Research suggests that allowing a baby to “cry it out” can cause brain damage and at best causes extreme distress to the baby. Evidence is mounting that such distress in a newborn blocks the full development of certain areas of the brain and causes the brain to produce extra amounts of cortisol which can be harmful. Doctors say that children who suffer early trauma generally develop smaller brains.
Research shows that the brain areas affected by severe distress are the limbic system, the left hemisphere and the corpus callosum. Additional areas that may be involved are the hippocampus (located in the center of the brain and vital for long-term memory and spatial perception) and the orbitofrontal cortex (located at the front of the brain and vital for thinking such as decision making).
Some doctors argue that some of the brain-damaging effects may occur if parents fail to properly nurture a baby—and that means not allowing them to ‘cry it out’. In The Science of Parenting, the first parenting book to link parent behavior with infant brain development, Dr. Margot Sunderland describes how the infant’s brain is still being “sculpted” after birth, and that, parents have a major role in the brain “sculpting” process. To do this properly, Dr. Sunderland advocates that it is crucial for parents to meet the reasonable emotional needs of their child. This is assisted by continuously providing an emotionally nurturing environment for the child. Allowing a baby to “cry it out” when they are upset will probably be regarded as child abuse by future generations.
Why is it so hard to let a crying baby cry?
Research shows that our response to a baby’s cry may be hardwired into our brain. A baby cries because it is hungry, tired, too hot, too cold, lonely or otherwise unhappy. In effect, it is the only way the child can communicate their needs. If they could talk, they would. If a baby did not have a terribly shrill cry, they would less likely get attention and, from an evolutionary point of view, would unlikely be responded to and hence perish. So biologically, nature gives a baby their terrible cry for survival purposes.
Parents are also too biologically wired to not respond to their babies’ cries; responding isn’t simply a matter of choice, like whether to go see a movie or a band on a Friday night. Magnetic resonance images (MRIs) of mothers’ brains show that the hypothalamus and cingulated (parts of the mammal brain) are activated when their baby cries. The result is that most mothers feel physically compelled to pick up and soothe their crying babies.