What Are the Potential Risks of Cry It Out Parenting (Part One)?

Many parents will not like what I’m going to share in this and the next blog post because they either disagree or it might evoke feelings of guilt, or both. I apologize for causing any discomfort but think it is important to share this information regardless.

Discomfort and danger in a parenting method?

Diane Wagenhals
Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Imagine you were suddenly transported to another world where you do not speak the language, and because of some kind of atmospheric condition are unable to move around fluidly. Most of the time you feel vulnerable; however, two creatures seem to always be there giving you food, keeping you warm and clean, and providing a sense that you are loved and secure.

Over time you have built a sense of safety and trust your needs will be met by these caregiving creatures. Even though you can’t communicate with words, the caregivers seem to know just how to respond when you are distressed.

Except one day they put you in some kind of enclosure, shut the door and walk away.

You do the only thing you have learned to do: you cry

You set off an alarm that in the past always brought them running.

This is not just a soft, whining cry but a scream of desperation. You grab the bars of the cage and pull on them, screaming, sobbing desperately. You are overwhelmed with feelings of terror at being abandoned. You have no power other than the power to continue to scream out your pain and fear.

But nobody comes.

Your sense of powerlessness and helplessness overwhelm you. You are flooded with stress hormones that make your heart race and blood pressure accelerate. Still no one comes.

Exhausted, you collapse and perhaps even fall asleep. At some point you awaken, realize you are still all alone, and again scream in desperation. Stress hormones again flood your body.

The level of terror is equal to the terror someone feels if they are trapped in a burning building with no way to get out or if they have been dropped in the ocean with no lifejacket and are about to drown. Once again exhaustion takes over. You sleep but still those hormones are circulating in your system.

Sensory memories are being created that those trustworthy caregivers are not totally trustworthy.

Over time as this pattern is repeated, you submit to the reality that you have learned: when put in this isolation chamber, nobody will come for a long time and nobody cares that you are terrified.

You are forced to become compliant, but deep within the recesses of your brain beliefs have been created. There appear to be certain times when nobody comes. You never know how long your isolation will last from those who you thought were your protectors. In fact, you aren’t sure if they will ever come.

Sounds pretty chilling, and I’m sure you have figured out I am describing: the “Cry It Out” method of sleep training.

There are many books espousing the idea of letting children cry it out so they learn how to soothe themselves.

Basically, children who are left to cry until they fall asleep eventually give up; so, parents believe they have succeeded. In some cases, children have learned what the parents are hoping they will learn. However many who study neuroscience and the impact of excessive levels of cortisol in a child’s system worry about the physical and emotional cost of this training.

In an article by pediatrician Danielle Taylor, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer (2011), entitled When Children Face Continuous Traumatic Stress, Dr. Taylor describes the impact of high levels of stress on children.

Continuous stress is especially toxic to infants and younger children who are starting to make connections in their developing brains… Research has confirmed the detrimental effects of pesticides, childhood lead poisoning, and secondhand smoke. More recent work has pointed to substances made internally to ward off actual or perceived danger: hormones involved in the fight-or-flight mechanism for human survival. Substances that, if chronically bathing a child’s developing brain, will alter its architecture along with the child’s response to environmental stimulus.”

 Sobering information for any parent.

In my next post, we will look at more evidence describing the impact of the cry-it-out method of sleep training.

Meanwhile here are some sources that you might want to read to further understand the effects of excessive crying.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. What are some of your first thoughts about this information?
  2. How does it make you feel?
  3. What questions are raised for you?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, Lakeside