When proof is not proof: AP/NP “research”

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):

Treatment of sleep problems in families with young children: effects of treatment on family well-being.

“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.”

Behavior characteristics and security in sleep-disturbed infants treated with extinction.

“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.

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17 Responses

  1. Why are you so against attachment parenting? Our profound attachments are a big part of what makes us human.

    How does CIO teach empathy?

  2. I’m not against most of the AP practices per se. What I do object to, however, is presenting them as “scientifically proven” to promote attachment, especially vis-a-vis normal, loving mainstream parenting – what APers like to call disdainfully “detachment parenting”. There is zilch, zip, nada evidence that AP promotes attachment any better than plain old loving parenting, and I resent Apers claiming otherwise on the basis of such shoddy evidence as the article critiqued above.

    As to your question, CIO isn’t supposed to teach empathy, it’s supposed to teach a child to fall asleep in their own space by themsleves. CIO is also, however, not a deterrent to learning empathy during the daytime from your average loving parent.

  3. I could KISS you, I really could. While I wound up being pretty AP mostly because I’m a lazy ass and a lot of the AP stuff was just easier and worked well, I am SO FREAKING SICK of seeing people proclaim that ‘harvard found CIO is bad!’. Especially when they find out that (gasp) we used the Ferber method at 7 months old and don’t regret it for a second, because it worked exactly as advertised.

    I admit, I always feel a bit bad when I get into a CIO debate with someone who leads off with ‘the harvard study’, because I know I’m dealing with someone who hasn’t actually read any of the literature and I’m going to be able to just annihilate them.

    I’m bookmarking your site and this page in particular – I imagine linking here will save me some typing in the future! Have you tackled the rest of the Big Link O’ Anti CIO links on MDC yet? Because they are completely devoid of scientific merit, I imagine it might be fun.

  4. I’m so glad you find my posts to be helpful! That’s what they’re here for – to hopefully serve as resources people can use in debates (not necessarily my posts, also the links they contain) and to reassure mainstream parents they have more than a leg to stand on when defending their practices.

    Now tell me more about this “Big Link O’ Anti CIO links on MDC”, please. I spend very little time there…bad for my blood pressure and mental health, but the articles they link to might provide some interesting future post fodder…>:)

  5. Goodness, you are going to have fun with these.

    This is the thread at MDC I’m thinking of:


    I think you can access that without being logged in.

    My, it’s certainly an impressive collection of links, isn’t it! Of course, unless it’s changed substantially from 3 years ago when I went through it link by link, it’s mostly unsubstantiated opinion, and the few pieces that have references use them inappropriately or wildly misrepresent the research. Link #2 is the ‘Harvard Study’ (I’m just surprised it’s not #1!). Occasionally on non-MDC boards someone will come along and post the whole shebang – a while ago someone did that on babycenter, and a very sensible poster went through and critiqued every single link. It was pretty awesome. Unfortunately I can no longer locate the thread, or I’d link that too!

    IIRC, the only one on the list that even comes close to being useful, scientifically speaking, is the one from the AAIMHI – it actually has references.

  6. Egrrrl:IIRC, the only one on the list that even comes close to being useful, scientifically speaking, is the one from the AAIMHI – it actually has references.

    And what references they are! You’re right, I am definitely going to have fun with this one. 🙂

  7. Your sarcasm and condescension tell me more about you than all of the words you’ve spent time writing here.
    Th these

  8. Well, melwa, some folks deserve to be treated sarcastically and condescendingly. Like people who attempt to guilt parents with tripe like the subject of this post.

  9. Don’tcha just love the fact that the Natural Child website – the one where you can find the actual Commons and Miller paper that you linked to above – *also* has at least one of the newspaper articles of the ‘Harvard researchers have found that our parenting practices are harmful’ ilk? I mean, they have the original paper, and they haven’t even noticed that the things being said about it in newspaper articles don’t match, at all, what the paper actually says? Either they don’t read their own website, or they’re outright dishonest. (I’m truly not sure which possibility I believe.)

  10. Actually, there is a dearth of research on the impact of CIO (either extinction or graduated extinction) on infants. The majority of studies on crying and sleep training look at children older than a year (some include a few under a year.) The focus of most studies is whether or not crying “works” in sleep training, rather than the impact on infants and their development. That said, the research related to crying and elevated cortisol raises concerns, and as most families have non-cry options for helping infants develop good sleep habits, it seems prudent to advise against crying-to-sleep train, especially for infants under a year.

  11. Tulipgirl: There are studies that deal with modified forms of extinction even younger than the ages normally recommended for full-scale CIO, and neither those nor the ones that deal with children at the ages of, or older than, 6-24 months and that do examine the impact on the children’s psyche, have shown any detrimental effects. I’ve gone into the research regarding this here. The research regarding crying and elevated cortisol refers to cases of long-standing abuse and/or neglect and has nothing whatsoever to do with CIO (see here), and contrary to what you claim, there are messageboards all over the Web chock-full of sleep deprived parents at their wits’ end due to trying those ‘non-cry options’ you mention, but who are scared to try CIO because of misinformation like the reference in the blogpost above.

    It is not prudent to assume a priori that a sleep-training method is harmful when there is no evidence of such, and some evidence to the contrary. You make the assertion, you prove it.

  12. I found this blog to be very interesting, or rather this post. I myself use the Babywise method with schedules and CIO but I have never allowed my baby to cry for long periods, actually 15 minutes is too long for me. However, I still feel bad when she cries so (she is 4 months now and we started CIO at 2 months). She sleeps 12 hours a night and is actually a very happy baby.

    What I’ve been searching far and wide for is a study, a real study nothing of some ma and pop junk, that shows the effects of CIO on adults or kids over the age of 5. Where are these studies? Many against CIO claim that it’s so bad and that it causes problems in adulthood–ok, so where are those studies??? I want to see those.

    I find it funny because my sister and I were both CIO babies as my mother tells me and my husband’s mother would never let him CIO. I can honestly tell you that my hubby is an insecure person in general and I am not. So does CIO really have an affect on security as an adult? If so it sure didn’t work in my case or my hubby’s!!! Just some food for thought . . . .

    • While I do not support CIO at 2 months nor endorse the Babywise method, there are no studies which demonstrate, or even indicate, CIO causes emotional problems in adulthood or even in childhood, despite the claims made by AP/NPers. More on that very soon.

  13. Can I ask why you don’t like Babywise? I don’t adhere to it religiously, believe me. I’m on some babywise forums and I personally think many of those moms are nuts. But I AM huge on schedules and routines. While this for me is not–if the baby is hungry we have to wait for the right time. Many folks that do not agree with Babywise think that the folks that follow (and some may do this but most don’t) will not feed a baby if it is hungry because “it’s not time” according to their schedule. This is simply not true and actually throughout the book it says over and over–if your baby is hungry feed him/her! I just don’t think you should feed a baby every hour or just because it’s crying. This is where Baby Whisperer comes in. I am able to read and understand my baby’s cues of crying and body language due to this book. It helped me so much realize that she may be crying due to over-stimulation or a slew of other things. Where my mother in law always said–she’s crying, is she hungry? I’d say, no, she ate 45 minutes ago. And indeed she wasn’t hungry. The good of Babywise is that your baby will adjust to eat every 2-3 hours and also not cry on demand for food. My LO sits so happily in her chair while I prepare her bottle. I don’t have to deal with a baby that screams until the meal is ready. And she eats like a champ and is thriving. So I personally think those against Babywise may possibly not understand it fully or they know folks that use it to the letter and too literally and may actually do that crazy stuff where they allow baby’s needs to be skipped over. That’s not the intention of the methodology and those who do that are well . . . I’ll stop there.

    Again, I find Babywise in many ways to be harsh and insensitive and that is why I personally like Baby Whisperer best. The only difference is that I did and do use CIO which Baby Whisperer does not advise at all. And when I started CIO at 8 weeks with my LO it was 5 minutes maybe that she would do it before I’d go in. I will not ever and have not ever thought it was ok to let a baby go for more than 15 minutes crying. Some of those moms on my forums let a baby cry for hours and I think that is just ludicrous and insane. My LO doesn’t cry at all anymore at nap/bedtime. She coos and talks to herself sometimes or if she cries it is less than 5 minutes. And this is a fact because I time it always, always to be sure. And if it is one second over 15 minutes I’m in there to see what is going on. I will let her go that long now that she is 4 months. But rarely does that happen.

    Ok. I just ranted forever. Sorry about that!

    • Believe it or not, I own a copy of Babywise (the 1998 edition) and unlike most reflexive Ezzo-bashers, have actually read the book. I didn’t find it so horribly bad, but it was very, very rigid – I think, perhaps, too rigid for most parents and their babies.

      I also appreciate that what I was reading was (if I understand it correctly) a watered-down version of a very strict religious parenting method which, taken as a whole, seems quite harsh. I also think that while some tiny babies may naturally slip into a 12-hour sleeping thru the nite routine, that’s not what should be encouraged at that age, as in fact, some children who were parented this way were diagnosed with failure to thrive. There are good physiological reasons why Ferber, Weissbluth etc. don’t recommend CIO at such a young age and prefer to wait to 4-6 months (and as I said, I’ll be discussing this in a future post).

      I’m nor familiar enough with The Baby Whisperer to have an opinion about her – isn’t she more about developing good routines?

  14. Yes. Tracy Hogg, aka, Baby Whisperer, is a very liberal and more sensitive version of Babywise. I am not rigid like some Babywisers. And I will NOT use their toddler series as I think their discipline methods and other things are really rather insane.

    The failure to thrive is always brought up by folks who do not do or know much about Babywise. If one has a baby that is failure to thrive they have gone way overboard with Babywise and literally not fed their baby as needed. Also, I don’t agree with the CIO they talk about as they say you can start it whenever you wish–any age. I absolutely do not think a 10 day old baby should be left to cry at all. I remember asking some questions on one of my forums when my LO was 10 days old and a lady said–just let her cry, she’ll stop soon enough. I let my son cry for 2 hours . .. and I quickly retorted that I thought that was actually cruel and ludicrous no matter what some book said.

    Tracy Hogg is all about routines and activity time, which is what Babywise talks about they just don’t give enough sweet advice on it or examples on what and how, it’s rather black and white and I think that is where some parents go wrong. Too many stupid people out there . . .

    I basically have my LO on a routine, 3-4 hour schedule, give or take, and when it’s nap time or bedtime she just goes down. Sometimes she may cry for a few minutes but really all she does these days is just talk to herself. Not much crying. If she cries now I know something is up and I will go in to see what is going on after I give her a few minutes to try to settle. I think this is good because of the CIO I’ve implemented I can now tell if she’s actually upset over something or not.

  15. I know this is a really old post but I just wanted to let you know that it’s still helping parents. We recently settled on extinction slee training for our 6 1/2 month old and it has been wonderful for him. He responded quickly and there has been a noticeable positive change is his demeanor during the day now that he is no longer spending hours awake throughout the night. We came across this Harvard “study” cited on a parenting forum and we were surprised as it didn’t jive with everything else we found before settling on slee training. One Google search of the study led us here and to a very helpful post. Thanks for giving is easy to find peace of mind.

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