Cute parenting technique or child abuse?

by Alenka

We had a rear and wonderful opportunity to spend the weekend with friends. Aaaah, the awesome pre-children days (did they ever happen?), when we could spend so much time just chatting, admiring the nature, the music… Now most of our friends are getting kids of their own and we finally get to see them more often: our kids enjoy a playdate; parents, as my teenage nephew put it – enjoy hanging out together. Though, I’ve got to admit that this time we came back with really mixed feelings. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Passing down a glass of wine, my friend cheerfully shared a cute story: some of his friends finally decided to teach their kid the wonderful advantages of sleeping in a separate room from his parents. Their kid recently turned three. I guess the three year old refused, and his parents adopted an interesting (unfortunately, really not uncommon) technique: locked him up in his room. “Imagine, the kid was sticking his little fingers under the door and the parents were doing the same on the other side,” – continued my friend, laughing. I was far from laughing. Was it the wine that got my reaction so strong, or was just the cruelty of the situation? “This is SICK! Lock a three year old, who can, talk, understand and reason?! Lock him up all alone in a separate room and find cute how the poor kid is sticking his fingers under the door in desperation?! This is plain SICK!!!” My friend got offended: “Weren’t you the one, who claimed that there are many different ways to be a parent? You’ve got to stick your guns!” I was speechless. I guess I should… I had to step away to refrain from commenting the rest of this “adorable” story.

A crying baby








Since then, in my mind, I constantly come back to this conversation.

There are other “options”: punishments, threats, spanking or even beating kids with a belt. These are not “parenting techniques”: these are methods of child abuse. Some of them (usually those that leave physical evidence), are punishable by law.There are different way to be a parent: you can come back to work or stay at home with your kid. You can send your kid to daycare or hire him a nanny. You can sign your kids up for some sports programs or let him enjoy himself freely in a local playground. None of those choices make you a bad parent. I guess, I can go as far as to say, that you can choose to breastfeed your child or offer him formula, give him steaks or raise him a vegetarian, teach him to read or let the school take care of that. All of these – are different parenting techniques and every parent chooses what’s right for his family.

Leaving a child to cry it out or locking him up doesn’t leave physical evidence. It is not punishable by law. Nevertheless, it doesn’t make it a good parenting tool.

Kids minds work differently from adults’. When the parent leaves the room to get a glass of water, the child may very well be wondering if he’ll ever come back. What to say of the situation, when the child is locked up and the parent refuses to come and comfort the lonely terrified kid?

I already have a big collection of articles on how “crying out” method leads to brain damage (you can find links at the bottom). Currently I am reading a book by Becky Baily, “Easy to Love, difficult to Discipline“. Reading her book, I finally realized that the damage is not a hypothetical, theoretical or even psychological. It is purely physical process, and that is simply scary…

Who is Dr. Becky Baily?

Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D., is an award-winning author, renowned teacher and internationally recognized expert in childhood education and developmental psychology.

In her book, Bailey describes that during stressful situation a special hormone, called “cortisol” gets released in the brain. High levels of cortisol (and as the child gets more and more scared, its levels rapidly escalate) – kills brain cells.

I looked up on some of the effects of cortisol on human bodies (based on article from wikipedia):

  • Immune system effects: Cortisol can weaken the activity of the immune system.
  • Bone effects: It lowers bone formation thus favoring development of osteoporosis in the long term.
  • Skin effects: loss of collagen from skin, caused by cortisol, is ten times greater than loss from any other tissue.
  • Sodium effects: Cortisol inhibits loss of sodium from small intestines of mammals.
  • And, finally, what it does to our child’s brain:

    It cooperates with epinephrine (adrenaline) to create memories of short-term emotional events. However, long-term exposure to cortisol results in damage to cells in the hippocampus. This damage results in impaired learning.

  • Additional effects:

    It increases blood pressure.
    Results in feedback inhibition of ACTH secretion. Some researchers believe that this normal feedback system may become dis-regulated when animals are exposed to chronic stress.
    There are potential links between cortisol, appetite and obesity

Baily uses this as a reason why fear based strategies (threats, punishments, spanking, etc) are counter productive in the long term: the memory cells do not get the information on how to behave right. Those cells simply die out in the process, so in the long term fear-based strategies are just solidifying the behaviors, that parents are trying to stop.

So, the same process must be taking place with a baby, who is left to cry in a lonely room.

It is unnatural to human babies to sleep alone. Sleeping alone (unfortunately, as well as sleeping through the night), is not an important survival technique. On the other hand, sticking to your parents at all costs – is! Our kids want only what’s natural for their survival: they’d like to be our side, get the protection from predators and resources necessary to grow up and then run away, breaking our hearts… well that’s another story. Meanwhile, when kids are born, they have only basic reflexes. They don’t know that predator animals are in more serious danger from humans, then we are from them. They don’t know, that fridge is full of food. They don’t know that parents have electricity, so they can hang out long past sundown and they’d love to do it without kids!

So the new “sleeping technique” that we are teaching our kids – sleeping on their own, in their own room, in their own bed – is completely foreign to a list of developmental milestones. It is completely foreign to kids’ psychology too. We are doing it purely for our own benefit and entertainment. Kids would only benefit, if parents stay by their side, go to bed early and stay nicely rested and in a good mood all day long! Since we still insist on introducing this weird (from kid’s point of view) ritual, we should at least have the decency to do it kindly. Without humiliating, torturing, scaring our kids. Without leaving them to cry (or locking them up!!!) all alone. Without using no less torturous “half-way cry it out” techniques, where the the mother is sitting next to the baby who is going ballistic (“He is learning! Yes, he is crying, but I am next to him!”). It doesn’t matter weather the parents and sitting in another room, sticking their fingers into their ears to ignore the screaming, or sitting next to the baby, calmly watching her going ballistic. In a child’s mind, if they are not comforted by the parent, not covered with hugs and kisses (babies live in the world of physical language), if they are unattended while they are in distress (real or imaginary) is not because they are learning “an important skill”, it is purely because they are unimportant, useless, helpless. So, both physical damage takes place – brain cells die (plus all other effects outlined above), and life-long psychological damage is taking place as well: self-worth, self-confidence are eroded.

SleepingYet, I am not advocating neither living in a sleepless nightmare or even co-sleeping. Everyone needs their good night sleep. Co-sleeping is a wonderful, most wonderful parenting technique, but it is not for everybody. It is not for me. Both of my boys are right now sleeping in their rooms, in their own beds. Both of them had a variety of sleeping issues. My firstborn was waking every 15 minutes (I tried keeping a log of his wake-up sleeping times and was terrified in the morning when I saw how bad our situation was). My second one preferred catnaps, breast-naps, frequent feedings and all variety of weird ways of falling asleep. Both of them learned that falling asleep alone in a lonely room – is safe and comfortable. No tears (except mine, until we found a way to get to this blessing). Just time, patience… and lots of wonderful little techniques. I’ve got to thank to No Cry to Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley. I always bring this book up – it was a true blessing for us.

So, coming back to my original question: is it cruelty, or another parenting technique? What do YOU think?

Other Resources:

“Crying it out” may damage baby’s brain
Cry it out: the potential dangers of leaving the baby to cry by
Margaret Chuong-Kim (published at Educational Articles site).


  1. S.

    I love your blog, but I think that you are being a good deal judgemental and hypocritical. I could be wrong, just like I think you are.

    Its true, there are different ways to be a parent and caretaker. The parents may have taken what you consider a “drastic” approach but I think you’re over reacting with the “effects of cortisol” bit and all that.

    Just because it isn’t YOUR way doesn’t mean it is in, anyway, wrong. It seems like you said that same thing but didn’t mean it. Like your just using it to stall your opponent from making that point. Calling it abuse is wrong. Abuse, is criminal and punishable by law. To say something is Abuse is to say that the parents should be hauled of to state prison for doing it. Yelling at your kids, isn’t abuse. What you SAY to them, can be. But just the act of yelling isn’t abuse.

    The fact that the parents were there, right by the door, attending their child (just in a way that you disapproved of) shows that they were actually with their child.

    They were right by the door and had the child began to choke or his cries took on too frantic a note, they would’ve intervened.

  2. LucyE

    No it’s not a “cute” parenting technique but by no means is it abuse. People do what works for them and you did what worked for you.

    Damaging brain cells? Wow, that’s a bit of a stretch.

    I’m glad you found what worked for you and your family though just like your friends did.

  3. Manou

    Totally agree with Alenka concerning the abuse and the dammaging of brain cells. Regarding this last point, it is really a pitty that so many parents are not informed.

  4. Jill

    I absolutely agree that this is abuse…psychological, among others. My heart aches for children parented like this.

  5. teachermom

    I did a little research on this myself and I think the key is understanding your child’s cry and teaching them at an age when you understand it and getting them gradually familiar with the concept of sleeping on their own.

    If you are in-tune with your child, then you begin to understand, at a certain point, what different cries mean. So, if you chose to let them “cry it out”, you can return to them during those times when the cry means they’re truly upset or scared – distressed – and not just protesting sleep. If you read up on the different methods, you wil find some less strict ways which I think actually help parents become better aquainted with their child and their needs.

    So, I think you may be right on one hand but on the other, I do think a parent can try such a method out without causing damage or abusing the child. As another note, I also think, children to a certain extent may have to “suffer” for lack of a better word to learn to adapt to THEIR family. A parent can not completely cater to their children and their needs at the expense of themselves because the best parents are happy, content parents. Also, if a child is being hurt negatively in the long run by a lack of sleep, then sometimes desperate measures may need to be taken in the short-term to alleviate that problem. For example, a child that is chronically over-tired may need a few days of crying to learn to sleep! A few days is better than a few months or years of not knowing how to go to sleep or being a resentment to sleepy frustrated parents.

    I think givien a certain child and certain circumstances, any parent can be driven to try such an extreme measure. I try to be a little more understanding of that and a little less judgement and thankful I wasn’t given horrible sleepers.

  6. Alenka Post author

    I agree about being in tune to your child. But I also believe, that such drastic measures ARE NOT NECESSARY. In many ways, they are an EASY way to deal with something that we refuse to face: we are the ones who bring sleep issues on our children both by having unrealistic expectations of baby’s life and laziness to adjust our own.

    This is probably wouldn’t be short… I welcome different opinions, but I am very strongly opinionated about this issue myself. Since we are having this discussion, I don’t see why not to express these thoughts…

    I strongly believe, that infant’s cry is the only means of communication, so it always has to be attended. There is surely a difference between “talking”, little cute sounds our kids make as they are falling asleep – they are not soldiers, all of them will have a little chat with themselves before falling asleep, and actually calling for their parents, crying. My two year old will lie in bed for half an hour repeating “mommy-daddy-mommy-daddy” to himself. There is a difference when he is calling us – it is short, precise, often louder. Same when he was a baby – cooing is his self-soothing technique. Crying – 100% not.

    Desperate parents, desperate measures… all of that sounds reasonable enough, but I believe – it is strictly a paper based argument. No offense.

    I actually strongly believe that babies were not asked to be born, so if we choose to bring them into this world, it is our responsibility to do everything that it takes to protect them and ensure their well-being, their thriving. Baby who is left to “cry it out” to get the sleep he needs wouldn’t get the sleep he needs (and neither will you be able to do it either). Most of the issues parents face, are because we prefer to pursue the lifestyle that is unnatural to us evolutionary, physically: we are the ones who want to go back to work and to desert the little babies to the care of somebody else. We are the ones who want to watch some TV after the kids are in bed. We are the ones who want to get to the gym between their naps. We are the ones who want to hang out with friends. And all of those things are truly terrific (trust me, I LOVE it too!), but it is unnatural to mommy-bear to leave her cubs in a separate den, under the watchful eye of some fox, and get for a sweet get-together with daddy-bear in a nearby forest. It is unnatural for a gorilla-parent to keep her baby in a separate nest. It is unnatural to a human-baby to sleep in a separate bed, without his/her parents, all night long without extra warmth, cuddle, or even a snack.

    So, I believe it is important to define “happy parents” with reasonable expectations.

    When my boys were born, I was terribly sleep deprived. And, unlike some good natured mommy-bears, I couldn’t bear it to sleep with my babies, since I didn’t get any sleep at all – I was constantly readjusting their blankets, I was terrified to roll over them in their sleep, I was constantly checking their breath to make sure that my blankets and sheets aren’t trying to suffocate them. Yet, if this would be the only thing that lets my baby sleep comfortable – I’d do it. Our solution at first was to keep them in a bassinet. To take turns getting up. We actually found out that our own sleepy sounds woke our babies up, in a separate room our kids were sleeping better, which worked fine with us. Running to another room every time they started crying wasn’t as much fun, but we decided it is a “lesser evil”.

    Yet, falling asleep alone wasn’t anywhere near my boys’ agenda. We analyzed their sleep habits. We carefully studied how much sleep they should be getting, how often, and how it falls with their energy levels and preferences (and the necessities of the rest of the family). We designed a lengthy relaxing routine. We moved bath-time a few times to see if it is energizing or relaxing. We were reading books before bedtime for a long time. We had very elaborate rituals of saying good-bye to every picture in the room, almost every piece of furniture. We had slow transition from falling asleep in our arms to slowly getting used to falling asleep in bed. As they were falling asleep, every day we’d move one each further towards the door, until our babies were comfortable with falling asleep in a room alone, while we were waiting in another room. It was a lengthy process for the firstborn. It went much smoother and easier for the second one. Most importantly, for each of them, we were ready to move as many “squares back” on this way, as our baby needed. They’d be falling asleep all by themselves for a week, and suddenly protest when we started getting out of the room. Yet, love and patience pay off.

    Was it easy? No. Yet, we managed to teach both of our boys (both with a whole collection of sleep issues in the beginning) to fall asleep by themselves, in their own rooms, I guess 12-18 months. Is it a good age for you? I know a few 5 year-olds who still insist on their mothers staying in their rooms as they are falling asleep. Today, when my oder one is five, and my little one is two, they take a bath, read one book, get a few ceremonial hugs and kisses. I turn on lullabies and step out of the room. My two year old still would call us a few times to come over for one extra hug, or to realign his blanket, or for some water. Usually, it doesn’t occur more then twice – he doesn’t need extra reassurance: he knows that if he wakes up in the middle of the night, or if he will need us for ANY reason – we’ll always be there for them. And that’s fine with me.

    Recently we went on a vacation with a big group of friends. All of our friends have kids of various ages. Almost all of the kids in our group were introduced to cry-it out method at some point of their lives. All of the kids whose parents boasted fast and terrific results with this method, had tremendous issues falling asleep, sleeping through the night, getting their naps. Except for the ones, whose parents didn’t leave their babies crying. For some of those babies, “cry it out” just didn’t work. Some parents, just like us, were just against it. I strongly believe that their healthy sleeping habits, very strict sleep-nap schedule (we are almost religiously live on kids schedule and adhering to it goes a long way in how happy the day turns out for everybody involved) partially resides in confidence, that they can rely on their parents in any circumstances – whether their needs are emotional or physical, they always will be attended.

    Honestly, I don’t remember a single time, when any of my boys cried at night without a reason: at first, they were hungry or just needed some comfort, or simply didn’t know how to fall asleep by themselves, but later – they either wanted to go to the bathroom, or were starting to get sick, or lost a blanket. When kids are learning algebra, we are not leaving them to cry until they “get themselves” how to solve the problem. We help and show them again and again, until they get it. So, why falling asleep should be taught through with such torturous methods?!

    And, speaking of “happy parents”: it is unnatural to listen to a baby’s cry. We cringe in the supermarkets, on the street, on a bus, but what about our own kids? Actually, slow and patient process was kind to our nervous system as well. It took A LOT of patience. It took two of us – we supported each other, gave each other breaks. It doesn’t take a parent to leave his job. But sticking to your child’s schedule and routines – is a parent’s job in many ways and it is one of the primary ways. Yet, we could see how it gets paid off: we had happy parents, AND happy kids.

    Last, but not least: in retrospect, it usually takes 2-3 years for even the most difficult sleepers to learn to settle down for the whole night. Sleepless nights don’t last forever. It doesn’t have to be torturous 2-3 years neither for the kids, nor for the parents.

    As you see, I

  7. eMommy

    Hmm… I wanted to add my two cents. Just a citation… this is an advice Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is listening to during morning news (Kids, Parents and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka):

    “If your three-year-old wants you to sit with him at bed-time, let me just say, don’t start habits you don’t want to continue until graduation.”

    Sounds good, right? Let me just continue with her reaction:

    “How many parents wish their teenager would trust them enough to talk with them,” I wondered out loud. How many parents wish their kids would see them as someone who could help them answer their questions or make decisions. Is sitting with your three-year-old a bad habit, a waist of time? Or could it be the beginning of a strong, healthy communication system with your child?”

    Baby is not crying. The baby is always trying to say something, it just doesn’t have the right words yet. Your choice, your reaction – is the beginning of the communication between the two of you. The choice is yours.


  8. Eny

    I TOTALLY agree with emommy and Alenka. I DO think that this kind of sleep training is child abuse, when someone locks up their kids in a room….I would be terrified :( ((( I almost cried just reading it. I can’t eve imagine how that poor kid felt like. I do think that babies cry for a reason, and bc this is their only language to ask for help. and if we ignore it, we only teach them that their cry for help doesn’t matter, that there is noone out there who could help them and they can’t trust this world around them…and that is NOt how I wanna raise my baby for sure…