If you missed the hoopla last week, allow me to fill you in: Dr. Penelope Leach, the parenting expert and bestselling author of the 70’s tome Baby and Child claims in her new book The Essential First Year that letting your baby cry it out to sleep raises cortisol levels that may cause brain damage.
Chew on that for a moment. Let’s say you’re an exhausted new mom with a baby who refuses to sleep unless you rock him, hold him or do whatever circus of activities he’s manipulated you into. So you try one of the many “cry it out” techniques that other parenting experts and authors have suggested, like the ones I describe in my own book, Stop Second-Guessing Yourself — Baby’s First Year, which officially publishes the same day as Dr. Leach’s. The ones I didn’t have the guts (nor the complete frustration…yet) to try until my younger son was 16-months-old and could then saunter down the hallway to announce his refusal to sleep.
Now, here’s a renowned expert telling you that if you let your baby cry, you are going to RUIN HIS BRAIN. Because there aren’t enough things for modern moms to worry about already, like claims that baby boys with nannies will become womanizers and babies of moms who work part-time are the healthiest. I am not making this crap up. Other people are, and some of them are basing them on questionable studies or extrapolating out data in questionable ways.
In fact, WebMDseemed to question Leach’s claim that letting your baby cry it out to sleep is “toxic” to your child’s brain. The article quotes Dr. Martin Ward-Platt, author of The Wonder Years, The Essential Guide to Child Development for Ages 0-5 as saying, “I cannot believe that Penelope [Leach] is as scientifically naive as she comes across when she makes her public utterances.” Additionally, Babble says: “To date, however, cortisol levels have only been shown to be damaging in cases of chronic stress due to abuse or exposure to violence — not isolated incidents as would be the case with crying it out.”
That’s small comfort for the mom of a one-year-old baby who e-mailed me last week to, I suspect, get permission to let her baby cry it out. She cited the study and wrote: “Well my almost one year old baby won’t let me rock her to sleep and even though I do my best to comfort her, she won’t sleep unless she cries it out. You seem like a mom who knows what she is talking about. Could you give me your opinion and some advice, because I most certainly don’t want to hinder her brain development. And while it’s hard for me to hear her cry, that is the only way my little girl will go to sleep.”
I told her that I am not a medical doctor, and that she should consult her pediatrician. I hope that she will also trust her gut, because if I were in her shoes, I may well give up at this point and lose it completely, especially having been the mom of not one, but two colicky babies who cried for hours on end for a combined total of seven months, no matter what I did to try to calm them down.
Mothers today are all too often guilted or scared into second-guessing themselves by the media, other parents, studies and more, in a way that no other part of society is experiencing. We are damned if we do and flamed by people who follow Dr. Leach if we don’t. And it’s time it stopped before new moms like the one who e-mailed me the other day lose their minds altogether from the exhaustion, the confusion and the raised cortisol levels from not sleeping much at all for a year or longer.
Moms, please, PLEASE trust your gut. Mothers have been raising children for millennia without the “benefit” of studies and claims like these, and turning out perfectly normal children. Please don’t be frightened. Your instincts and a little common sense will serve you — and your babies — well.
Oh, and the kid I let cry it out? He got straight A’s on his report card today. Chew on that for a moment.