Controlled Crying?

We know from many authoritative sources that children’s emotional/social development is built on the foundation of sensitive, responsive, predictable early relationships. The following quote from the Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard University encapsulates the work/research findings of many early childhood development scientists.  “ When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills.”  (www.developingchild.harvard.edu ; Key Concepts: Serve and Return. Accessed 12/12/2014)

Why then, would we choose and sometimes even recommend a method of parenting which does exactly the opposite – advises responding to babies and young children intermittently e.g. perhaps daytime but not night time, or responding on a basis of time, rather than the infant’s signals of what he or she is trying to tell you? This is not responding appropriately. Responding to crying at some times, and not at others does not help an infant to make sense of their world.  When an infant or young child cries he or she has a need that requires response, be it physical or psychological.

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One of the first principles of the Early Years Learning Framework (Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia, 2009 – endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments as a framework for services for young children) is that children have secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships. Children don’t feel secure if they are distressed and no one responds, this does not respect the child’s right to be heard and feel heard and it is not a reciprocal relationship.

There have been various research papers purporting to show that controlled crying does no harm – a hard thing to prove because we know that unresponsive parenting is stressful to children, although what we don’t know yet is how much stress causes long term effects – physical and psychological.  For an updated (2013) critique of current research see the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (www.aaimhi.org) website position paper on controlled crying.

An eminent child psychiatrist, Dr Harry Edhouse, wrote this personal reflection some time in the mid 1980s.  “ There is a young family with a baby living near and they nurse their baby on the porch. We hear how often the baby cries and for how long. I listen to the note in the baby’s voice. I hear it change after ten minutes of crying from that of discomfort, to that of alarm, to that of a sad low-grade sobbing. It is at the latter stage that the mother attends to the baby.  I think to myself that this conditioning, repeated several times each day, is surely guiding this babe along the path towards sadness as a character trait, towards not expecting his needs to be read or responded to, and towards not remaining in touch with his own needs”. Whilst this is a personal reflection it is useful to put it in the context of the opening paragraph about how babies communicate their needs and their need for responsive parenting and the importance of this for health social and emotional development

For anyone who is interested in infant sleep and wellbeing it is worth looking at the AAIMHI website and reading the recommended articles.

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Pam Linke

Pam Linke is a social worker and currently works as a consultant in early childhood and parenting. Prior to this she was Strategic Manager, Parenting for the South Australian Children, Youth and Women's Health Service. She had a major role in initiating and developing the state-wide Family Home Visiting program for parents of infants up to two years of age. Pam also set up and managed crisis intervention family therapy program for families and managed children's residential care services for CentreCare. She is a past president of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health and has served on a number of other Boards. She has written a number of books for parents and early childhood professionals.

3 thoughts on “Controlled Crying?”

    Lynne says:

    Thank you for your considered response to this important topic Pam. I have to say that I was concerned to read a recent report that suggests controlled crying is not harmful to a baby. From an attachment perspective it is vital to be responsive and attuned to your child’s needs no matter what time of day or night. When children can build a picture or worldview that shows adults as calm and responsive to their needs, it contributes significantly to developing trust and relationships.
    Where a parent or guardian is struggling to be responsive to their baby (they may be feeling overwhelmed or overtired) then it is important they seek support through family, friends, professionals and/or support programs.

    Yarrow Andrew says:

    An unmentioned, but critical, aspect of this issue is the unnamed person who is supposed to be responsive to this child, whatever their own state of mind. This responsibility still falls almost entirely on women, who are often doing a triple shift of paidwork, domestic work and childcare.
    Perhaps we need a response on how to best nurture the sanity of these mothers, in the absence of supportive partners willing and able to do their share of responding to the child’s needs? Do their tears matter less than their child’s?

    Pam Linke says:

    I agree Andrew, it is really important to support mothers or fathers or whoever is caring for babies and don’t have support. There are some services that do that in a small way but I think as a community it should be a much higher priority not only for themselves but also their babies and in the long run the community. Pam

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