How Cry It Out Changes Your Baby's Brain, According To Experts

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The biggest fight I ever had with my mom was when she claimed that responding to my baby's cries would spoil him. My mother, possibly similar to your own parents, believed that crying it out is how babies learn to cope. But does crying it out damage babies psychologically? If this is a question you — or people in your life — have asked, you'll be happy to know several experts have answered this parental predicament.

"Research has shown that crying it out — or other extinction approaches — have adverse effects on parents and on babies," child and family therapist Shanna Donhauser tells Romper. "Some babies have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, for days after an extinction experiment — such as crying it out for hours," Donhauser says. Even more interesting, as Donhauser points out, is that something as simple as shutting the door on an upset infant can trigger the same stress reaction in babies.

There's one study, however, that proponents of Cry It Out tend to use as justification for the method. Research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that, "graduated extinction and bedtime fading convey no adverse stress responses or long-term effects on parent-child attachment or child emotions and behavior. But it's helpful to remember that this is just one study, and every baby has unique needs. One thing virtually everyone agrees on, however, is that, "cry it out should not be used for a child that has experienced trauma, neglect, or a recent major life change," as licensed clinical social worker and sleep coach Ancy Lewis tells Romper. It makes sense that a baby who already has abandonment issues would be further psychologically damaged by being left to cry it out.

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To further unpack the problematic nature of this method, psychotherapist Dr. Kent Hoffman says to Romper, "at the heart of healthy emotional development is the regulation of emotions." Remember, as an adult, it's easy to identify and process what you're feeling, but babies don't have that skill set yet. The primary psychological issue with crying it out is that, "children can appear to have resolved the problem of getting over their distress because they finally go to sleep." Looks, as you likely know, can be deceiving. "What they've actually learned to do is comply with our agenda while still feeling alone with overwhelming emotions — it's central to insecurity." Though people may still have varying perspectives on how letting your baby cry it out will affect them psychologically, these experts agree that the risk for emotional damage isn't worth it. Ultimately, you as the parent will make the decision, but it helps to be informed.