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!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Em and Lib April 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm

YAY you! for bringing balance to this issue…and doing it well without being snarkY! LIB


Jessica April 28, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Sigh… I guess in those first few weeks when I was so sleep deprived and about to snap, holding my infant would have been a better option. After all, it's ALWAYS better to snap while holding a crying infant than take a break and let the baby cry while you re-compose yourself.
Great post!


Anonymous April 28, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Hate to burst your bubble, but it didn't make me feel like a bad mom because… I never let my kids cry themselves out when they were babies. Didn't seem right to me, even if some of the baby doctor books did advise it.


Kim - In Search of Me in Mommy April 29, 2010 at 12:57 am

I came on to comment and say that no matter what, there is always something available to feel guilty about…and we all just need to support each other – even if we make different parenting decisions. But after reading the previous comment I got annoyed. It's that righteousness – from another mom – that is really the most hurtful to motherhood. And that, is sad.


Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Obviously, Anonymous didn't read the whole post!
Nana Greene


Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Nope, I did read the whole post. While I love many of Amy's stories (and hence read her blog), she does have a habit of dissing any parenting advice that she does not choose to follow. Then she espouses the "all paths are great" philosophy. Not saying your kid won't survive being left to cry it out, of course they will… but I happen to think that there are biological reasons why our kids cry, and why we (esp. moms) are wired to go pick them up when they do. Plus, I want my kid to know that even when I can't fix what is wrong, I am in their corner and supporting as best I can. This was just the earliest opportunity to do that. Now that my kids are older (teens/young adults), they have tremendous trust and confidence in me; their friends and friends' parents often comment on that quality in our relationship. If I want to be able to count on my kids when I need something from them, and expect them to be caring and copassionate, why should I expect that if I don't give them comfort when they need it?


Amy Wilson April 29, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Anonymous- just to clarify: I'm dissing the guilt trip itself. I'm not arguing with Ms. Leach's point of view, or the studies she cites (though some have). I'm arguing with the way her quotes have been taken out of context and sensationalized to scare us and make us feel bad. I'm arguing that the lack of gray area in headlines like "crying it out equals brain damage" is nonsense. I was never a hard-core Ferberizer. I carried my babies around in slings. But I cannot say I responded to their every cry and whimper at the instant it occurred. I don't think I'm a bad mother for that. And I don't think anyone else should be made to feel that way, either.


JEZ May 5, 2010 at 1:16 am

I let my daughter cry it out at 10 weeks because she was fussy and wouldn't sleep unless I was holding her. It was the hardest thing I have ever done but sooo rewarding. She is a fabulous sleeper and a SUPER BRIGHT 2 and half year old. No brain damage there at all. WHEW!

I get my fill of guilt on so no need for me to buy those radical parenting books!


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