Crying May Cause Brain Damage

Parenting expert Penelope Leach has a startling piece of information for us: letting a baby cry as part of a routine might damage his developing brain. Leach's new book's stated approach butts heads with that of parenting expert Gina Ford; an advocate of the tough-love method in which parents teach their children to fall asleep by allowing them to cry until they sink into slumber.

Using Science

But Leach isn't just issuing opinions. She's using science to back up her contention that letting babies cry is downright dangerous. Newborn research has become very advanced thanks to modern technology says Leach. Researchers used swabs to test infant saliva and found that the samples contained high levels of cortisol in those babies whose cries failed to bring a response from a parent or caregiver. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced at times of stress. Neurobiologists have said that high cortisol levels can be toxic to a baby's developing brain.

"It is not an opinion but a fact that it's potentially damaging to leave babies to cry. Now we know that, why risk it?" states Leach in her new book, The Essential First Year—What Babies Need Parents to Know.

Leach cautions that she's not saying that crying is bad for babies. Every baby cries and some cry more than others, says Leach. However, crying during the first year is the only mechanism by which a baby can generate a response. Should a response not be forthcoming, the consequences may be long-term emotional damage.

Unresponsive Environment

Leach says that a baby's brain is in a state of constant development during the first year. Babies who are left to cry and receive no response learn to give up. They begin to stop crying after a shorter period and fall asleep within a shorter period as well. This is the result of a process in which the newborn's brain has adapted to an environment that does not respond to him. Leach says that the anxiety generated by this lack of response may be carried on throughout an adult's life.

Gina Ford, on the other hand, has been nicknamed the "Queen of Routine." Ford received nanny training but has no children of her own. She backs the use of strict routines to teach children regular patterns of feeding, sleeping, and waking. According to Ford's methods, a parent may leave a baby to cry for a short time as long as he is clean, fed, and burped. If the baby doesn't stop crying within a reasonable period of time, the parent can return to comfort him but should not make eye contact.  Ford's book, The Contented Little Baby Book, which hit the shelves in 1999, remains a bestseller a decade past publication.