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“Will it harm my baby if I leave him alone to cry?”
You will have read conflicting and contradictory advice and perhaps you also feel conflicted in yourself about whether or not your should leave your baby alone to cry. Perhaps you have heard the words, “Leave him to cry! It will do him no harm.” From a psychological point of view, it is better (for the most part) not to leave your baby alone to cry. I will first explain why this is so, and then I will go on to discuss the exceptions to this rule because sometimes you might find that you have little or no choice. Under certain circumstances, leaving your baby alone to cry may be the lesser of the two evils.

Babies cry for lots of different reasons, and there are many different levels of crying. Moaning or whimpering that doesn’t sound too urgent does not necessarily require your intervention. You could just keep an ear out and see if your baby manages to work things out for himself. But at other times it will be clear when your baby cries that she is stressed out. You will hear it in her voice, see it in her face and feel it in your heart. To ignore this kind of vigorous crying is not a good idea. It is your job to manage your baby’s stress levels and her emotions because she cannot yet manage them for herself.

Your baby has one fundamental and crucial psychological task that she needs to accomplish during her first year of life. That is, she needs to learn to trust. She needs to learn that the world is a safe place to be. If your baby learns this before the age of one year, she should be well on her way towards mental health. If your baby cries in a way that suggests she is stressed, that means she is feeling as though she is in danger. She might be feeling scared or lonely, hungry or tired, uncomfortable or in pain or any number of other things. The fact is that she isn’t yet able to make sense of what is troubling her or what could be done about it. Only you can help her work out what is wrong and give her some relief. That means, if she is tired for example, that you need to help her to understand that she is tired by doing whatever you can to facilitate her going to sleep. Soothing, rocking, swaddling or just lying with her are some of the things you could try.

Babies have a need to be physically close to the person or people with whom they have a bond. Your baby will probably not be comfortable if she is alone for long. It is almost as though she has an instinctive knowledge that she cannot survive without a mother or a substitute mother to protect her and to feed and nurture her. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Parents have always protected their babies from predators and other harmful eventualities. So to expect your baby to manage on her own without you for longer than a few minutes is not realistic. Leaving your baby alone when she is crying will probably escalate her stress considerably because not only is she uncomfortable, but she is alone in her discomfort. For a baby, that is terrifying.

Stressed out babies who are not responded to with love, comfort and support by their caregivers, are more likely to be highly stressed throughout their lives. Loads of research, particularly in the area of medically based infant brain research, is now showing that uncomforted distress during infancy may cause damage to a child’s developing brain. A person’s brain is literally shaped by early experiences. High levels of stress during infancy triggers the stress response, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Increased cortisol and other stress hormones because of frequent, severe stress during the first year of life have been associated with elevated responses to stress later in life. That means that seemingly unthreatening, innocuous events and situations during adulthood will be experienced as stressful for people who were highly stressed during infancy. A Cape Town medical doctor who specializes in mind-body medicine, Dr Simon Whitesman, says that normally when a brain picks up high levels of cortisol in the blood, it responds by reducing the hormones causing the release of the cortisol. But when high levels of cortisol are released during infancy, the stress response becomes dysregulated or disrupted. The brain then becomes programmed in such a way that the individual is susceptible to being highly stressed throughout life.

Crying is a sign of hope
Don’t think that if your baby cries a lot, she is psychologically unhealthy. Psychologists have come to realize that a crying baby is often more psychologically healthy than a quiet baby who “never cries”. The reason is partly that babies cry to protest against something that is difficult, uncomfortable or painful. This healthy response suggests that the baby hopes that if he yells loudly enough, someone will help him out of his bad situation. There are some babies who do not cry, or who cry very little, even though they are in severe distress. Sadly, these babies may have reached a level of despair that has caused them to give up looking for help. They have realized that either no-one is coming or no-one is going to be able to rescue them. They do not believe that things could be better. Perhaps they have never experienced happiness, comfort or the absence of pain. This is consistent with the findings of Dr Rene Albertyn form the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. She has found that many of the critically ill babies who should theoretically be screaming in pain because of the nature of their condition, simply lie there quietly. They suffer in silence. Many of them lie alone without their parents to hold and comfort them. The tragedy is that when a baby is too exhausted, too sick or too depressed to cry, her parents and her caregivers might think that she is fine and doesn’t need to be held, touched, fed or given pain relief medication.

If you ignore your baby’s cries for help often enough or for long enough, she may well stop crying. This will have given you the impression that leaving her alone to cry has “worked”. To a certain extent, you might be right in that perhaps she has learnt to find a way to comfort herself. This may indeed have helped her to become more independent. But trust, not independence, is the psychological task that babies need to accomplish during the first year of life. The danger of leaving your baby alone to cry is that the real lesson you will teach her is that you are not going to be there for her when she needs you. She will learn that she can’t trust you. She may feel abandoned and afraid and not yet ready to face difficult situations (like being alone in the dark) without you. Ultimately, this is not in the interests of her future mental health.

Watch out for those babies who “never cry”. Don’t be misled to think that they are fine. Parent-infant psychotherapist, Stella Aquarone, has noted that some of her most severely psychologically disturbed adult patients apparently did not cry as babies. Child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and president elect of the World Association for Infant Mental Health, Prof Antoine Guedeney, has done research that has shown that babies under normal circumstances react to pain by crying. Those babies who do not cry in response to pain, says Guedeney, are the ones who are more likely to become depressed later on. It seems that the ability to cry out is a valuable and important asset. A baby who cries is asking for help and expressing her pain and anguish. To ignore that and turn your back on it doesn’t make sense. Unless of-course, you are doing it for reasons of self-preservation.

The exception to the rule
Your baby needs you to be psychologically together enough to take care of her, both physically and mentally. Sleep deprivation can be grueling, and it can make a mother or a father feel so shattered and fragile that she or he cannot function as a parent or in the outside world. New parents usually are sleep deprived and exhausted but perhaps you have gone beyond your own limits. At this point, you might make the decision to leave your baby alone to cry. I believe that this is acceptable as a compromise. It is not ideal or first prize for your baby, but neither is having parents who have tipped over the edge of sanity into a very dark place where they can no longer be sensitive parents to their baby. Spending hours and hours with a crying baby can evoke all kinds of aggressive and hostile feelings in you. If there is no other adult around and you feel as though you are about to hit, shake or hurt your baby in any way, take that as a sign that you need to get away from her for a bit. Hopefully you will have someone to take her from you, but perhaps you don’t.

Particularly in our middle class, high-walled society of isolated, nuclear families, there are unfortunately not always other adults around to whom you can hand your baby over when you are feeling stressed out by her crying. You might also struggle to hand your baby over, as it can feel as though you are the only person who would be able to stop her from crying. But often the hand-over is highly effective in helping babies to calm down. Consider that option before you leave her alone to cry. A granny, a neighbor, a spouse or a friend may have more resources than you at the moment because they haven’t been worn down as you have been by the relentless demands of an unhappy baby. Take the opportunity to get their help if you can. If all else fails and you feel like your sanity is at stake, leave your baby safely in her cot for a few minutes until you or another caring adult has the strength to go back in and pick your baby up and comfort her.

In conclusion, it is a fact that being a parent can at times be a grueling task. But the same goes for being a baby. My suggestion about leaving your baby alone to cry is that if you have the strength, don’t do it. Only leave your baby alone to cry if you cannot manage the stress and the exhaustion any longer and you believe that your baby will be better off in that moment alone in her distress. But if you are finding yourself doing this a lot, consider getting help for yourself. Either get support from your spouse, family or friends or pay someone to help you out at home. In addition to this, it may be necessary to make an appointment with either a psychologist or a parent-infant mental health practitioner. See Babies in mind (Juta) for a list of practitioners in your area.

Adapted article by Jenny Perkel
Published (2008) by Living and Loving magazine (South Africa