Before I gave birth to my first child I knew nothing about children, I was thrilled by the challenge of learning as I went. As soon as our little boy stirred I quickly fed or comforted him not knowing what I was doing but just reacting on a ‘gut’ level. We were probably the most contented couple in the ward and it was wonderful. But then one week later when I left the hospital, advice started to flow and suddenly I doubted how I was ‘parenting’ this little baby. Was I was doing it all wrong? ; I was quickly reprimanded for responding to his every whim and not letting him cry for just a little bit. At this stage I had never heard him cry, I had never let him cry.
Parents may draw comfort in knowing that the ‘experts’ aren’t always right. The information many experts and doctors have assembled after working in sleep clinics or paediatric hospitals is often distorted. They study infants in abnormal conditions and watch and listen to things like crying, screaming, head banging and tantrums everyday until they become the norm and they expect every child to do them and every parent to consider them normal. For example, Richard Ferber international best seller of “How to Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” (1986) reassures parents by saying they can be comforted to know that head banging, body rocking, and head rolling are very common in early childhood and, at least at this age, are usually normal. ;He also states that if a child vomits from excessive crying that it too is normal and you should ignore it. ; ;Can you image a child sleeping with her parents waking in the dead of night and bashing her head against the wall or screaming until she vomits? ; In these natural circumstances this type of behaviour could never be called normal. It would be seen for what it is – a child screaming out her needs.
So what is controlled crying? ; ;(Or Sleep Teaching)
It is a sleep training technique which teaches an infant to go to sleep on their own without assistance from their parents (like an adult goes to sleep). There is a lot of crying and screaming teaching a young child to do this and parents are comforted with the knowledge that at intervals they can go in and check their child and reassure them that they are there but are not going to pick them up. This is done at every five to ten minutes and as such has been given the name ‘controlled comforting’. ; The child will cry themselves to sleep and after anything from a few nights to a few weeks they won’t even bother to cry at all and will go straight to sleep. ; If the parents can put up with the tears this technique is pretty much one hundred percent successful.
Every child, in every country in every part of the world will cry when put down to sleep on their own for the first time. A mother responding to her baby’s cries is a product of evolution. The baby’s crying is an unconscious, robotic reflex and it has survival value. If this didn’t happen there would be no human race. How would have we survived if prehistoric women had put baby down to sleep separated from her? ; I would image that baby would not make it through the night. Not to the mention the fact that the baby’s crying would endanger the entire tribe as it would signal to predators and enemies of the clan’s whereabouts. The genetic underpinning of a human child evokes a crying response when separated from his or her primary caregivers. This crying response, like smiling, is universal. A young child is genetically programmed to cry when in danger just as a mouse knows to run, there is no thought in the process and there is no manipulation. “A baby does not cry because she wants you to pick her up, she is crying because you put her down in the first place” (Kitzenger:1998). Infants do not have the connections of an adult brain. Their world consists of completely meaningless sounds, shapes and colours. It is in this state that ‘feelings just are’ as a baby has no ability to make reference to individual memories with cultural or private meanings (Greenfield:2001).
In a controlled crying situation we put a child in a cot, walk away and close the door (or leave the door open – it makes no difference). The child will be in a chronic state of want and will feel helpless, frustrated, anxious, angry and depressed. I recently watched a show on the ABC in which a controlled crying expert said that this was a wonderful opportunity for the child to come to terms with these types of emotions. This is not possible. Children do not have the reasoning or intellect to process something as complicated as an emotion (let alone several at once) and discover within themselves a healthy technique to cope. It is a task that no adult could do easily (if at all) and yet we kid ourselves that a baby of ten months old is capable of such complicated thought processes. Ask yourself, if you were put in a tragic situation like a death of a family member or a divorce, would that be a wonderful opportunity for you to experience your emotions? ; It would be a time when you would need to draw upon your own personal experiences to know how to cope with the situation, that is, you would use your coping mechanism that you had mastered throughout your life.
This controlled crying experience of depression, anxiety, anger, helplessness and frustration is being absorbed by the brain and stored. ; The child has not yet developed the cultural, social or intellectual framework (and its equivalent neural pathways) to evaluate and respond to this situation. The only thing a child’s mind can do is absorb the experience. The fundamental aspects of personality, temperament and emotional reactions are established in the first 24 month period say neurologists ;
Marian Diamond and Janet Hopson. ; It is during this time the brain does most of its developing and its mapping. We see the world in terms of what we have already seen (Greenfield:2001). Experiences that you can’t recall, wordless blueprints help lay down the foundation, the maps to your mind.
A child must learn to ignore their inner needs and disconnect from their body when responding to controlled crying. A toddler self harming herself in a rage of a temper tantrum has learnt to disrespect her own body. ; A temper tantrum is not universal which means it is a normal part of development of Western child rearing practices but that in some cultures temper tantrums are unheard of , for example rural Bali and India. A temper tantrum is a learnt behaviour in which the child draws upon learnt responses.
When a controlled cried child is again in a state of want (like a temper tantrum) the brain only has the ability to see the world in terms of what it has already seen and it will draw upon past experiences with responses such as depression, anxiety, frustration, anger and helplessness. It is quite possible that these feelings could follow children into adulthood as they can represent the child’s ‘core personality’. Maybe our depressed youth who live in an almost constant state of hopelessness and ‘what is the point?’ attitude are not just products of today’s society but that our overall parenting style has been the major influence upon their disassociation with themselves and their parents? Controlled crying is not just a sleep training technique, it is the first major parenting decision parents make in educating their child’s behaviour and mind. It has a huge impact on other parenting decisions that we make for our children starting with empathy and compassion.
Martin Seligman & Steve Mair undertook an experiment with puppies in 1965. The experiment involved three groups of dogs. The first group were given electric shocks which they were able to turn off by pushing a lever. The second were put in an identical cage but were given no escape from the shocks which would only stop when the first group pushed the lever. The third group were given no shocks. When all three groups were united in a special cage which was divided by a barrier the dogs were given electric shocks, however if they jumped the barrier they were safe. All the dogs that knew to push the level quickly learnt to jump free from the pain as did the group who had never received shocks before. ; However, the second group (those who had previously been shocked with no escape) did not make any attempt to escape. These dogs remained crouching helplessly even when they were lifted over the barrier and shown it was safe on the other side. They learned from their first experience that nothing they did made any difference, and they were unable to control events.
These dogs displayed a syndrome known as ‘learned helplessness’. ; Controlled crying experts describe learned helplessness perfectly when they explain how a baby will cry for two hours the first night, one hour the next, thirty minutes the next, followed by ten minutes and then no crying at all. The child has learnt to be in a state of learned helplessness in which she learns that there is nothing she can do to make any difference.
Possibly the most important discovery from these learned helplessness experiments was that once a group of dogs had been taught to be helpless the assistants “dragged those poor reluctant animals back and forth across the barrier and back, again and again until they began to move under there own steam and came to see that their own actions worked.” ; Once they did the cure was one hundred percent and reliable. Learning beforehand that responding matters actually helped prevent learned helplessness. Dogs taught this mastery as puppies were immunised to learned helplessness all their lives. (Learned Optimism, M. Seligman 1991) ; Controlled crying expert Richard Ferber describes this when he discusses how a child ; under one year of age may surprise you and fall asleep on even the first night after only a short crying period, an older child will continue to cry constantly or intermittently for at least one or more hours. (Ferber: 1986)
Studies such as that mention above, have implications on controlled crying primarily because controlled crying is learned helplessness – that is why it works. ; ;Controlled crying is a product of our society and it fills a need as parents strapped for time and resources need a good night sleep and if a little crying and screaming solves the problem then that is the price you must pay. But no matter how you look at it there is no way that you are empowering your child as the experience literally fills their head with negative experience.
It is not what happens to you in life that makes you the person you are, it is how you respond to what has happened to you. To be able to respond to an experience positively you need to have positive experiences to draw upon. This is why some abused children end up criminals and others magistrates. They might have a similar experience but they react and absorb it differently. Of course DNA is influential in creating personality, however look at this amazing calculation, neurologist Richard Cytowic made; the number of synapses in the adult human brain is approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000 whilst the number of human genes has been estimated to be at most 1,000,000. The DNA lays a blueprint for you to grow into the person you are, experience does the rest. There is a correlation between brain structure and what we do in life.
The brain can wire and re-wire, negative experiences can be overcome with positive. The human mind is extremely adaptable and there is no intention to say that the damage caused by controlled crying is irreparable. Controlled crying is not an empowering experience and has no place in the development of healthy minds or healthy relationships.