Our daughter has never been much inclined toward sleep. A standard stretch usually won’t exceed four hours, and more frequent waking (like every hour) is far from unheard of in our house. As a result, my husband and I have yet to get a solid night’s sleep in the last 18 months.
We have marveled at the discovery that our bodies (and our minds – though arguably to a lesser extent) can continue to function on just a few nonconsecutive hours of rest a night, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. And yet, each night, when she cries, we wake to soothe her back to sleep beside us.
Mainstream American parenting culture tells us that she should be sleeping through the night by now. A common approach to accomplishing this is the Ferber/extinction method, otherwise known as “cry-it-out.” Have we considered it? Of course. Believe me, we’ve considered everything. But ultimately, crying it out just isn’t compatible with the principles of attachment parenting we believe in.
Attachment parenting is no newfangled trend. Though the term originated with pediatrician Dr. Bill Sears, the theory behind it was advanced by developmental psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960s. According to attachment theory, a strong bond between babies and parents is crucial for the child’s social, emotional, and even physical development. That bond is simply not reinforced by refusing to respond to the baby’s cry.
There is scientific evidence to support the proposition that leaving a baby to cry alone can cause physiological, if not psychological and emotional harm. Studies have shown that periods of crying and upset are accompanied by a flood of the stress hormone cortisol; frequent and prolonged exposure to cortisol can affect brain development in areas relating to memory, emotional regulation and attention, and behavior. The presence of a loving parent has been demonstrated to lower levels of cortisol even during episodes of crying.
Although such information is always of interest to us, on this issue we find ourselves guided less by science and more by instinct, and even a little common sense. Proponents of cry-it-out suggest that this method teaches the baby to “self-soothe.” I find it hard to believe that a baby left to cry it out has actually soothed herself to sleep rather than falling asleep after exhausting herself crying. It’s true that babies subjected to the cry-it-out technique may eventually cry less at night, but who’s to say that is a reflection of self-soothing skills rather than the result of basic behavioral conditioning?
Cry-it-out is, after all, operant conditioning, a method designed to extinguish a specific behavior. The baby, having learned that her attempt at communicating her need for comfort by crying does not elicit any response, will eventually cease in her efforts. Thus the crying stops – and behaviorists declare the process a success. But while she may not cry any more at night, it’s likely not because the reason she was crying has been resolved – why the baby was crying has no place in a behavioral analysis and therefore was never addressed.
All babies, in fact all people, wake frequently at night. If (hopefully when) our baby is able to wake at night and soothe herself back to sleep, we’d like for it to be because she is ready to do so, not because we’ve left her with no alternative. Some would counter that in being responsive to her nighttime needs, we’re spoiling her, and that she’ll grow up demanding and dependent. But as acknowledged by Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry researchers Commons and Miller, physical contact and reassurance at this young age fosters the kind of secure attachment which will provide our daughter a foundation from which to establish her independence.
We think that’s worth a few more sleepless nights.