It always amuses me when I see an AP/NP website discover this article. Even though the article is almost 10 years old, it’s still constantly being ‘discovered’ by AP/NPers and touted as a ‘study’ – from Harvard, no less – which is proof that putting your baby to sleep on her own, or using the ‘cry-it-out’ method*, is harmful to babies and leaves lifelong psychological scars:
The pair examined childrearing practices here and in other cultures and say the widespread American practice of putting babies in separate beds — even separate rooms — and not responding quickly to their cries may lead to incidents of post-traumatic stress and panic disorders when these children reach adulthood.
The early stress resulting from separation causes changes in infant brains that makes future adults more susceptible to stress in their lives, say Commons and Miller.
“Parents should recognize that having their babies cry unnecessarily harms the baby permanently,” Commons said. “It changes the nervous system so they’re overly sensitive to future trauma.”
The Harvard researchers’ work is unique because it takes a cross-disciplinary approach, examining brain function, emotional learning in infants, and cultural differences, according to Charles R. Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University and editor of The Journal of Traumatology.
“It is very unusual but extremely important to find this kind of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research report,” Figley said. “It accounts for cross-cultural differences in children’s emotional response and their ability to cope with stress, including traumatic stress.”
The Toronto Star ran an article of their own on the subject, titled “Baby cribs breed social ills, psychiatrist says”.
Unfortunately for them, this is not a study, nor is it proof of anything but Commons’ and Miller’s (who are husband and wife) personal opinions. They’re not even psychiatrists, but psychologists (the former being MD’s. Not that should effect the degree of scholarship expected of them, but it certainly says something about the assumptions the star made).
According the the Harvard Gazette, Commons and Miller
contrasted American childrearing practices with those of other cultures, particularly the Gusii people of Kenya. Gusii mothers sleep with their babies and respond rapidly when the baby cries.
“Gusii mothers watching videotapes of U.S. mothers were upset by how long it took these mothers to respond to infant crying,” Commons and Miller said in their paper on the subject.
From this sprang this paper, which was the basis for the interview and the newspaper article. The paper is not a study; it merely hypothesizes that cultures which emphasize independence may be putting its members at a higher risk for post-traumatic stress disorder later in life. However, it provides very few facts on which to base this hypothesis, to the extent that they aren’t even able to provide proof that babies sleeping away from their mothers have elevated levels of stress hormones.
Needless to say, the mere fact that some Gussii mothers were upset about American parenting practices is hardly proof that American parenting practices are wrong or harmful. I’m fairly sure that American mothers, upon being informed of the Gussii parenting practice of female genital mutilation, wouldn’t exactly consider the Gussii model parents, either – and for much better reasons, IMO. Nor is there any evidence that Gussii children are any more psychologically healthy than American children: we’ve already established that western children are no less (and sometimes even more) securely attached to their mothers than Gussii children are. The Gussii children are more subdued than American children; this is attributed to the fact that the Gussii ideal is to have an obedient, docile child, and to this end, the children have very little face-to-face time with adults. Maybe this, then, should be the real lesson of Commons’ and Miller’s “research” – don’t talk or play Peek-a-boo with with your baby, for fear of overstimulating him?
This interview with Michael Commons seems a little closer to the truth: that this is merely an untested hypothesis of Commons and his wife. Surely the Harvard Gazette and the Toronto Star should have been able to do at least as well?
So let’s recap the facts we’ve learned:
Some Gussii mothers expressed disapproval at American parenting practices. Gussii parents practice AP, in addition to giving their babies the silent treatment.
All the rest, mind, is rank speculation on the part of Commons and Miller, viewed through the prism of their own prejudices.
Somehow, this distinction seems to escape the notice of the AP/NP crowd. This probably shouldn’t be too surprising, as many of them do not understand the nature of logic or scientific proof. They see an interview with a doctor or a scientist stating his personal opinion dressed up in scientese, and poof – it’s a “proven fact”.
A case in point – this genius:
A recent Harvard study shows that children who are left to cry themselves to sleep suffer long-lasting damage to their nervous system. As a result, they are more susceptible to post traumatic stress and anxiety disorders, including panic attacks. Responding to your baby’s cues when he cries does not spoil a child and it does not mean he will never sleep soundly on his own. In fact, a child who is comforted and nurtured will become more independent and healthy sleepers later because they know they have a dependable support system waiting for them when they wake up. Dr. Sears, world-renowned pediatrician, has done many studies on this. I would highly recommend reading about Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting philosophy. Mothers will find it is much closer to what their natural instincts tell them.
Yeppers, that’s what passes for ‘facts’ in the AP/NP world. The Harvard ‘study’ and Dr Sears’ “research’. LOL!
In cae anyone wants some real information, studies (real ones, not hypotheses based upon someone’s preconceived notions, mind) have been done about using extinction methods like Ferber’s to get infants to sleep. The results, far from confirming Commons’ and Miller’s overblown hypothesis, show that sleep training can be of great psychological benefit to an infant (and his parents, natch):
“Before intervention, the sleep-disturbed children were rated as more insecure than a matched comparison group with unknown sleep behaviour. This difference was eliminated after the interventions. The more anxious the children were rated before intervention, the more they tended to benefit from it.”
“There was no evidence of detrimental effects on the treated infants whose security, emotionality/tension, and likeability scores improved.”
The studies are small, but at least they’re not merely somebody’s opinion dressed as fact.
*By the CIO method I’m referring to the sleep technique also known as Ferberizing, named after Dr. Richard Ferber and as illustrated in his book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. This consists of letting a baby cry, with the parents popping in at intervals to reassure the child and see if he’s in any physical discomfort, as a method of teaching a child > 6 months to sleep on his own. It does not cover leaving a 2-week-old in this manner, nor leaving a child of any age to cry on their own, unattended, all night long.
Filed under: Infant sleep |