Who would've thought that besides being kind of nerve-racking, leaving a baby to cry can have serious effects on their brain?
I’ve always been afraid of aggressive people. I’ve met a more than few in my life and it’s always nerve-racking to be around them knowing that the smallest thing can spark their aggressive tendencies. We all have different personalities and ways to channel our emotions in any given situation. There are people who react rationally, while others go for a more emotional, hot-blooded manner. But there are some who seem to react more aggressively to things that might not be as important as they make it look. One could say this is a matter of personality only, others that it has to do with the environment where they grew up. Both are correct in a way, but it turns out that this can be traced to something more simple, related to how your parents dealt with your crying when you were just a baby.
Many sociologists and psychologists have debunked the old theory that claimed that leaving a child to cry produces independent children. In fact, ignoring your baby's cry might actually turn them into aggressive people, among many other unpleasant traits. You might be thinking, what kind of person ignores their baby’s cry? I, for one, had never thought about it. I mean, forget the instinct to protect and take care of your child, it’s really stressful to listen to a baby cry for minutes on end. Ok, that’s selfish, but you know thought it too. So, anyway, let’s get to the science behind it.
There’s a theory highly encouraged in psychology that encourages parents to leave their babies to cry out not only to control the hours and processes of their sleep, but also to teach them at an early age about independence and that “bad behaviors” aren’t to be encouraged. As detractors of this wave of thought claim, this isn’t only neglecting them, but actually just a selfish attitude that can cause much more damage in a child than just aggressive tendencies in life. For instance, they claim that crying isn’t a bad behavior, but rather one of the few ways in which babies can communicates with others. As they say, there’s always a reason behind their crying, and it’s their caretakers' job to find out what it is.
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 their 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.
Now, why is leaving babies to cry still recommended by so many specialists? According to Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D., there’s not enough evidence to support this theory. Actually, this became quite popular in the 1920s, when John Watson took over the presidency of the American Psychological Association. According to him, attending a baby every time they cry would only make them extremely dependent on the parents. But actually, it's quite the opposite, the less attention we have the more, we cling to the little we get. But besides that, he claimed that babies were time-consuming and actually a burden for parents. I mean, let’s remember that this was the time when science was led by men who thought they knew better than anybody. There was even a pamphlet issued by the government at the time that encouraged women to stop holding their babies when their arms felt tired because a “baby should never be an inconvenience to the adult.” Shocking? Not really.
The many theories shattering these outdated and honestly disturbing thoughts have gone to more verifiable means to sustain their thesis. For instance, the University of North Texas conducted a study in which 25 babies aged four to ten months were observed during their sleep cycles. Some of them were left to cry, and saliva samples were taken to measure their cortisol levels. Naturally, compared to the babies that were attended properly, these had very high amounts of the stress hormone on their system. This study also showed that children that were left to cry for long periods of times during their first three months, presented later around 9 IQ points lower and had important differences in their fine motor abilities. Dr. Koneti Rao (National Institutes of Health) took it further when he explained that babies treated this way tended to develop neurological damage that could become a “marker for cognitive deficits during childhood.”
To sum things up, what happens is that stress can end up damaging the brain’s synapses, leaving a functional pattern that it’s hard for the individual to change later on. Yes, having a kid can be demanding, but that’s not new, just take care of them and tend to their needs, why would you follow a theory that looks so logically flawed? Besides that, the world doesn’t need more aggressive and impulsive people, we have already enough of that, so, if you already have or you want to have a baby, please do your job.
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