crying to sleep

Stephen Black sblack at UBISHOPS.CA
Sat Jan 25 20:44:21 EST 1997

On 25 Jan 1997, Laura J Miller wrote:

> Does anyone have any information on the effects
> of crying to sleep and sleep quality/brain chemistry?
> I must be looking in the wrong place but I can't
> seem to find any research in this area.
> My reason for asking is that there seems to be
> a very strong belief in this culture that babies
> should be left to "cry it out" in order to force
> them to fall asleep on their own.  As a neuroscientist
> and a mom, I have trouble believing that that is
> healthy, either psychologically (abandonment issues)
> or physically (isn't it releasing an awful lot of
> stress hormones and wouldn't that affect sleep
> quality and brain development?  Especially at such
> a sensitive age).
> Please no knee-jerk responses from those who have let
> their children cry to sleep.  I am asking for a scientific answer.

Well, I can't say anything about brain chemistry, and my references are 
at school, but this is what I told my class in child psychology recently 
on this topic. I hope it's more scientific than knee-jerk.

The classic paper on the topic is by Bell and Ainsworth. They measured 
parental response (probably just the mothers'--this was in the 60's, I 
believe) to crying in the first six months of life, and 
then measured amount of crying in the _next_ six months. They reported, 
contrary to what seemed to be predicted by conventional behaviour 
(reinforcement) theory, that the more responsive the parents were in the 
first six months, the _less_ the babies cried afterwards. They 
interpreted their findings in terms of Ainsworth's ethological 
(biological, evolutionary) theory of child development, in which crying 
is a care-eliciting behaviour and the parents' responsiveness to it 
promotes greater security and attachment on the part of the baby. So 
rapid responding to a baby's crying is good.

However, this view is not inconsistent with  a more enlightened 
behaviourist position. I believe there is some data that mothers who 
don't respond to their babies could be more accurately described as 
responding inconsistently or responding only after long delays. Both 
features would tend to teach the babies to cry for long periods of 
time, which would be lead to Bell and Ainsworth's results. 
Speaking as a parent, our family rule with our babies was to try to 
respond immediately to avoid reinforcing prolonged crying. However, if it 
was 2:00 am, and we'd already checked and soothed the baby  a few minutes 
earlier, we might well subsequently ignore the crying. 

The situation is different with an older child, one who has language 
ability. Many parents do have problems with these children frequently 
waking up in the night and crying, and this can be stressful for the 
whole family. One study showed that checking on the child to ensure that 
he/she was not in difficulty but with a minimum of fuss, and then 
ignoring the child, was an effective means of ending the problem. An 
alternate method, which I found a little strange, was to _anticipate_ the 
child's wake-up times, and do whatever was done first (such as back-rubs, 
soothing, drink of water). According to the study, both methods worked. 
Ignoring was faster but objectionable to some parents; anticipatatory 
wake-ups were more acceptable but difficult to carry out. I'd go with the 
ignoring method.

References available if anyone is interested.


Stephen Black, Ph.D.                      tel: (819) 822-9600 ext 2470
Department of Psychology                  fax: (819) 822-9661
Bishop's University                    e-mail: sblack at
Lennoxville, Quebec               
J1M 1Z7                                      

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