Crying it out may damage baby’s brain

by Educational Toys Planet

crying-babyI found this article waaaay too important to provide everyone with just a link. You can find more information published in other resources at the end of the article. The original article is published in National Post (Canada).
Dr. Stephen Juan, National Post, Monday, October 30, 2006


Research suggests that allowing a baby to “cry it out” can cause brain damage. Some experts warn that allowing a baby to “cry it out” causes extreme distress to the baby. And such extreme distress in a newborn has been found to block the full development of certain areas of the brain and causes the brain to produce extra amounts of cortisol, which can be harmful.

According to a University of Pittsburgh study by Dr. M. DeBellis and seven colleagues, published in Biological Psychiatry in 2004, children who suffer early trauma generally develop smaller brains.

A Harvard University study by Dr. M. Teicher and five colleagues, also published in Biological Psychiatry, claims 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 and the orbitofrontal cortex.

The Science of Parenting by Dr. Margot Sunderland (Dorling Kindersley, 2006) points out some of the brain damaging effects that can occur if parents fail to properly nurture a baby — and that means not allowing them to “cry it out.” Dr. Sunderland, the director of education and training at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, draws upon work in neuroscience to come to her conclusions and recommendations about parenting practice.

In the first parenting book to link parent behavior with infant brain development, Dr. Sunderland describes how the infant brain is still being “sculpted” after birth. Parents have a major role in this brain “sculpting” process.

Dr. Sunderland argues that it is crucial that parents meet the reasonable emotional needs of the infant. This is helped along by providing a continuously emotionally nurturant environment for the infant.

Allowing a baby to “cry it out” when they are upset will probably be regarded as child abuse by future generations.

I was able find more information about this study: check out Science shows up Supernanny , by Amelia Hill, (The Observer, Sunday November 7, 2004), that further indicates that “there is a new theory that uses brain scans to argue that controlled crying not only damages babies’ brains but produces angry, anxious adults”. This article provides further suggestions on how to manage children’s crying. For other suggestions, check our Book Review Section.


  1. Med Student

    After reading the sleep deprivation article and the reference to crying it out, I did a search on Dr. Sunderland to find out what is defined as “crying it out.” Apparently, that is “…controlled crying (sleep training).” )

  2. Med Student

    My question is the frequency of allowing a child to “cry it out.” Everything can be good and bad depending on how often and how much. I am medical student, so I am surprised that this doctor did not explain this. As for future child abuse, child abuse has guidelines, and the first would be the question of how often and how long a child is allowed to “cry it out.” Allowing a baby to cry it out does not necessarily mean that a parent is not attending to his/her needs. While experts do not recommend allowing a child to “cry it out,” they do recommend allowing the child to cry for small intervals to give the parent a mental break to avoid mental breakdown! However, that is only after the parent has attended to all of the child’s emotional needs to soothe them. I personally only had to give myself a mental break 4 times in total with my 3 children, and five or ten minutes really met a difference! When she began to settle down, I would go gently rub her back and sing a lullaby, or put a lullaby cd on. In those 4 times, I attended to my child before, during, and after those very rare crying episodes. I checked for gas, constipation, fever, injury, and everything else.

    Also, what about children with colic? Where are the studies to show and prove that those children will have brain damage? Those babies cry all the time for no known reasons. That does not mean that their emotional needs are not met. Daily and regular soothing, talking to, gently bathing, massaging, and holding are all emotional aspects. I have been criticized by everyone for doing too much of this with all of my children (been called neurotic), and studies also show that this can be very positive but can cause some dependency issues, which did not happen with any of my children.

    All I am saying is that people should be careful before they go asserting that things are “child abuse” without defining the degree. In the future generations, the parents’ of today will be viewed as child abusers for not attending to their teenagers’ emotional needs since their brain is still being “sculpted.” Exhausted single parents are already being blamed for the rise in teenage drug abuse and pregnancy because they did not attend to their child’s emotional needs so the kids went elsewhere. We, in the medical field, continue to learn new brain and environment relationships. Soon, divorce will also be a form of child abuse since everyone knows that the child really suffers.

  3. Med Student

    What I mean by “crying it out” is not the same as the post about wanting to get some sleep and the baby does not go to sleep. I’m rather equanimous, even without sleep. I would, and have stayed up all night or as long as it took for the baby to settle down to sleep. I am referring to seemingly unconsolable crying when I say “cry it out.” I don’t literally mean that the baby should be left to stop on his/her own acccord. I am talking about a five or ten minute break for the parent to get it together after doing everything possible to sooth the baby. Then the parent should return to the baby and resume comforting the baby. That’s why I asked what “crying it out” met. That could mean a lot of things.

  4. Alicia

    I have a daughter who would not sleep through the night for many months. I read the “no Cry sleep solution”. It also agrees that babies should not “cry it out”. It teaches simple principles for helping your child to got to sleep. I used this method. I responded to everyone of my little girl’s cries (except when I was at wits end). I helped her learn to sleep. Now at age 15 months, I read her a story, wrap her in a blanket (she actually sits on the blanket as soon as I put it on the floor,waiting for me to wrap her up), feed her milk, sing her a song and within 15 min. of wrapping her up I put her in her crib. The amazing thing is that she is awake when I put her down. Eyes wide open. I leave and she goes to sleep. NO CRYING during this entire time. She sleeps for 10-12 hours and wakes up happy to see us! She does the same thing for her 2 hour nap. So to the sleepless mother- get the book no cry sleep solution. Follow it! It might take some time but I would do it again and again to be able to go to sleep every night relaxed and listening to my angel’s resting, deep breathe!!

  5. Angela

    I believe there are more then one type of crying.
    The crying that a baby does because it is hurt, hungry, wet, etc, deffinitly needs to be met. most, if not all mothers know the difference.
    When my son was 8 weeks old, he screamed for 2 HOURS straight while i held him, rocked him, nursed him, bounced him, etc. At my wits end, a friends suggested the book “Healthy Sleep habits, happy child” I got it right away, read it, and put some of it to practice. At the time, my son wasn’t going to bed until 11pm or past. that wasn’t working, because then he would sleep till 11am(and during the dead of winter, half the day and its light was gone)
    My husband and i started letting him cry. the crying only lasted for 45mins the first day, 30 mins the second day, and then 10 mins the 3rd day. My son now goes to sleep at 6pm, wakes at 8am. he has 3 naps, and he is a VERY happy child.
    sometimes babies, toddlers and children cry because they are tired or over tired. I believe there would be more damage done to a child’s brain from not sleeping enough, then “crying it out”
    Children need sleep, and its up to the parents to get their children into healthy sleeping habits, however most children would rather stay up with the parents and play, then go to sleep. this is when the crying method might have to be practiced. Afterall, parents can’t give a child EVERYTHING they WANT…but i know parents want to give their children what the NEED.

  6. Alenka

    I couldn’t agree more that children need to learn to fall asleep by themselves. I couldn’t agree more, that healthy sleeping habits are important both for kids and parents. However, crying out is damaging for kids future development. Kids left out to cry (at any age!) without their parents comforting them, get a brain damage: literary, not figuratively, psychologically or hypothetically. Absolutely literally: under stress conditions, there is a pheromone that gets released in the body, called “cortisol”. Without soothing, the levels of cortisol gets very high, and one of the side-effects of this pheromone is simply scary: it kills brain cells.

    An 8 month old crying inconsolably: that sounds like colic, not bad sleeping habits. Colics start sometime between 3 weeks and 3 months, and by 3-4 months babies usually outgrow them. There are variety of reasons and theories behind colics, but regardless of the theory, the babies still need our love and attention.

    I personally had two very colicky babies (i.e. hours of crying on a daily basis), I personally had 2 kids with different levels and types of sleeping problems. Both were taught to fall asleep all by themselves and sleep through the night with kind and loving methods. I can’t stop recommending “No Cry To Sleep Solution” by Elizabeth Pantley.

    Not leaving your kids to cry it out, doesn’t mean you don’t get sleep. It merely means reaching the same goal (sleeping baby, happy parent) by different means – without the humility and frustration of the cry-it-out on both parts. I’ve got to admit: in a way it is slower, it takes time and patience. However, having kids requires both anyway: if somebody doesn’t have neither time nor patience, then why having kids in the first place?

    I agree that parents need to give the kids what then NEED, not what they WANT. I agree that children might cry because they are overtired. I agree that loss of sleep has devastating effects on everybody. Again, it’s not the goal that is problematic, it’s the means of getting there. No offense.

  7. Lauren

    I’d like to note that the two comments in favor of allowing children to cry it out are ONLY based on their experience. I wouldn’t use a study consisting of one or two participants to make my decision on something that could possibly cause brain injury, so please don’t make any decisions based on “well it worked for me!” anecdotes.

    Crying it out should be a last resort to avoid serious child abuse or neglect until the extent of possible physiological side effects are known.

  8. Alenka

    Interesting opinion. While I know a lot of my friends are finding this technique absolutely normal, I strongly believe it is not “the last resort to avoid neglect or child abuse” – it is the first step of both. No offense – I feel very strongly about this one, though I am very glad to have this discussion – it is really interesting to hear other points of view.

  9. Butter

    I’ve asked all my friends who have parents that can reply and all of them, born and raised starting in the 70’s, had parents who made them cry it out. I wouldn’t characterize them as angry anxious people.

  10. MsHm

    I’ve been following this debate all over the internet, and find it really interesting. I used controlled crying when my son was a toddler 9 years ago (and to a much lesser extent did something similar with my daughter, although she was always a better sleeper), and have several friends with babies & toddlers now who are going through various sleep problems. It seems to me, when reading about this debate, that most of the issues get very muddled, and people often seem to be talking about entirely different things. This confusion does nothing to help parents trying to find a way to preserve their own sanity whilst giving their child the best possible start, and if anything is seriously counterproductive as so many parents feel they are doing everything wrong no matter what they do!

    One serious misunderstanding I’ve noticed is that many people seem to be under the impression that the scientific studies linked to actually deal with with controlled crying or other “crying it out” methods, which simply isn’t the case. The studies looked at children who had experienced of severe trauma & neglect, not children from normal families who used controlled crying. The kind of stresses they are talking about these children’s brains being subjected to are of a different order of magnitude, continued over extended periods of time, and would have been combined with generally poor parenting. We are talking chronic exposure to stress hormones over long periods. This just can’t be compared to leaving an otherwise well-cared-for and unconditionally loved child to cry for a while at night for a few weeks at most (controlled crying, done properly, usually only takes a couple of weeks after which the child only cries at night when there is a serious problem, or only wakes to have a brief winge before settling themselves back down).

    People also seem to fail to distinguish between different “cry it out” methods, as though all parents who do this are leaving their children to cry for hours every night. The controlled crying method I and many other parents have used is more gentle, involving a much more gradual process of slowly letting the child get used to you not instantly coming to pick them up every time they cry. I frequently went in to my son to reassure him that I was there but left again after a short time and left him to cry a little longer each time – he wasn’t lying there screaming for hours without being attended to! I also paid attention to how his cries sounded – if it sounded like he was in serious distress I would go to him regardless of how long it was since I last went in.

    The other issue that seems to cause confusion is related to the age of the baby – many of the experts who argue against using “cry it out” methods are specifically talking about very young babies, yet their opinions are then taken up by others to be applied to all children, even much older preschoolers who are at an age where crying is a less primal response and more about being a way to get what they want and express the fact that they feel hard-done-by. I absolutely agree that very young babies should feel able to totally rely on their caregivers, and that their crying should not be seen as “manipulative” in any negative sense. For young babies “crying it out” is completely inappropriate and unhelpful. But I think there is a point where the child starts to become more “knowing” about what they are doing, as well as being more able to communicate their needs in other ways, which usually corresponds approximately with the point at which long term sleep deprivation on the part of the parent starts to have very serious consequences (a parent on the verge of a breakdown due to 2 years of getting only a few hours of broken sleep each night is much more of a danger to the child than allowing that child to cry themselves to sleep for a couple of weeks). Controlled crying is definitely something that should be seen as a technique to be applied to toddlers, not babies of only a few months old.

    The trouble is with all of these mixed messages based on misinterpretation of the arguments is that already stressed out & bewildered parents make things even worse for themselves by thinking that if they leave their child to cry for even a few minutes they are causing brain damage. The parents’ mental health is of critical importance to the child, yet parents are made to feel guilty if they want to try to get a decent night’s sleep because to ignore their child’s cries is a form of “child abuse”! I would never want to go back to the way things were only a few generations back, when “cry it out” didn’t even mean “controlled crying”, it just meant leaving your child to cry for hours if necessary, feeding only on schedule, and avoiding anything that could “spoil” the baby (like excessive cuddles!), but very few people advocating modern forms of controlled crying are talking about anything like that. And anyway – playing devil’s advocate here – where are all the brain damaged people of our parents’ & grandparents’ eras, who were subject to the old-school “cry it out” methods? If leaving babies to cry really did cause all the problems attributed to it surely we’d see more signs of it amongst the older adults alive today! As I said, I wouldn’t advocate that style of parenting at all, but I just think it’s important to remember that babies over the generations have been subject to all kinds of different types of parenting, some of which we would consider quite cruel today, yet very few of these seem to have had any significant lasting impact on those who experienced them.

    There are several things I think I would do differently if I have another child, but even after reading and taking in all of the arguments about controlled crying I think I would still consider using the technique if I have a child who is unable to settle at night by the time they are a toddler. However, as I did with my son, I would combine it with showing him that he was unconditionally loved and that whenever he really needed me I would be there. I do, however, believe that there is something to be said for helping children to learn to be self-reliant once they are old enough to be capable of it (which excludes young babies who are, by definition, dependent on you), and that this doesn’t have to come with a hard, old-fashioned attitude to children where to show them any love or attend to their needs is to “spoil” them.

  11. Concerned Parent

    Relating to all of this…there is a new version of that old classic strict.schedule going around. It’s called ‘Babywise’ and it has a strict feeding/crying it out method exercised immediately following birth. The American Academy of Pediatrics is against it based on infants with dehydration, failure to thrive, poor weight gain, depression, and early weaning because moms milk supply dried up early. This program gas given parents I know an excuse to let a newborn cry for hours…and to expect and 8 week old to sleep thru the night.

  12. Alenka

    Ouch… it even hurts to listen. I didn’t even know about it. Most of the parents I know are using “a little bit doesn’t hurt” as an excuse… and the dividing line in “a little bit” is so hard to define. Meanwhile, I noticed that kids who are crying out, have a much longer “needy” period at night. Just a personal observation.

  13. Jamie

    I believe the parents’ attitude and how they deal with it makes a huge difference as well; She slept in my room until I noticed she was sleeping happily through the night – I moved her to her own room when she turned one and she went right to sleep all by herself and slept through the night! This continued for about a year until I moved her to a toddler bed and her father decided he should start laying down with her at night to say good night. Now, she is almost 3 and she wakes up EVERY night looking for her dad even though he has stopped laying with her before bed time. He made her feel as though going to bed was a terrible time of separation from everyone and everything and now that is how she views bed time. She has become much more needy – not only at night but also during the day! Doesn’t matter what I do now, she doesn’t like to go to bed or sleep alone and she doesn’t like to be alone anywhere at any time.

  14. sleepbyconnection

    As a retired sleep trainer and now a sleep deprived mother, my knowledge of the brain, years of sleep training, years of working with all kinds of children, and now a new mother, I know deep in my heart that developing the limbic brain is very important. We as adults impose our own needs onto our children without much awareness of the long term effects.
    My daughter is very sensitive and I can’t imagine being an ignorant parent so desperate for sleep that I’d let her CIO and ignore her communication to me to feel secure, safe, nurtured and heard.
    In all my years of sleep training, I never had to let a baby CIO. And in all my years, I’ve never dealt with the temperament of my own daughter. And wouldn’t life have it that way for me! I truly believe that parenting by connection is far more important than sleep. And being able to recognize the gradual steps to sleep training with the combination of temperament in infants and toddlers is so very important. It’s not easy, and it’s a life long process.
    In witnessing an array of personalities in babies for the last 20 years, I don’t think that most parents understand how to parent by individual personalities of their children. Instead they look for formulas and quick fix solutions; CIO sleeping training now being the number one solution to allowing the parents to get some much needed rest. It’s sad.
    What I don’t understand is that “crying it out” is “training”??? The phrase in itself suggests this- CRY- SCREAM and you’ll eventually figure it out. You must learn 4 month old baby!!! How can anyone call this training. You don’t train for a marathon in JUST 5 nights. Ok run 15 miles the first day, and don’t worry, you won’t hurt as much the second day, so run 20 miles, and on the third day, just run a few more miles and by day 5, you’ll feel great!
    Parents are crazy to think that babies don’t remember things in his/her infant stages. As a professional care giver, I’ve had 3 year old children tell their parents about me and their experiences with me as an infant. I know the main reason was because I was sleep training by connection and moving with the needs of each child.
    And with my own child, she got bit by a wasp at 7 months on her eye, and 2 weeks later freaked out with a fly in the room. And now at 11 months watches black flying bugs of any size with her keen eyes. She looks up at me for reassurance that it’s OK, and mommy is here. She remembers her experience.

    There’s an MD in NY now telling mothers to put their babies (at 4 months) to bed at 7pm and not go into the room until 7am- no matter what. When my friend asked what to do if her daughter threw up, he said, “go in there, clean her up, don’t talk to her, and put her back in her bed, shut the door and don’t go back in till 7am!” That’s abuse! And this is an MD. If you hear a baby screaming in NY, I’m sure it’s a patient of this absurd famous rich MD that thinks he’s just the bomb. My friend walked out.
    My personal take from my observations in life- your baby shuts down when you let them CIO. They learn very fast (in 5 days or less) that you will not come. But that baby still needs you to feed them, love them, play with them, and provide, so they connect to you in the morning. And they will love you unconditionally, until more experiences build on the foundation you created. And you have no idea how they store those memories. You have no idea what perceptions they will develop about they decisions you’ve made. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?
    EVERY parent I’ve asked about CIO that has done it says the same thing- IT WAS HARD. VERY HARD. Personally I think that’s the parent intuition being ignored.
    If a parent can let a child scream that loud for that long, what else are you able to ignore in your child’s communication?
    I believe it damages the limbic brain. I believe sleep is so personal, and it’s years before any person realizes they like to sleep alone because they rest better. In most cases, no one likes to sleep alone, thus the double, queen and king size beds. We all need comfort, security, and love while we sleep. It starts at birth and goes for years!
    Is this hard? Yes. Will I survive? Yes. Will my daughter have a foundation where she knows her needs are met and her emotional building blocks are all in tack? Yes.

  15. Bianca

    Ithink that people need to distinguish controlled crying with supported crying. Supported crying is when you meet EVERY need, if you meet every need of your baby and they are crying to heal, then you love and support them through it, because it is a NEED. Shoving them in a cot to cry so you can go off, meets your need and tragically, not theirs…

  16. Lisa

    Angela, NO 8 week old should be left to CIO. If your baby was that inconsolable, perhaps colic was an issue. But you wouldn’t know that because you chose to just leave your 2 month old to cry because you gave up and were done. SMDH