Can leaving a baby to 'cry it out' cause brain damage?

Parenting practice

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Can leaving a baby to 'cry it out' cause brain damage?

Asked by Christine Koch of Strathfield, NSW Australia

Research suggests that allowing a baby to "cry it out" can cause brain damage.

Some experts warn that allowing a baby to "cry it out" causes extreme distress to the baby. And such extreme distress in a newborn has been found to block the full development of certain areas of the brain and causes the brain to produce extra amounts of cortisol which can be harmful.

According to a University of Pittsburgh study by Dr M DeBellis and seven colleagues, published in Biological Psychiatry in 2004, children who suffer early trauma generally develop smaller brains.

A Harvard University study by Dr M Teicher and five colleagues, also published in Biological Psychiatry, claims that the brain areas affected by severe distress are the limbic system, the left hemisphere, and the corpus callosum. Additional areas that may be involved are the hippocampus and the orbitofrontal cortex.

The Science of Parenting by Dr Margot Sunderland (Dorling Kindersley, 2006) is a recently published book that points out some of the brain damaging effects that can occur if parents fail to properly nurture a baby - and that means not allowing them to "cry it out".

Sunderland, the director of education and training at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, draws upon work in neuroscience to come to her conclusions and recommendations about parenting practice.

In the first parenting book to link parent behaviour with infant brain development, Sunderland describes how the infant brain is still being "sculpted" after birth. Parents have a major role in this brain "sculpting" process.

In doing this properly, Sunderland argues that it is crucial that parents meet the reasonable emotional needs of the infant. This is helped along by providing a continuously emotionally nurturing environment for the infant.

Allowing a baby to "cry it out" when it is upset will probably be regarded as child abuse by future generations.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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