adult ears, and gave mothers the ability to feed and comfort their children, feeding that renders the baby's crying impossible. On a practical level, our family has six people—four of whom are small children—sleeping in three bedrooms that are feet apart. Letting the baby "cry it out" would mean waking up the toddler, the preschooler, and the second-grader, which would lead to a lot more crying for all of us. None of this seems prudent or even necessary, when I have the means to comfort my baby within constant arm's reach.