Is crying it out ‘toxic’ for baby’s brain? New evidence in England reignites issue

Apparently Dr. Penelope Leach is England’s Dr. Sears. (The old Dr. Sears not the young one.) She has released a new book quoting new scientific evidence that letting babies consistently cry it out can actually hurt their brains.

From the BBC’s web site, which seemed to be the most neutral on the subject:

“Dr Leach told the BBC News website: ‘We are talking about the release of stress chemicals. The best known of them is cortisol, which is produced under extreme stress.’

” ‘One is not talking about a wakeful baby lying there gurgling, one is talking about a baby that is crying hard and nobody is responding.’

” ‘When that happens, and particularly if it happens over a long period, the brain chemical system releases cortisol and that is very bad for brain development. Some neuroscientists describe it as toxic.’ “

She suggested that unattended crying bouts of 30 minutes or more could damage babies.

The writer at the Guardian in Britain seemed to be an advocate for “crying it out” and thinks it would only be in an extreme case of neglect, like at an orphanage, that this would really affect a baby’s brain development.

“It was a blatant attack on rival baby guru Gina Ford, author of the Contented Little Baby series, who advocates strict routines and – in some situations – ‘controlled crying.’”

The author of the Mail’s story seems to buy into Dr. Leach’s research more.

In America, Dr. Richard Ferber is pro-cry guy and Dr. Sears tells you to bring them into your bed and not let them cry.

What do you think of the new research? Would it change how you handled your own baby? Did you let them cry it out or not? Would you do it differently now?

24 comments Add your comment

Tea Party Protest Sign Spell Chequer

April 26th, 2010
7:21 am

I’m crying right now reading this!

Also…..No….Yes, crying it out does work. You can only expel so much energy before you shut down and shut up…..I just wish people would not let their kids cry it out in public.


April 26th, 2010
8:26 am

I realized early on that you can differentiate between a “something is really wrong” cry and a “hey mom, I am over here” cry. I don’t think they should have to cry it out in public. No one else should be subjected to that. I did have to let him cry it out when he transitioned into cups from a bottle. My hindsight is not very long in that my oldest is 14 but I don’t think I would change that. I don’t like to see older children with pacifiers and bottles.


April 26th, 2010
8:35 am

@Andrea, I’m with you on the bottles and pacifiers. Personally I didn’t allow mine to have a pacifier after they were 6 months. At 1 year old I began weening from the bottle. I think you have to determine why they’re crying and then decide how or if to respond. I allowed my kids to cry it out once they were no longer allowed to sleep with me and my husband. If I gave in they’d still be in my bed. It only lasted a few days and then they were fine. Most responsible parents can decide whether or not they should allow their child to continue to cry.


April 26th, 2010
8:40 am

I agree you can tell the difference between a “something’s wrong” cry and a “I just want to be picked up” cry. Self soothing is very important for babies to learn. I found it useful to provide crib toys. My son had the little light up aquarium. I used to hear him cry, then he’d give that thing a kick and the soft music and lights would lull him back to sleep. When he was in to pacifiers, I would keep 2 or 3 in his bed so if he dropped one, he could maybe find another. Worked great. He “slept” through the night or at least I didn’t have to get up most nights. The real problems don’t start until they can get out of the bed on their own……


April 26th, 2010
8:52 am

Letting my son cry it out was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a parent. He didn’t want to sleep in his crib, so it took a couple of 30 minutes or so of crying and that was it, luckily. I don’t know what I would have done had it not worked so quickly. I don’t think I could have let it go on for hours or weeks or anything like that. Reading this is scary though, because I know lots of parents use this method.
And Lori, that is exactly why we are keeping him in his crib for as long as possible! I can imagine when he is free to get up and roam what will happen!!


April 26th, 2010
8:54 am

“Toxic”? Oh, good grief — talk about sensationalism. It’s been measured that newborns produce extremely high levels of cortisol just when they are undressed — they aren’t used to the “stress”. They did a cortisol study on newborns getting their doctor exams during their first two years and noticed high levels in the first few months that gradually reduced until at the age of 2, cortisol wasn’t produced in response to most kids going to the doctor.

Did she mention the part that babies in safe, secure parental-bonded relationships showed much less levels of cortisol? What is defined as “frequent and prolonged exposure to cortisol”? One night of crying it out? Months of crying it out? This kind of research drives me nuts.


April 26th, 2010
9:07 am

I’ve been really lucky with my two. The most “crying it out” we’ve had to do got into the 5 minute range. They’ve both been really good about going to sleep after the initial “go back in and reassure” hug and comforting we did. My personal philosophy was always that I wouldn’t be able to stand hearing my baby scream in distress for more than 10 minutes -if that. However, because I was never really in this position, I hate to make a judgment about those who do follow the cry-it-out method. I know with some babies, you get to a desperation point where you’ll try just about anything.

As far as being toxic to their brains -well, I think if you truly have an inattentive situation where the child repeatedly cries for many reasons without having his or her needs met, then YES, that’s probably detrimental in some respects (and so incredibly sad to think about). But when a baby has reached the point that they only cry to get you back in there and all of their needs are met -PLUS -they are given plenty of attention and affection the rest of the time, then I don’t think this theory holds much water.


April 26th, 2010
9:26 am

You need to balance these things out. i am sure that in over crowded orphanages where babies are left to cry for hours and hours, that some damage is being done. But crying is also normal for babies and a little crying probably doesn’t hurt.


April 26th, 2010
10:46 am

We used a personal variation of Baby Wise for both of our girls. Routines and crying didn’t hurt either of them…they’re WAY too smart for their ages, 6 and 3 now. We never let them crying for longer than 10-15 minutes without checking on them or giving them a back rub to soothe them a bit. But we never picked them up and abandoned the effort to move them into the cribs.

We also feel that co-sleeping is WAY more dangerous than letting them cry it out a bit on top of being WAY too detrimental to quality adult time that is needed by mommy and daddy. Babies need your marriage to be strong as much as anything…so parents need their time as well!

Velvet Elvis

April 26th, 2010
11:38 am

My friend developed a new product he calls BBQ (Baby Be Quiet). It’s a little spray bottle with water in it and he just squirts a little on the crying babes face and the baby stops crying like magic.

Bo Diddley

April 26th, 2010
12:09 pm

First, let’s be clear here. The constructive “cry it out” approach has never advocated endless bouts of crying. Instead, it advocates crying with increasing intervals of soothing (first 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, etc.). My wife and I employed this (which is the approach Chris describes above) and our daughter NEVER cried for 30 minutes straight. Also, after 2-3 nights of this approach, she was sleeping soundly through the night without any fuss. And, as many have commented, there is a definite difference between the “something is wrong” cry and the “somebody pick me up” cry. You don’t employ this approach with the former.

atl mom

April 26th, 2010
12:51 pm

How many of us were left to cry it out by our parents….not to mention the numerous children from numerous generations before us. I highly doubt we are all walking around with brain damage. Just use common sense when it comes to your children…you know them best!


April 26th, 2010
1:21 pm

For heaven’s sake! Common sense people! Use your heads….if you study anything long enough something negative can be found. Like eating bacon causes cancer. Remember that one? If you eat a pound of bacon everyday for 2 yrs (or something absurd like that).


April 26th, 2010
2:40 pm

To me, intelligent and conscientious parents usually can tell the difference between CRYING and crying.

The sound of: ” I just bit my tongue and it hurts” ….is not the same as….”I would rather be with you and stay up as late as you do, instead of going to sleep when I need to at 8;00.”

I see oodles of parents who do not fall under the two descriptive words above and many of their children rule the roost. The parents cater to their every whim.

Mine never cried for hours but they did have a few 10 minute sessions, until they fell asleep.


April 26th, 2010
3:09 pm

This study does not hold any water. All it says that it is bad for the brain. When they can prove scientifically HOW the brain development is affected and HOW is it reflected on one’s mental state long term, then i will take it seriously. There are so many bad things around us – it can take pages to list them. Providing such a general conslusion means nothing.


April 26th, 2010
3:34 pm

I am not a fan of cry it out, never did it with my kids. I understand how parents could do it, like the parents above mentioned. I think 10 minutes, no big deal. I don’t think that is harmful to a baby. I think never responding to your baby’s cries because you want them to learn to soothe themselves is wrong. That just shows them that their needs are not important, and so they learn to stop crying. That does not mean you “trained” them to self-soothe. That means you trained them that you don’t care. Why does a baby need to self-soothe? They are babies!

I don’t know the exact ages because I did not do cry it out (for them to fall asleep on their own), but you are supposed to wait until they are a certain age before you start doing it. I did not read the link to the article/study because I think extended crying is hurtful to your baby emotionally, anyways. I don’t know how accurate that study is, but I don’t know why babies would need to be left crying for long periods of time.

I am a firm believer that babies cry when they are hungry, uncomfortable, hurting, cranky, overstimulated, understimulated, want some love (attention), etc. In other words, babies don’t talk, so crying is their way of communicating. Duh. Don’t have babies if you are not willing to meet their needs.

“Remember, you are not managing an inconvenience; You are raising a human being.” ~ Kittie Franz


April 26th, 2010
8:14 pm

I did Babywise as well, and while we did a version of CIO, my kids never cried more than 10 minutes. (Yes, I timed it. It always sounds so much longer than it is.) Of course, I’m not a fan at all of Dr. Sears, since he pretty much states on his website that anyone who isn’t an Attachment Parent is committing child abuse. Just a little extreme, IMO.


April 26th, 2010
9:15 pm

I wonder how you mombies would have coped in attempting to raise kids before the internet was available? It seems like you have zero instincts for the job…wow!


April 26th, 2010
9:55 pm

Mombiealert…what does the internet have to do with anything discussed here? Did I miss something?


April 27th, 2010
11:34 pm

Take the 15 minutes to hold your baby. If it’s 5 minutes of crying and you can give a comforting, “It’s going to be okay,” she’ll probably be fine. Excessive crying is the need to let you know they need something, and being held is a legitimate need. Your baby needs you. Let your baby and child become strong in a protective environment to feel sturdy enough to be successful later in life. It won’t make a clingy person…quite the contrary. Clingy/insecure people, or cold, rude and inaccessible people really make for an unpleasant world were probably not held.


May 3rd, 2010
1:38 am

Babies need response and cuddles and milk. This is the result of evolutionary design.. they need proximity to mum or caregivers body and love.

A huge surge in 11 and 12 year olds presenting with with panic disorders, anxiety and depression in mental health centres…. back case history often always include being subjected to controlled crying/cry it out method (it started again about 12 years ago).

Baby is pain/fear when cries and needs comfort and love. Five minutes is all i let my babies cry… mums have a maternal instinct (see Japanese researchers who discovered it exists in the brain) which when suppressed results in lack of bond and connection and happiness with babies…. trust your instinct and pick your little one up and cuddle or rock or play or walk. Cosleeping rocks as does getting support for mums with bubs from good people.

go Penelope Leach!… so many people support you…. thanks for speaking out for babies and mums


May 27th, 2010
12:13 am

I get the crying it out options and dilemmas, but no one talks about what to do if your baby stops crying in the crib, but then sits like a zombie staring into space for endless amounts of time, never to sleep. My baby is 9 months old and has, until last week, been an amazing sleeper – all night from 3 mths on and 2-3 naps a day. But suddenly everything changed and none of the theories – cry it out or attachment – seem to apply. I think part of this is that he’s trying to learn to walk and pulling up.

We’ve always responded to his general crying by “observing” what’s going on and responding, and had always put him in his crib for night and naps after first soothing/rocking/singing him to a deep sleep. (Maybe that was first mistake?) Suddenly around 9 mths, he started having frequent night wake ups. Then he started having trouble falling asleep in our arms (he wants to climb all over me instead). Once I do finally get him to sleep, he wakes up when put down in crib, so nothing’s working. Regardless, the old method is out. So, I thought it must be time to teach him to self soothe, accepting that he’d cry a bit. I can’t believe the amt of hysterics and panic. I respond to him after a few mins but don’t pick him up, and then leave again. After a few visits, he stops crying like “experts” predict, but then literally sits staring down like a zombie, for over an hour. It’s very unnerving to observe (thru a crack in the door). I’ve let it go for as much as two hours to no success during the daytime. This was very difficult. Now I’ve shortened the process for his morning nap to one hour and then just pick him up and resume the day. But can’t live on no sleep, so for afternoon nap, I’ve resorted to letting him sleep in my bed with me for a few hours. At night, I put him in crib and he falls asleep after about an hour and a half. His method for self soothing seems to be taking his different pacifiers (which I leave in his bed) in and out of his mouth, which looks sort of panicky and crazed. When he finally falls asleep, it seems like he just slumps over from a sitting position. This feels so cruel but I don’t know what to do. I can’t leave him in my bed alone so I don’t understand the family bed concept either? Any help?


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