here’s the latest thing to hate yourself for

Did you ever leave your baby to cry it out? Ever? Brain damage. Yep. Good job, Mom.

Baby expert Penelope Leach– who’s been around since SuperNanny was in nappies herself- recently told the BBC that leaving young babies to cry themselves to sleep “may be toxic to their brains.” Her new book, The Essential First Year, apparently has more details (it’s not out till next week). 

If a baby cries too long, she argues, the brain stem releases cortisol, a hormone only seen under extreme stress, and which could damage further brain development.

This has, of course, lit up traditional press and the internet, and led to the usual “mother load” of guilt: any crying it out, the headlines say, will damage your baby.

I haven’t read Ms. Leach’s book. Neither have most of these people stoking the flames, I imagine. But if you read what she says in the BBC article closely, it is clear: she’s talking about letting infants cry. For over an hour. Night after night.

Now that the message is out in the world, though, it of course gets blown up to mean all sleep training, even for a moment, is child abuse.

As usual, there’s no gray area allowed for, only absolutes- which means every single mother reading this will feel bad.  I think everyone lets his or her baby cry in the crib eventually– even the most dedicated of co-sleepers need their beds back, even if they wait till their child is three or four years old for the tough love. There are nights when a six-month old baby will cry, and you just fed her, and you just changed her, and she wants to play, and she needs to learn that it’s three a.m. At those times, a parent needs to feel okay about letting her baby cry for a few minutes.

There’s a difference between letting a six-week-old cry for ninety minutes and letting an eighteen-month-old yell “Hi Mommy!” for ten. There’s a difference between letting a sick baby cry and letting a baby briefly disturbed by a car alarm down the street cry.

But that doesn’t make good headlines, or good finger-pointing, and so Ms. Leach’s message has been twisted to make every single one of us a bad mother. I don’t think that was her intent. And we shouldn’t accept the blame.

(If, on the other hand, you’d like to read a well-written article on the controversy, Heather Turgeon at Babble has a great, balanced viewpoint.)

Looking for a great Mother’s Day gift? Might I suggest When Did I Get Like This? I promise… any mother who reads it will feel a lot better about herself!