Baby Cry to Sleep – No

Every parent dreams of a good night’s sleep and most parents who allow their babies to cry themselves to sleep do so with the best of intentions.  There is a common misconception that allowing a baby to cry itself to sleep teaches the baby how to fall asleep by itself without its parents help. 

Dependent on its mother for survival, being left alone to cry is very frightening for a baby.  When left alone to cry, levels of the stress hormone cortisol start to rise in the baby’s brain.  The baby does not understand why its cries are ignored by its mother.  The baby may eventually shut itself off from its emotions as a way of coping and will stop crying.  Exhausted the baby will finally fall asleep, perhaps for several hours.  Exactly what the parents wanted!  The baby may protest and cry more the following night, perhaps for a few nights, but eventually the baby will accept that its cries do not get any response.  The baby may learn to fall asleep without help and sleep through the night but what effect has all this stress had on the baby? 

In her book Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt explains that while normal levels of cortisol in the brain are fine, too much or too little of this stress hormone can have negative effects.  If a baby is exposed to stressful situations for too long or too often (such as when being left alone to cry) its brain will begin to either under or over-produce cortisol whenever the baby is in such a situation.  Too much cortisol in the brain has been linked to depression and fearfulness.  Too little cortisol has been linked to emotional detachment and aggression. 

As any parent will know there are some nights where everything possible has been tried in order to console the baby but the cause of crying cannot be identified.  Babies cry for all sorts of reasons – tiredness, hunger, wet or dirty nappy, colic, teething or even simply feeling too hot or too cold.  If the baby cannot be consoled and continues to cry the parents should still do everything they can to calm the baby down – holding, rocking, singing and trying to distract the baby.  It may be that the baby eventually cries itself to sleep, but it is far better that the baby falls asleep in the comforting arms of loving parents than abandoned in a cot alone.