Over the past couple of weeks I’ve read two interesting articles that stuck with me. The first, Leaving baby to cry could damage brain development, parenting guru claims is from The Guardian. This article describes the difference between the two heads of the attachment vs. routine-based parenting in the UK, Penelope Leach and Gina Ford. Leach claims that scientific research shows elevated cortisol levels in babies who are left alone to cry repeatedly, and these elevated cortisol levels are toxic to a newborn’s developing brain. Ford is a proponent of the controlled crying method of “training” babies to sleep independently.
The other article is this one, The Moral Life of Babies, from the New York Times. Here, researchers describe experiments they have done with babies and young toddlers to examine what kind of moral sense babies have. Do babies understand the difference between acting “nice” and “mean”? Which do they prefer? Do babies really come into the world as a blank slate, requiring parents and caregivers to painstakingly train a sense of right and wrong through careful discipline? They found that even young babies have certain expectations about consistency and predictability in the world, and by one year of age babies can differentiate between helping and hindering behaviour, and prefer helpers to hinderers.
While the psychologist in me loves reading about the neurology of the newborn brain and the experimental minutae of morality experiments, these articles simultaneously piqued my interest and seemed rather self-evident. Can you imagine headlines screaming, “Babies are Human Beings Who Prefer When Other Humans Are Kind to Them!” Seriously: this is breaking news?
And yet, this is what I love about science, and psychology/neurology especially. Using science to prove what you know intuitively, or to discover the intricate details of exactly how that particular preference/relationship/reflex works. Millions of women intuitively know that breastfeeding is good for their babies, and now we have scientific research that shows many of the benefits of breastfeeding. Millions of parents can’t bear the sound of their baby’s cry, and now we know that repeated, prolonged crying raises a baby’s cortisol levels and can result in a child with an overactive adrenal system.
According to the Ask Dr. Sears website, Science Says: Excessive Crying Could Be Harmful to Babies, increased cortisol levels inhibit brain development, change functional areas of the brain, destroy nerve connections and result in, “increased aggression, impulsivity, and violence later in life because the brainstem floods the body with adrenaline and other stress hormones at inappropriate and frequent times,”
I would like to know more about how this relates to the kind of crying that goes on in the ordinary course of sleep training that an average family might experience. It is easy to see how cases of extreme child abuse, in which a parent or caregiver is absent or unresponsive for much of the day, for weeks or months on end, could result in brain-damagingly high cortisol levels. But what about a baby who cries for 45 minutes or an hour, for three or four nights in a row and then goes off to sleep peacefully on his own from then on, as many of the sleep training experts claim? What about a baby who cries alone for 20 minutes before every single nap or bedtime, for a year or two? What about a baby who suffers from colic and screams for hours, whether or not she is in a parent’s arms? These questions are not intended to lump anyone into the “child abuser” category, I’m just wondering out loud how these various scenarios in which we might find a distressed baby crying repeatedly might result in different neurological effects.
However, my favourite quote from the Ask Dr. Sears website is this one:
Infant developmental specialist Dr. Michael Lewis presented research findings at an American Academy of Pediatrics meeting, concluding that “the single most important influence of a child’s intellectual development is the responsiveness of the mother to the cues of her baby.”
It is reassuring to know that the work we do as parents, all the hours spent cuddling a toddler to sleep, breastfeeding on demand, reassuring a child who is afraid of the dark or carrying a teething baby who doesn’t want to be put down, all that difficult, often thankless and seemingly endless work is actually the single most important influence of a child’s intellectual development.
You can go on and chuck out those Baby Einstein DVDs now.
Stop the presses! It’s late-breaking news! Baby Benefits When Mom Responds!
Image credit: kennymatic on Flickr.