Crying-It-Out: The Impact on Brain Development

Parents are often faced with the dilemma of either leaving their newborns to wail their lungs out all night or running to the rescue. Making the “right” decision can be a nerve-wracking and guilt-ridden process. Getting the facts straight and understanding the risks and benefits however, is essential prior to making a decision for your family.
The crying-it-out method has been around for a long time. Richard Ferber, the creator of the so called “Ferberizing” cult, termed crying as an unavoidable aspect of sleeping. The specific techniques are widely diverse and range from milder and kinder ones of bed-time training, to more extreme ones which advocate leaving newborns to cry until they stop. His theory lays groundworks on that sleeping is a skill which can be “taught” within an appropriate environment.

What’s so appealing in the crying-it-out method?

Obviously, the idea of a good-night’s sleep for the parent and eventually for the baby may seem to initially outweigh the tears shed in the training process. It;s advocates emphasize the importance of babies soothing themselves to sleep as it ultimately increases the baby’s independence. Finally, for many parents the fact that it “just works” is often a good enough reason for them to at least give it a try.

It’s worth exploring however, whether the end result, the self-soothed happily sleeping baby, is in fact a smokescreen for an entirely different mechanism.  

In the first months of a babies life the brain is not fully formed. Specifically, in the first 40-42 weeks a mere 25% of the baby’s brain has been developed and it is expected to triple in size during the first year. It is at this time, that the brain cells go through a process known as migration, during which they end up in the right places. This process however, is extremely susceptible to stress in newborns.

During unanswered crying episodes the cortisol levels released in the babies’ bodies increase, becoming often toxic and harmful for the young brain. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, impairs neuronal interconnections when in excess. The diminution of brain cells may potentially increase the risks of ADHD and anti-social behaviors as well as decreased future academic performance and decrease the overall emotional wellbeing.

Humans, similarly to other primates are contact species. However, from all placental mammals, we are the species born most prematurely of all- and hence the immense developmental changes occurring in the brain in the first year. Brain connections and fundamental beliefs of how safe and secure the world is, are established in this first year of life. It is those very initial maternal practices which lead to the satisfaction of the baby’s needs and facilitate its brain and body development.

From an evolutionary perspective, crying, is a baby’s only means of obtaining their primary caregiver’s attention to ensure their survival.  When crying stops producing a response from the mother, the crying, of course, eventually stops. This misleads the parents into thinking they have successfully sleep trained their baby. However, we know that this is far from the truth as the “stopped crying”, does not directly translate to “stopped distressed”. Although the baby might look as though it has self-soothed, the underlying process is one know as protest-despair-detachment. In other words, the newborn has given up.

The responsiveness of the parents is an essential building block for the creation of a sense of security and future independence of children. In particular, being soothed by the caregiver is integrated into the babies own ability to self-regulate and deal with stress later on in life.


So, rather than letting those little ones holler and thrash on their own, opt for a nighttime of bonding and cuddling. During those sleepless nights, its important to remember that eventually, every baby will learn to sleep through the night on their own, without the need to be instructed.

Ultimately, each parent does what they feel is right for their child. However, keeping an open mind, and understanding all the potential risks and benefits will help each parent come to an informed decision which feels right to them.

Should a parent choose that the crying out method is right for them, keep in mind that a baby needs to be physically and emotionally ready for an undisturbed night-long sleep. Of course, this greatly varies from child to child. A very good indicator however, is whether your baby wakes up crying multiple times.

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