Are you worried that picking your baby up when he cries will ‘spoil’ him? Or that you might create ‘bad habits’ by responding to his wails too quickly? If you are feeling torn between your head (or advice to ‘let him cry’) and your heart which is breaking over your baby’s tears, relax – and give him a cuddle. Your comfort could be wiring his tiny brain to manage stress throughout his life.
There is increasing research showing that leaving babies to cry alone (as opposed to holding and offering comfort even if they keep on crying), this evokes physiological responses that increase stress hormones. Crying infants experience an increase in heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure. These reactions are likely to result in overheating and, along with vomiting due to extreme distress, could pose a potential risk of SIDS in vulnerable infants.
There may also be longer-term emotional effects of leaving babies to cry it out. Increasingly, research suggests that the stress of being left to cry alone (abandonment) changes the physiology of infants’ immature brains and may predispose children to stress disorders such as panic, anxiety and depression later in life.
Babies need our help to learn how to regulate their emotions. When we respond to and soothe their cries, we help them understand that when they are upset, they can calm down. On the other hand, when infants are left alone to cry it out, they fail to develop the understanding that they can regulate their own emotions. There is also compelling evidence that increased levels of stress hormones may cause permanent changes in the stress responses of the infants’ developing brains. These changes then affect memory, attention and emotion, and can trigger elevated responses to stress throughout life, including a predisposition to later anxiety and depressive disorders.
English psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain, describes how, if a baby isn’t responded to appropriately, he may become flooded with cortisol, and the cortisol receptors in his brain will close down. This means that in the future, he will have fewer cortisol receptors, so the cortisol secreted at times of stress will continue to wash around his brain producing a feeling that stress can’t be stopped. The positive side to this is that when a mother protects her baby from stress and ensures that his cortisol levels remain low through her presence, touch and responsive feeding and interactions, her baby’s brain will respond by growing more cortisol neurons. Sue Gerhardt says, “a brain well stocked with cortisol receptors through this early experience will be better able to mop up this stress hormone when it is released in future. This furnishes the baby’s brain with the capacity to stop producing cortisol when it has helped deal with a source of stress. The stress response will be quickly turned off when it is no longer needed.”
So, pick up your little one, hold him close and remember, even if you can’t soothe his sobs immediately, at least he will feel supported and safe right now. And, as you try to breathe and calm yourself down, consider that you are helping your baby develop important brain connections that will help him manage stress as he grows.
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