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Why you shouldn’t let your baby cry alone

CRYING BABY
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Letting babies "cry it out" is not beneficial, but in the end, research has nothing on your mama intuition.

In the last 12 (almost 13!) years of parenting, I’ve probably embraced and discarded just about every trend, theory, and fad in existence. The one thing I’ve learned about parenting has only solidified since the day a nurse handed me a tiny, swaddled newborn and expected me (me!) to take this fragile creature home and care for her: I know nothing about the right way to parent.

Luckily over the years I’ve also come to realize that there is no right way to parent. There’s only doing the best you can for this child, right now, at this time and in this place. That being said, I’ve amassed a fair number of regrets over the years, and one of the most profound regrets I have is the fact that for the first few months of my fourth baby’s life, I let him cry alone in his crib for hours.

Lincoln was a surprise, but with two solid years between him and his older brother, I wasn’t panicked about it. We had just moved across the country, from Vegas to Florida, and we were in a real house for the first time. Our oldest was set to start school before Lincoln’s arrival, but I had parented two toddlers and a newborn before and felt confident I could do it again.

Lincoln’s birth, however, was unexpectedly traumatic and threw me into an abyss of postpartum depression that was compounded by the fact that from the day we brought him home from the hospital, nearly a week after he was born, he did nothing but scream.

He screamed when he was hungry, while he was eating, and after he was full. He screamed when he needed to poop and he screamed when he had a dirty diaper. He screamed when he was lying down, when he woke up, when he was falling asleep — the child even did the seemingly impossible and screamed while he was sleeping. The only time he didn’t scream was when I held him upright in the rocking chair and hummed quietly to him.

For the first six weeks of his life, I lived in that rocking chair. The toddlers watched cartoons and ate granola bars and Cheez-Its and anything else they could grab from the bottom shelves of the pantry while I rocked and hummed, hummed and rocked. A severe tongue-tie diagnosis finally gave me a light at the end of the tunnel, and I was certain that this would all be over once he had surgery to correct it.

And for a few days afterward, it was. And then it wasn’t. The pediatrician ran all kinds of test before assuring us that he was just colicky, and that I would have to just lay him down and let him cry. By this point I was more sleep-deprivation and despair than human, so I did. I laid him down and let him cry, and then sat outside his door with my hands over my ears and tears streaming down my face as he cried, and cried, and cried. For hours. For days. For weeks. For months, my baby cried endlessly alone in his crib while I cried just outside his room.

If I could go back and change one thing about my parenting, I would change that. I would listen to my impulse to pick him up and, even if he still cried and even if I still cried, at least we’d be crying with each other. There’s simply too much research now that confirms, like this article from Cultura Collectiva, that letting an infant cry alone is not in anyone’s best interest:

According to Rebecca Michi (Children’s Sleep Consultant), crying isn’t only a response to hunger, cold, or discomfort, but actually, a way to tell others they’re feeling anxious or just that they want your attention and warmth. Thus, the idea of over dependence is selfish, since a baby (mainly in their first months) doesn’t really rationalize what they’re doing. If you leave them unattended, they won’t really understand it’s because you’re trying to control their sleep cycles or anything like that. For them, it’s just neglect. As Michi states, this will only push them to stop trying to communicate with you, and yes, they’ll eventually stop crying at night, but not because they’ve managed to learn how to sleep through the night, but actually because they get that no one will come to them in a moment of need. That automatically creates a detachment in the relationship that will be very hard to fix later.

And that’s not the worst part. When a baby cries for a long period of time, their body starts releasing a lot of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. This hormone eventually increases anxiety, and in the worst cases, it can actually prevent growth hormones from being released. When your body doesn’t produce enough of these hormones, there can be an inhibition in the development of nerve tissue in the brain, resulting in a weakening of the growth process and the strength of the immune system. If this didn’t sound horrible enough, it’s been discovered that in many cases where babies are left to cry for extended periods of times, it accelerates their adrenaline, leading to aggressive and impulsive behaviors later in life.

Lincoln never did learn to stop crying — in fact, he would cry himself to sleep and keep crying in his sleep well into his first year of life. This only really changed when he learned to walk at seven months, which was so much earlier than my other kids. But he was motivated, because what he hated then (and still hates now), more than anything in the world, is being alone. As soon as he learned to walk he could control that, and he stuck to me and his siblings like glue. He’s the only child I’ve had that’s learned to climb out of his crib before 9 months, and the crib soon became pointless.

I’m glad he learned to walk to early, honestly, because I worry that he could have suffered from detachment otherwise. He doesn’t — in fact, he’s the most attached child I have. But he is incredibly impulsive, and despite his sweet, tender nature, he can be accidentally aggressive. Not out of malice — simply out of exuberance and poor impulse control.

Granted, that might have nothing to do with the early months of crying alone — correlation is, after all, not causation. But it haunts me nevertheless … as do the memories of those long, long nights of tears when all I wanted to do was pick my baby up and comfort him.

So mama, if you’re reading this and you, too, have a baby like Lincoln, don’t worry about not spoiling the baby or trying to sleep-train. Just listen to your instincts and try to survive as best you can. The days and nights are endless right now, but they will end. You will sleep again, and so will your baby. But I’ll tell you what I wish someone had told me five years ago — if your heart tells you to pick your baby up, don’t hesitate. You’re a mother, and your instincts are good. Trust them.

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