Monday, October 26, 2009

AP Principle #3: Crying it out vs. the responsiveness of attachment parenting

This post is a continuation of Hobo Mama's celebration of Attachment Parenting Month, October 2009. This article focuses on the third principle of attachment parenting: Respond with Sensitivity (Belief in the Language Value of Your Baby's Cry)

Attachment parents are responsive parents. I think that might actually be the one characteristic that sums up the whole of attachment parenting. When a baby is hungry, an attachment parent offers the breast (breastfeeding). When a baby is tired, an attachment parent offers a warm body to snuggle against (cosleeping). When a baby is curious but timid, an attachment parent offers a safe vantage point to view the world (babywearing). And when a baby cries, an attachment parent believes that those cries have value.

This is principle/Baby B #3:

Respond with Sensitivity (Belief in the Language Value of Your Baby's Cry)

If anything divides attachment parents from mainstream parents, it's how to treat a crying baby. For several generations now, parents have been told that responding too quickly and too often to a crying baby will "spoil" the baby, that it will teach the child (from newborns on!) that she can manipulate you, that babies must be taught to self-soothe, and, at all costs and heaven forbid this not happen, babies must learn independence.

Attachment parenting listens to all this and calls it what it is: hogwash.

More than that, attachment parenting looks at the evidence of what babies mean when they cry (they have a need), and at the evidence of what happens when nobody responds to a baby's cry (they experience detrimental levels of stress), and at what other cultures and other times have instinctively practiced (instant response to a baby's cry), and attachment parenting says that not responding to the baby, toddler, or child in your care, annoyingly piercing and shrill or not, is a form of child abuse.

I don't use that term to be inflammatory or to skewer parents who have used cry-it-out (CIO) methods. I don't use it lightly, either, because I have no intention of diminishing more egregious forms of abuse. I point the finger back at myself when I say it, because I have been guilty at times of getting so overwhelmed by Mikko and his needs that I have stormed off to leave him to cry alone, or with only his father, who was not the comfort he wanted at the time. But I do see that as guilt, and I am sorry for each time I've failed him in that way.

What I'm saying is that babies are biologically wired to use their cries as communication. When we purposely ignore our babies, under the guise of "teaching" them something, what we're teaching them is...

...that they can't trust us to be there for them.

...that they're in this unfamiliar world alone.

...that they will have to meet their own needs.

...that we don't love them enough to respond when we can.

I've heard an analogy, and it was an eye-opening one for me. I wish I could remember where I heard it first, to give proper credit.

Imagine that a time has come when you've had to make the difficult decision to place your beloved mother into a nursing home, due to her failing health. She can't take care of herself now. You go to check on her, and she's wet herself and has been lying in it for who knows how long. She's thirsty but couldn't reach her cup on the bedside table. She's lonely because no one's been checking on her. You find the nearest nurse and demand to know why your mother hasn't been taken care of and had her needs met. The nurse tells you: "If you respond every time they cry, they start thinking you're always going to. If you give them an inch, they'll take a mile. She just needs to learn independence. Besides, it's working — she's been quiet for the last few hours." You wouldn't be happy that your mother had given up and "self-soothed" herself into apparent contentment (but really resignation). You'd be infuriated at the insensitivity of the people who were supposed to care for her, and you'd be alarmed at what effect this loveless treatment must have had on your mother's spirit.

Crying is supposed to give us a signal that something is wrong. It's supposed to trigger those feelings of discomfort that make us want to do something to stop the crying. When it takes a shelf-load or more of books to train parents on how to ignore their baby's crying for progressively longer times, that shows how unnatural and forced it is: Not to respond is actually harder than responding.

So give in. Believe your baby has something of value to say to you. And then carry that belief through to when that baby gains words and an ability to communicate more directly. If your partner was crying, you would respond immediately with concern and a hug. If your friend was excited, you would jump up and down, too. We're honored to treat our children with the same empathy and respect.

I want to point you to a few more links on the subject.

     • I found this article at Rachel's Ramblings"Crying It Out Once" — to be incredibly poignant. The first time she tried crying it out was when her son was 2 years old, and at that age he was able to use words to break her heart and bring her back. "That is why I am glad that I never left him to cry alone when he was an infant and without words I could understand," she writes. When I first read her post, I had just had such an experience of exasperation myself, so it was wrenching to read the reminder of what we do to our children when we separate ourselves from them when they need us.

     • PhD in Parenting has written several articles on the science and morality of crying it out. A favorite is "Cry it out (CIO): 10 reasons why it is not for us," which goes through the biology behind excessive infant crying and how it causes stress reactions, developmental problems, emotional issues, insecurity, detachment, and trauma — results that persist into later life and adult relationships. At the end, she gives several links to her research on the subject, so check those out for more footnotes than I'm providing here. (I'm lazy. What can I say.) For what to do instead of CIO, check out her wise article "Gentle Baby and Toddler Sleep Tips," which will help you find alternatives to crying it out that will still net you and yours a healthy night's sleep (sometimes, maybe, no promises, but ultimately yes).

     • To move the conversation along to respecting all ages of children, think over Arwyn's post at Raising My Boychick: "Dancing between the tables: on the personhood of children," on how we as a society deny children the right to behave and communicate like children. It starts with ignoring a baby's cries, and it continues to discriminating against any sort of behavior that's not exactly in line with what's convenient to adults (read: quiet and unnoticeable, which is a higher and much more unreasonable standard than that to which we hold other adults!).

     • And also read Ruth's (p)response on the topic at Look Left of the Pleiades: "People who dance between tables." Brilliant quotes: "Children do have age-specific support requirements. ... Having a need for age-specific support should not make anyone any less human. It should not make you any less listened to, should not make you any less important; should not make your pain any less real; should not mean you have less agency; should not make people assume the choices you make are less valid or even laughable; it should not make you the butt of jokes; it should not make your life into nothing more than a plotline for people who do not have the same support requirements; should not mean that if something frightening happens to you because your support requirements have not been met that this is somehow hilarious; should not mean that you are not allowed into public areas because of your need for support; should not mean that if you display your need for support vocally that you or your carer are disparaged." And, simply: "Children are humans. People."

     • And here are a few more articles I've written on the subject of responding to and respecting children: "Respecting short people" talks about how TV nannies really just show who's being childish in giving time-outs and refusing to play until some arbitrary rule is followed, and how the way our schools treat high school students is dehumanizing and degrading. "Why do we push our babies out of the nest?" muses about the cultural conditioning of independence as elucidated in Our Babies, Ourselves and wonders what we hope to gain by creating entirely independent children. "A distaste for dependence" is where I acknowledge my own limitations and stumbling blocks in being as responsive as I want to be, and Arwyn in the comments gives me a better word choice of "interdependent" as my (our) ultimate goal in attachment parenting. Finally (for now), "Tantrums and the terrible twos" describes how my particular son, with all his drama and innocence, keeps reminding me of the need to respond fairly, sensitively, and with great joy and honor at being needed and communicated with.

Photo courtesy kukacz on flickr (cc)


Rosemary Cottage said...

Thank you so much for the linking love! Also, excellent post xxxx

amy friend said...

as a mama who spent most of last night hearing and responding to the cries of her little one...i can not imagine doing anything else.

i have friends that seem so ap until they say something like they practice cio because it's essential for babies to learn how to cry...and to exercise their vocal cords. !!!

Jamie said...

Thanks for following me. I actually just posted a response to your post here. I have to say that crying it out was something that we did, successfully. We never neglected our child, left him unattended, hungry, thirsty or wet as you describe the patient in the nursing home. He was never left to cry for more than 30 minutes without knowing that we were still there, even if we were not RIGHT there. I am not advocating that option for everyone, just wanted to put it out there that it was something that worked for us. It was something we turned to as a last resort, but something that was ultimately successful. Thanks for the perspective- I'm enjoying you put a lot of my parenting principles into words with this series. I do a lot of AP without realizing that I'm doing it, though I don't claim to be a complete devotee, obviously.

Lisa C said...

Another great post that I may have to link to sometime. Of all the AP principles, I think this one may be the most important. When your child says he needs you, he NEEDS you! I would not dare break that trust with my child for anything, even a good night's sleep.

I think so many people don't realize that sometimes their children do need to express their emotions but in a place of love and safety...not alone in their room. It's not just about the physical needs (clean diaper, being fed, etc), sometimes it's an emotional need. It's okay to hold a crying baby! (I just want to scream that sometimes!)

Neptunebaby said...

I do not believe in the CIO method. I'm not saying a baby shouldn't cry, but a caregiver should not let the baby cry and cry and cry. It's obsurd.

I'll stop there before I write a novel. :P Great post!

Betsy B. Honest said...

Yup, this is a divisive issue, and it's why I don't identify with the school of Attachment Parenting. I like to think of myself as someone more dedicated to figuring out what works best for each individual in my family rather than following a perscriptive set of rules.

Re: Crying it Out -- this has definately worked for me in the past. I think when a baby reaches a certain age (around 8 mos. to a year) they can get into a vicious cycle of overstimulation if they are allowed to "play" with their mom's boobs at night instead of sleeping. They will wake themselves and you up to initiate socializing that is ultimately very harmful. It's hard to put a finger on how I "know" this is happening at a specific developmental phase but it has something to do with everyone being frustrated and peaceful little sleepers turning into sleep-deprived, wretched little souls.

AP parents seem to imagine that the opposite of COI is a humane relationship with your baby and COI involves neglect, emotional trauma, etc.etc. because mom is too selfish to haul her arse out of bed at night to baby her baby.

I've been a mom for four years and talking with other parents about their kids sleep habits has me convinced that my kids are the best sleepers EVER. It's not all because I'm so very smart, but there have been things I've done to not ruin their natural tendencies to sleep well including hiring a sitter instead of dragging baby off to social events that are in the evening and COI (I've needed to let them COI probably 3 times for 2 kids over 4 years -- it probably amounts to about 1 hour total of me grinding my teeth with my iPod thinking "I'd really like to cuddle that baby but I know s/he NEEDS me to do this for her).

Meanwhile we all sleep through the night in our house and my kids are generally well rested. They go to bed at 8 o'clock.

So the beef I have with AP is how very many parents seem to think they are better mom's than me because they haven't slept properly for 3 years and neither have their red-eyed, frantic, frustrated-at-the-drop-of-a-hat kids who are on the same sleep schedule as they are which is not enough sleep for an adult, never mind for a wee, defenseless toddler! And when they describe their sleep patterns too me I can't help but notice it involves a LOT of tears, very unlike the quiet nights chez moi.

Okay, I'll shut up now, but it's an issue. Perhaps I best write my own blog on this.

amy friend said...

Betsy ~ You hit a sensitive spot, and one I would like to see poked a little more (maybe on your blog). Yes, I have regretfully felt better than because I'm dying, but my child is not left to CIO. That lasts for about 2 seconds. Mostly, I feel judged and condemned for not CIO...and therefore I deserve the crappy sleep I get. The thing is, I listen to everyone, take in all I can...and then make my decision for this child. For this child I don't believe that CIO will consistently work, and is what he needs. Maybe I am wrong. I have to follow my heart, as all parents do...constantly modifying "the best" method for xyz.

Lauren Wayne said...

All right, I've put off responding to the comments, because, as cypress sun said, it is a sensitive spot, and parents on both sides of the CIO fence will alternately feel condemned and congratulated for their views. I don't know that I even now have something coherent to respond, but I'll try to put down some extra thoughts here.

First of all, when I think of CIO, I think of the type that I'm familiar with from my own parents and from a family we used to sit for in the Midwest (U.S.). The baby was put in the crib at a specified time, the bedroom door was shut, and the baby was left without any parental contact after that until the specified wake-up time. I know that there are different degrees and types of "controlled crying," and it's possible that I wouldn't have a problem with what some people think is CIO but is not actually (such as a baby crying b/c he doesn't want to stay in bed but his mother stays nearby to keep him there and soothe him to sleep). I can't really be sure what people mean when they say they use CIO occasionally; in my experiences as mentioned above, CIO was a part of every night and every nap. To me, that seemed really cruel, and I'm not afraid to say so. I don't want to be all hedgy here and say that I agree with CIO in certain other circumstances, because I most likely don't. I'm just saying that I don't know everyone's circumstances.

I like that edenwild brought up the need to cry to release emotion. I am not against crying in general. I think sometimes crying is unavoidable, but I do think that one of my roles as a parent is to be present when my child is crying. At night or during the day. That's my stance. Sometimes it's another trusted caregiver who's present, and that's fine, too. I just can't agree with leaving a child alone to cry. I just can't.

What I don't intend from my post is to judge individual parents. My analogy of the nursing home is just that: an analogy. It's not equating crying it out with not caring about your child or leaving his diaper unchanged. Analogies, for me, serve to give an "a-ha!" sort of emotional response that makes you look at a subject a different way. In the case of this analogy, I hope it makes you look at what crying it out is like for the child. What message does it send when they can't communicate their needs? Again, the type of CIO I'm familiar with was very drastic, and wouldn't take into account "valid" needs such as a dirty diaper or being thirsty.

I wrote this post hoping to say, in a broad way, consider something besides crying it out. If you've already chosen it, then it is what it is. We can disagree there. But maybe someone who doesn't want to use CIO but thinks it's best or the only option will read and realize there are other options.

Lauren Wayne said...

I just want to address one more aspect, from Betsy. I’m over the comment character limit, so I have to make this separate! It's probably just my defensiveness talking, but I don't think my son is a crappy sleeper just because he doesn't sleep through the night in his own bed. He wakes a few times but immediately returns to sleep following a short time nursing. He goes down several hours before we do and gets about 11-12 hours of sleep a night. Sometimes he naps, sometimes not. He takes anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour to fall asleep, but I think that's partly genetic, because I (like to) take a long time to fall asleep, and it seems to me (from the outside) that my son uses that time to daydream and think through the day just as I like to. I use the time he’s falling asleep to read online while he's nursing, and he's generally very calm during the fall-asleep time and looks forward to lying down. When he’s asleep, I go back out and have several hours with my husband to relax or get work done or whatever. Mikko sometimes wakes once more before it's time for me to go to bed (often it's a cue that it's time for me to go to bed!) and feeds for a couple minutes, then is back asleep. He'll usually wake one more time in the night, and then he'll nurse awake in the morning, gradually waking us both up. It's peaceful. We're both sleeping fine. I know some people can't sleep comfortably cosleeping or with "interrupted" sleep, but I feel fine with it. I think biologically, historically, babies and mamas have slept this way, so I really don't think it's harmful. I think sleep has been elevated so highly in Western culture that there are all these rules that sleep must be at least x hours long, and it must not be broken at all, and it must be only at night, etc., etc. But I think good sleep can come in other forms. I do understand, though, that if someone really internalizes the Western ideals of sleep that not getting that type of sleep can be psychologically upsetting and therefore make the person feel dissatisfied with the type or amount of sleep received. So I can't really tell people exactly what to do, sleepwise, just respond that cosleeping AP-ers and their kids aren't all crying from exhaustion. If other people are, then, yes, they have issues, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame it on AP. I’ve heard CIO parents who have kids with the same bad sleep habits that you describe, so it goes both ways.

FWIW, I don't at all think I'm a better mom than you (hoo boy, no!), and I think it sounds like you do have luck for having good sleepers, plus the work you've put into guiding them in that way. I have only the one kid, so I don't have super much to go on when I recommend things; I can only say what I've experienced myself. I think some kids sleep better than others, regardless, so it's always hard to judge from the outside whether it's the parenting that deserves the fault or the credit. For instance, my son was a very dramatic baby. There were a couple times when I couldn’t go right in to comfort him as a young baby, and Sam went in to him in my stead. No dice. Within 30 seconds, Mikko was vomiting from crying so hard. I think some babies are more laid-back and susceptible to having CIO work on them (“work” in the sense that they go to sleep). In contrast, my son would have been stubborn and intense enough to continue crying all.night.long.

Ok, I'll stop now. I just wanted to say that I still don't like standing by while my child cries (even though I've done it in frustration a time or two!), and that I can't advocate it. If you click through on PhD in Parenting's link above, you'll see a good argument that CIO in general is harmful, but there's no hard and fast data on how much is needed to do long-term damage. So it's possible that using it a time or two on an older baby/toddler is not harmful; but then again, it might be. I choose not to take the risk, and I choose to take the burden (such as it is) of my kids' sleep onto myself, rather than making them navigate it alone.

Lauren Wayne said...

And, p.s., don't take my novel-length follow-up responses as some sort of bashing. I simply canNOT be concise and must spill forth all thoughts all the time. I love you all, and welcome hearing when people disagree with me. It's how I learn, right?

P.P.S. I went over the character limit in the second comment, too, and had to edit down! What up with my wordiness??

Lisa C said...

Okay, I know I wrote a big, long comment here yesterday, but now I don't see it. Bummer. I'm pretty sure it was a good one, but I don't have time to rewrite my thoughts.

N. Angail said...

I agree whole-heartedly. So many people are misguided into thinking CIO is the best and only way to go. People love calling my child "spoiled" bc I don't let her cry. I love to ignore them.

Sarah L said...

Like so many other things, I don't think there is one answer for everyone. In addition, our children need different things at different ages. I would never leave a small infant to cry. However, my 10 month old will NOT fall asleep on me, nor will she share sleep with me in my bed anymore. When I see her tired cues, I nurse her and then put her to bed with her blankie. She cries for a minute or less (usually closer to 15 seconds), then she goes to sleep and sleeps well for half the night until she's up to nurse again. If I try to hold her, rock her, bounce her or otherwise soothe her to sleep, I will be up for hours while she sobs from exhaustion. All three of my babies were this same way. I stayed up once with my oldest to see if I could soothe her to sleep without lying her down and letting her cry at all. She wound up crying in my arms for over two hours. I fail to see how that meets her needs in a way that letting her cry for 30 seconds does not. Would I leave my daughter to cry in her room for 30 minutes? No way! In fact, I wouldn't leave her to cry in her room for 5 or 10 minutes, because I know her and I know that if she's not sleeping in a minute or less, she's not ready for bed. I can make that judgement call, because I'm her mom.

While I think that you are absolutely right that every mom needs to know that there are other options than CIO, I also think that moms (and dads) need to be empowered to make the choice that works best for their child and their family at each stage of development. It is great that cosleeping and night feeding work so well for your family. I do know families who are not getting rest, and I think that's what poster Betsy was touching on.I know moms who are still nursing their three-year-olds all night long and who are touched out, sleeping horribly, and completely worn-down. Is that kinder to the child's development than to night-wean him (or set limits on night nursing or have him in his own sleep space, or set another limit that will improve sleep) and have a mom who is rested and able to be lovingly responsive the next day?

All of this is not to defend CIO. Rather, I am trying to point out that the issue isn't so black-and-white, and every family needs to have good information, then be allowed to make their own decisions about what works best for the family as a whole. Parent's also need to realize that they are not locked into a choice. Cosleeping and night nursing might be awesome when you have a newborn, but it might not works so well for you when you have a toddler. I circle back to the principle, "Do what you have to do to get the best sleep for the most people." And don't be afraid to experiment and find what works for your family as a whole.

nerdmafia said...

"What I'm saying is that babies are biologically wired to use their cries as communication. "

i couldn't agree more. it's a child's biological imperative to cry. in my opinion, if your baby is dry, fed, not sick, dressed comfortably for the temperature and still crying, and you pick him up and he stops then maybe all he needed was you and to know that you were close to feel safe. feel good about that! your kid likes you so much that your arms are his preferred place to be. i think that's a good thing.

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