Letting Babies Cry – The Facts Behind the Study
Written by Anna Burbidge on behalf of La Leche LeagueGreat Britain Spring 2013 ©
One of the biggest adjustments a new mother may have to make is to realise the fact that mothering is not a job where she can clock-off at a certain time. Babies need their mothers twenty four hours a day but from the moment a woman gives birth she finds herself bombarded with advice from all sides on what she should do. Where, when and how much a baby should sleep is the subject of much confusion and contradiction. On January 3 2013 a new study was published inDevelopmental Psychology suggesting that infants should be left to cry themselves back to sleep, and this was widely reported in the press as “Best to let baby cry itself to sleep”. The research was led by psychology professor Marsha Weinraub of Temple University in Philadelphia and studied the sleeping patterns of 1,200 children from birth to three years.
What did the study say?
The academics found that the majority of babies who woke tended to be boys and to be breastfed. They found that by six months of age, 66 per cent of babies - the sleepers - did not awaken, or awoke just once per week, but a full 33 percent, labelled transitional sleepers, woke up seven nights per week at six months, dropping to two nights by 15 months and to one night per week by 24 months. They concluded that babies should be left to go to sleep on their own even if it meant a period of crying to ensure a good night of rest for all the family. The key fact was Professor Weinraub’s claim that it is important for babies to learn how to fall asleep on their own. "When mothers tune in to these night time awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breastfeeding, then he or she may not be learning how to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep”. The study also claimed that mothers of babies who woke persistently were more likely to be depressed, but that this would benefit from further research.
Should babies be expected to sleep through the night?
The study assumed that it was normal to expect a baby to sleep through the night by themselves by a certain age. However inmany cultures co-sleeping and breastfeeding are the norm. A baby put in his own room to sleep alone is an image seen only in the last hundred years or so and only in industrialized Western societies. Our culture changed, along with our understanding of what was “normal”, but the human infant's need for mother's milk and contact with the mother's body did not.
Professor James McKenna of the University Of Notre Dame, Indiana, says that for hundreds of thousands of years mothers have effectively combined co-sleeping and breastfeeding to provide for their babies' immediate social, psychological, and physical needs (http://www3.nd.edu/~jmckenn1/lab/) Humanbabies are born developmentally immature and require parental (especially maternal) smell, touch, sounds, and movement in order to feel secure and to have their physical needs met at an optimal level. All primate infants, including humans, biologically expect to be in close contact and proximity with their caregivers.
Looking at a bigger picture
Leaving a baby to cry may, possibly, give short-term relief to the family who may get a better night’s rest. However, when deprived of the physical comfort needed a baby will use her primary survival response -- crying -- and will produce cortisol, a stress hormone, as she attempts to attract the attention of her parents. Some studies have suggested that elevated levels of cortisol in infancy can cause physical changes in the brain, prompting a greater vulnerability to social attachment disorders. (Early Years Study, Margaret McCain and J. Fraser Mustard 1999: Anderson 1989: James McKenna 2009: Horta B et al 2007) Babies may stop crying if left for long enough but they are not learning to self-soothe, they are simply giving up on the hope that comfort will come. There is no proof that babies who sleep through the night do so because they have learnt to “self-soothe”. This is a term invented in the 1970s for use in previous research (Dr. Thomas Anders, circa 1970s) and has come to be adopted as a fact rather than a research term.
It’s interesting to note that adults in relationships enjoy being close to each other and sleeping in the same bed. It is comforting to wake in the night and feel the presence of someone we love next to us. It raises the question of why a baby or child should be expected to sleep alone and “self-soothe” themselves when adults aren’t.
What about mothers?
One of the things this study overlooks is that it is not easy for mothers to leave their baby to cry. It isn’t meant to be. A baby’s cry is intended to elicit a response from its caregiver. It is extremely distressing for a mother to listen to her baby calling for her and yet to believe that by not responding they are doing the best thing for their child even when it seems so wrong.
Blaming a baby’s frequent waking for a mother’s depression is questioned even within Weinraub’s study as she says “It’s possible that mothers who are depressed at six and 36 months may have been depressed during pregnancy”. In fact recent research by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett indicates that mothers who were exclusively breastfeeding reported significantly more hours of sleep, better physical health, more energy, and lower rates of depression than mothers who were mixed- or formula-feeding . (The Effect of Feeding Method on Sleep Duration, Maternal Well-being, and Postpartum Depression Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. Clinical Lactation, 2011, Vol. 2-2, 22-26. http://www.uppitysciencechick.com/kendall-tackett_CL_2-2. ).
According to James McKenna mothers and babies who sleep with or close to each other develop a sleep pattern in tune with each other so it is often much easier to wake when the baby needs feeding or comforting and to fall back to sleep afterwards.
Making a decision based on what a parent feels is best for their baby
One of the things many parents find useful is to know that what they are experiencing is normal. Often just knowing that they are not alone and that this is something many others experience can make all the difference. When parents are led to expect that babies should sleep through the night at a certain age, that they should learn to sleep on their own and to self-soothe, it raises doubts and concerns as to how to parent their own child. It can be helpful to talk to other parents who understand and also those who have seen that their children will sleep through the night when they are ready. At what age this happens will vary greatly from child to child, but to label a child who wakes up as having a “sleep problem” is misleading.
If a mother is feeling exhausted then it may help to look at the family’s life as a whole and ask if anything can be done to make it easier. Are there times in the day when the mother might be able to make time to sleep? Knowing that night waking is normal and will pass helps to create a more positive feeling. Believing that it is wrong and you should be doing something about it builds negativity.
All parents need to make choices which feel right to them, while basing their choices on accurate information. Weinraub says that parents should “resist the urge to respond to awakenings”. For many mothers the urge to go to their crying child is one they feel unable to ignore. The decision to do so is not something that should be based on what a study by academics says is best, but by what the parent feels is best for them and their own baby.
La Leche League GB
LLL accredited Leaders are mothers who have breastfed their own babies and know that when a mother needs a bit of help it can’t wait until tomorrow. They provide telephone counselling, email support and local group meetings, with leaflets on a wide range of breastfeeding questions, information on more unusual situations, access to a panel of professional medical advisors, and books covering various aspects of pregnancy and child care.
A further good resource is www.isisonline.org.uk/. LLL’sSafe Sleep Leaflet and Dr James McKenna’s Sleeping with Your Baby can be purchased from the LLLGB SHOP(http://www.lllgbbooks.co.uk/ecompages/onlineshop.aspx.)
La Leche League is an international non-profit, non-sectarian organisation that, for over 55 years, has been dedicated to providing education, information and mother-to-mother support and encouragement to women who want to breastfeed. LLLGB's national telephone helpline (0845 120 2 918) connects mothers directly to an accredited Leader, while our website (www.laleche.org.uk) includes an online help form that enables a mother to receive email help from an LLL Leader. We can also be found on Facebook. All our Leaders are volunteers and answer enquiries from home while looking after their own families.