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Cry It Out: The Method That Kills Baby Brain Cells

Posted: 12/22/11 11:07 AM ET

I know. A dramatic headline. Made you look. But it's not fiction. It turns out that the "Cry It Out" method of baby sleep training, where you ignore that your kid is screaming, crying and turning 40 shades of purple so that she can break herself out of the habit of being spoiled and cuddled to sleep, does more harm -- way more -- than good.

In her recent piece for Psychology Today, Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame, writes that when babies are stressed, their bodies release cortisol into their systems -- a toxic hormone that kills brain cells. Considering their brains are only 25 percent developed when they're born full-term and grow rapidly in their first year, killing off baby brain cells is a huge no bueno. Narvaez notes that studies out of Harvard, Yale, Baylor and other prestigious institutions show that said killing off of baby brain cells can lead to the higher probability of ADHD, poor academic performance and anti-social tendencies, and that human babies are hardwired for hands-on comfort and care.

"Babies are built to expect the equivalent of an 'external womb' after birth... being held constantly, breastfed on demand, needs met quickly," Narvaez writes. "These practices are known to facilitate good brain and body development. When babies display discomfort, it signals that a need is not getting met, a need of their rapidly growing systems."

Um, remember that scene from the True Hollywood Stories: Rick James episode on the Dave Chappelle Show -- the one where Rick James is grinding his feet into Eddie Murphy's couch? Yeah. *insert an image of Denene doing the Rick James foot stomp into the couch thing here* In your face, Nick Chiles! For the record, I argued and fussed and fought with my husband over "Feberizing" our Mari. The infant self-soothing technique, invented by Dr. Richard Ferber, requires parents to let their babies "cry it out" for a predetermined amount of time, in increasing intervals, before they comfort them -- and even then, comforting involves talking to and rubbing the babies; picking them up or cuddling them is forbidden.

Now, it's been 12 years since we tried this "cry it out" thing with Mari, but I promise you, I can still hear her screaming in her crib in the next room. My breasts would throb at her every whimper, and every second on the clock would feel like an eternity while I waited for my chance to go in and pat her on her stomach, rub her arm and cheek and tell her, "it's okay, baby--Daddy promises you won't die from crying."

But I was. It just didn't feel right to let my child scream and holler and thrash by her little self in the dark in her crib when I knew full well that a little rocking in her glider, maybe a song and a sweet nuzzle of her cheek would send her off to dreamland. Granted, some nights that meant multiple rocking/singing/nuzzle time, but, to me, it was a small price to pay for feeling like I was mothering my baby and helping her feel like her mommy was there. Always there.

Of course, plenty other parents think differently about it and that's their right. We all do what we think works for our kids, our families, our lives. Not gonna point fingers at y'all. But I will point them at the hubs. When I showed this Yahoo Shine story chronicling Narvaez's anti-cry-it-out research -- and an interview in which Ferber actually backs off his own method--to Nick, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "It ain't fun for the baby, but that shit worked. Everybody got some sleep. You going for two years with only three hours of sleep at night isn't healthy either."

I think he might have said those exact words to me the first time I left Mari in her crib. Still, as much as his reasoning made sense, it just didn't feel right to me -- her mother. And when Nick told Mari we did this to her when she was a baby, she was incredulous: "What? You use to let me cry? You didn't come get me? You just left me there by myself?!"

That was Daddy, baby!

Yeah. That Ferber training didn't last long in our house, and I don't remember even trying it with my Lila. (Which might explain why our daughters' nighttime routines were a little worthy-of-a-Broadway-production hectic for longer than they should have been. But whatevs.) My babies and I benefited greatly from our nightly bonding sessions and co-sleeping arrangements, and I'm glad I did it for as long as I did.

Now that we've got this babies need to cry it out business out of the way, I've got some ideas on what researchers need to look into next: I'm waiting for the study to show that beating your kid like she stole something in what is supposed to be a friendly game of Go Fish and Checkers causes brain melt. I'm looking at you, Nicholas Chiles. I'm looking at you.

This post originally appeared on MyBrownBaby.com.