Although parents may want to block it from their memory, every parent can recall the times when they were up in the middle of night, perhaps every two- to three-hours, to tend to the cries of their baby. Given the sleep deprivation and frustration that may come with keeping such a schedule, many parents have been tempted to let their baby ‘cry it out’. Further, some family members even may go so far as to say that parents will spoil their baby if parents pick their baby up every time that he or she cries. Contrary to these beliefs, however, Richardson (2010) indicates that a new book (“The Essential First Year-What Babies Need Parents to Know” to be published in May 2010 by DK Publishing) by Penelope Leach, a psychologist, provides different advice. In fact, Leach states that parents should do just the opposite. In particular, Leach suggests that allowing babies to cry for 30 minutes of longer will prompt babies’ brains to produce high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in a potentially toxic effect on babies’ brain development (Richardson, 2010). Most parents would be in agreement that brain development is quite important, but some still may be skeptical that they should respond to their baby as soon as he or she cries.
Thus, to lend more credence to the argument that parents should respond to the cries of their baby, it also should be noted that parents’ predictable responses provide a means for babies to attach to their parents. In particular, attachment involves the enduring bond that develops over time between a baby and his or her caregiver(s) (usually a parent or parents) as babies and parents interact with each other (Bowlby, 1988). One of the main precursors to babies’ developing a positive and secure attachment to their parents is the synchrony that hopefully will be present between babies and their parents. In other words, a positive and secure attachment between babies and their parents is more likely to develop when parents respond predictably to the needs and distress of their babies (Bowlby, 1988). When such a secure attachment has developed, babies will begin to use their parents as a secure base, a safety zone of sorts where babies will move around their environment and explore (as soon as they are mobile) but return to their parents for reassurance (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Babies who are attached securely also will cry when they are separated from their parents, as they have come to recognize the importance of these individuals in helping them to manage their surrounding environment, but can be comforted easily by their parents upon their return (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Thus, parents being responsive to babies’ distress actually fosters psychosocial development as well.
If a secure attachment does not develop, an insecure attachment may develop instead. Insecure attachments may characterize babies who avoid contact with their parents (possibly because they have learned that their parents are not helpful in meeting their needs), babies who appear to be undecided in their desire to seek their parents’ attention (possibly because they are unsure about whether their parents will be helpful in meeting their needs; Ainsworth et al., 1978), or babies who freeze or appear overwhelmed by the presence of their parents (possibly because they have discovered that their parents are abusive in some way; Main & Solomon, 1986). Given the implications for babies’ brain and psychosocial development, it seems wise for parents, even weary ones, to continue to tend to their babies whenever their babies are distressed. It seems that the only thing that may be ‘spoiled’ by parents allowing their babies to ‘cry it out’ is babies future brain and psychosocial development.
Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Oxford, England: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.
Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern: Procedures, findings and implications for the classification of behavior. In T. B. Brazelton & M. Yogman (Eds.), Affective development in infancy (pp. 95-124). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Richardson, H. (2010). Crying-it-out ‘harms baby brains’. Retrieved from http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/8636950.stm?ad=1