This is the promised follow-up! I am going to share my philosophy on how to help your children to trust you, and it’s basically going to involve a lot of information about Attachment Parenting (learn more at http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles). Some people criticize this method and its effectiveness, but I love it and so did my professors in college. The classes I took were based off of expert opinions and solid research and are the best time-tested, proven methods out there. (And we're talking about more than “effective” in the short-term, but with the best short- and long-term benefits.) It honestly is one of the main ways I feel I am able to appreciate being a mother so much. I truly feel that more people would be better off from knowing this information and that too few people know about it, and so I hope you will give this a chance so that you might benefit from this as much as I have.
Before I get started, I just want to say that I am not writing all this to say, "I'm right, you're wrong." Rather I say it out of anxious concern and love for all of God's children - both your kids and you parents. I want to give you information that I feel will help you and be beneficial for all involved.
In my child development class, I distinctly remember our professor teaching about infants. He taught (as is explained in the attachment theory) that infants are wired to attach, particularly to their caregivers. One of the ways this happens is when babies cry. Not the crying itself, but what happens in response to the crying. When babies are responded to promptly, the baby learns that their crying elicits a response. Now lest you think that babies manipulate you with their crying, you should know that babies only cry when they have a real need or concern. They often even show signs of that need in other ways before getting to a full-blown cry. “Rooting” is seen in infants looking for food, yawning can be a sign of sleepiness, and making little noises could be there way of wanting to interact. For the purposes of this post today though, we will just jump to the point of crying and focus on that.
It is very important to respond quickly to baby’s cries for many reasons. One is that whatever their need is will likely be able to be identified and responded to quicker. They could be hungry, messy, tired or startled themselves awake and still tired, or even just want to be held by you. Respond to that need. That may seem obvious, but depending on the parenting method you subscribe to, some may convince you to ignore the crying or the need if it is seen as frivolous (e.g. being held). I am going to do my best to explain why I think it is a bad idea to ignore your child (which will lead us to the other reason’s you want to respond to baby’s cries quickly).
Like I said before, when baby’s cries are answered, babies learn that they elicit a response from their caregivers from their cries. This does not mean the child will learn to cry for everything. Some “experts” will try to convince you that always responding to your baby’s cries will “spoil” them and that they will never learn to not cry to get things. This is wrong for many reasons. The first of which is that crying is one of the only mechanisms babies have to get your attention. Again, they do not do this to annoy or manipulate you. They do this to let you know that they have a need that requires someone else to meet it. Babies cannot meet their own needs. People recognize that when it comes to feeding and changing, but somehow they convince themselves that babies can self-soothe or put themselves to sleep. Babies are developmentally incapable of these tasks.
Let me tell you what does happen as you respond faithfully to your baby’s cries. Instead of being spoiled, your baby will learn that they can trust you! I cannot emphasize that enough: as you respond promptly to your baby’s cries, they will trust that their needs will be taken care of by you. And instead of crying more, they actually start to cry less. This is because as the relationship of trust builds, they start to give you earlier signs of their needs and as you learn to recognize those (and continue to respond promptly) the baby will cry less and less. This article (http://www.parentingscience.com/infant-crying.html) is a great description of what responding to crying does and does not do, and cites studies to back it up (in case you are doubting what I am saying). It also talks about persistent crying (commonly known as colic) and its role in this responsiveness debate.
For those wondering what happens when you don’t cry-it-out to get babies to sleep, ultimately these babies will learn (more likely as older children) to fall asleep without help and to self-soothe. Even toddlers often need the responsive care we are talking about today. This does not make them “needy” or “clingy,” but rather if this relationship of trust has been established from the beginning, they will slowly start to meet their own needs as they are able and when they are ready, just as they achieve any other developmental milestone. This method truly fosters greater independence while maintaining trust.
Now let me explain what will happen if you do not respond promptly to your baby’s cries. And as we describe this, know that generally I am referring to a pattern of unresponsiveness, not being late to respond to your baby once or twice. That is important to keep in mind so parents don’t drive themselves crazy - if you mess up once or twice it’s definitely going to be okay. When baby’s cries are ignored and there is no caregiver present (that is critical, because even your presence makes a huge difference) your baby feels abandoned. When they can’t see you, they can only assume you are gone, and they do not have any concept that you are in the next room, or will be back soon (assuming you plan to do that, and are not intentionally ignoring your child). They feel abandoned. Stress levels rise, crying gets progressively frantic, and if left to continue (some children go hoarse) they will eventually give up (convinced that no one is there to help them), stop crying, and may fall asleep fitfully. (This is discussed more in depth here: http://evolutionaryparenting.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-crying-it-out/ it cites research that babies stop crying when not responded to and even fall asleep, but their levels of stress do not decrease and their attachment with their caregiver decreases. It also offers alternatives to those that are desperate in their attempts to get their child and themselves to sleep.)
If you wanted to develop a relationship of trust with your baby, is that how you would do it?
[Remember that this is in the context that the baby is completely left alone, not crying while you are trying to attend to them - again, your presence makes a huge difference. The mal-effects could still apply if you are present (in sight) but unresponsive.]
I’d like to address some of the objections of those that support “cry-it-out” techniques raise. These techniques are usually implemented to “teach” babies to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. (This article cites more findings of the actual effects of sleep training: http://evolutionaryparenting.com/proving-the-harm-in-early-sleep-training/.) Well, the study I cited earlier proves that babies are not soothed, and their stress levels remain high if the caregiver continues to leave the child alone. Those high stress levels return for the consecutive days, as found in the study. Those that have used cry-it-out believe that the babies are okay because they stop crying and eventually fall asleep, and even cry less for nights following. I would like to remind my audience though, that babies are incapable of self-soothing (and as the study found, are still experiencing high levels of stress even if not crying) - but they are resilient (and tired from crying so much) and do eventually fall asleep.
That is why they like to see their technique as effective because it does (eventually) reach that goal - the infant does indeed fall asleep “on their own.” But at what cost? While babies do fall asleep, they also experience that high level of stress and abandonment. So while they might think that they just taught your child how to fall asleep on their own, they often fail to realize that they also taught their child that they cannot trust their caregivers. Though this doesn’t mean children stop trying to attach to their caregiver. The parents that ignore or give minimal assistance at night but meet needs during the day (though it seems that sometimes these parents tend to delay daytime responses as well) leaves a child anxious and confused, making them more upset and often crying more than children that are repeatedly responded to promptly. This also can affect the baby’s development and growth, as stress inhibits healthy progression. For more details about how the child is affected, check this out: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201112/dangers-crying-it-out. It also gives lots of resources on how to soothe crying babies, and even how to prevent crying where possible.
Why is it that leaving children to cry would make them anxious and confused? It all comes down to what happens in the brain. As you've surely heard before, our brains are a series of connections, and new pathways are created as we learn or experience new things. When we experience something repeatedly or frequently (or study it more often, in the context of learning) then that pathway strengthens and can become a neural "highway." In the context of this discussion, when a baby is responded to repeatedly, it learns that they are a causal creature and that their caregivers can be trusted. When they are repeatedly ignored, they eventually become withdrawn and often quit seeking to get help, even when they still need it. If it's somewhere in the middle, that's where the confusion and anxiety would come in. Let's hear the experts say how this affects us for the rest of our life:
Here’s the zinger about all this. Any emotional-relational-social experiences that are processed before the brain structures that can process experience consciously are fully mature, before 2 ½ -3 years of age, those experiences are stored only in implicit memory, only outside of awareness. This includes ALL early patterns of attachment. The research has proven “beyond irrefutability” that attachment patterns stabilize in our neural circuitry by 12-18 months of age. They are stable and unconscious before we have any conscious choice in the matter and unless new experiences change them, will remain stable “rules” of relating well into adulthood. (Linda Graham, MFT: http://lindagraham-mft.net/resources/published-articles/the-neuroscience-of-attachment/)Basically the way we become attached (or detached) to our parents as children will dictate how we interact with people for the rest of our lives unless the rules change. Mercifully, our brains are plastic and can change and so people can learn new ways, but our early experiences are very formative. Her article is a long one, but goes into even greater depth of how attachment affects our brains and more of what that means.
Another objection I typically hear from cry-it-out proponents is they say, “I let my kids cry-it-out and they are all fine. They are straight-A students and have self confidence.” As I said before, kids are resilient (and can learn new patterns, as just discussed). Many of them do make it out “okay,” and many of you reading today are likely examples of that, having cried-it-out as a baby but are “fine” now. (Though some do not, as seen in more research here: http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/fussy-baby/science-says-excessive-crying-could-be-harmful) But what I do wish to say is that even if we turned out alright, is there not a better way to parent? Should we not give the most vulnerable people in our lives the greatest amount of love and nurturing? I heard one parent claim (paraphrased), “You have to let your babies cry-it-out from day one to teach them how to deal with hard things. Life is hard, and you will only make it harder for them by babying them.” Uh, really? I agree that we need to teach our children how to deal with the difficulties of life, but I am going to have to disagree on the method there. Are we really supposed to let our innocent little infants handle the hardship of life on their own? I should think not.
In fact, I believe God gave us each other, parents, siblings, friends, to help each other through life. If you really do that to your child, you are right, they will learn to handle life on their own. But if, like me, you want your children to go to you with their struggles and confide in you their deepest desires and wishes, then try listening to them as babies. They may not be speaking English, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t speaking.
So not only when my baby cries do I feed, hold, or otherwise attend to him; but when he coos I talk back, when he reaches out for me I hold him, and when he holds me tight I hold even tighter. That is what I did from day one. And personally, I find all of that rather instinctual. Our bodies as mothers are made to respond to our babies (See more on that here: http://www.pregnancyandbaby.com/baby/articles/940433/crying-its-good-for-their-lungs). Their cries are uniquely manufactured so that we will respond quickly. That is why I could never cry-it-out with my baby. It is too important to me that my baby knows that I will always be there for him when he reaches for me -- because I am supposed to be.
What is an alternative to crying-it-out? For me it meant nursing my baby to sleep each night, and often that even meant that he ended up sleeping in the bed with us when he woke for night feedings. In another post I plan on talking about how co-sleeping can be done safely (and be very beneficial!), but for now, know that that worked for us. This article (http://kellymom.com/bf/normal/comfortnursing/) does a great job of explaining how nursing to sleep is perfectly normal and how to deal with common problems you may experience doing that. For me it was the best way to respond to my baby both day and night. He did this through 17 months, and since then he's still been sleeping with us as weaning was pretty rough on him. Next time around we plan to alternate this with other methods (rocking, singing). One of the articles I cited earlier gives other alternatives.
I get that it’s hard - I never claimed what I did was easy. But what I do find “easy” is the child I am raising now - he is trusting of me and is very bonded to me (many people comment to me that they can tell he loves me) and that to me is worth more than the sleep that I lost (and still lose) getting up with him, the tired arms I get for holding him endlessly at times, or the tasks left undone because he needed my undivided attention on a given day (most often when he’s teething).
Is this the perfect formula? Maybe not, maybe you feel you did these things and it didn’t work for you or wore you out too much (though attachment parenting does include reaching out and getting help from others when needed, which is also VERY important so that you don’t experience burn-out and ignore your children due to mere exhaustion). Maybe learning about and applying more of the other principles in attachment parenting will help you more than this one. But it has worked for me and I would encourage any parents out there not already practicing these things to give them a try. Literally nothing would make me happier than to know that more parents were responding to their children and helping them bond and grow and be emotionally secure.
I get that it’s hard, parents. I really do. If you are struggling to take care of your baby/children then by all means call on others for some help. You will be a better parent the more emotionally stable you are. If I am in your area I will gladly help you out. (Or here is a quick article on why your baby may be crying: http://www.babycenter.com/0_12-reasons-babies-cry-and-how-to-soothe-them_9790.bc?showAll=true)
So please, listen to your babies - you won’t regret it.