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Harvard study decries "Cry it out" (m)

Posted by Stephanie on November 03, 2000 at 10:22:23:


Harvard Researchers Say Children Need Touching and Attention

by Alvin Powell, Contributing Writer,
Harvard Gazette

America's "let them cry" attitude toward children may lead to more fears and
tears among adults, according to two Harvard Medical School researchers.
Instead of letting infants cry, American parents should keep their babies
close, console them when they cry, and bring them to bed with
them, where they'll feel safe, according to Michael Commons and Patrice
Miller, researchers at the Medical School's Department of Psychiatry.

The pair examined child-rearing practices here and in other cultures and say
the widespread American practice of putting babies in separate beds - even
separate rooms - and not responding to their cries may lead to more
incidents of post-traumatic stress and panic disorders among American

The early stress due to separation causes changes in infant brains that
makes future adults more susceptible to stress in their lives, say Commons
and Miller.

"Parents should recognize that having their babies cry unnecessarily harms
the baby permanently," Commons said. "It changes the nervous system so
they're sensitive to future trauma."

Their work is unique because it takes a cross-disciplinary approach,
examining brain function, emotional learning in infants, and cultural
differences, according to Charles R. Figley, director of the Traumatology
Institute at Florida State University and editor of The Journal of

"It is very unusual but extremely important to find this kind of
interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research report," Figley said. "It
accounts for cross-cultural differences in children's emotional response and
their ability to cope with stress, including traumatic stress."

"Parents should recognize that having their babies cry unnecessarily harms
the baby permanently. It changes the nervous system so they're sensitive to
future trauma."
- Dr. Michael Commons, Dept of Psychiatry, Harvard

Figley said their work illuminates a route of further study and could have
implications for everything from parents' efforts to intellectually
stimulate infants to painful practices such as circumcision. Commons has
been a lecturer and research associate at the Medical School's Department of
Psychiatry since 1987 and is a member of the Department's Program in
Psychiatry and the Law.

Miller has been a research associate at Harvard Medical School's Program in
Psychiatry and the Law since 1994 and an assistant professor of psychology
at Salem State College since 1993. She received master's and doctorate
degrees in education from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

The pair say that American child-rearing practices are influenced by fears
that children will grow up dependent. But parents are on the wrong track.
Physical contact and reassurance will make children more secure when they
finally head out on their own and make them better able to form their own
adult relationships.

"We've stressed independence so much that it's having some very negative
side effects," Miller said.

The two gained the spotlight in February when they presented their ideas at
the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in

In a paper presented at the meeting, Commons and Miller contrasted American
child-rearing practices with those of other cultures, particularly the Gusii
tribe of Kenya. Gusii mothers sleep with their babies and respond rapidly
when the baby cries.

"Gusii mothers watching videotapes of U.S. mothers were upset by how long it
took these mothers to respond to infant crying," Commons and Miller said in
their paper on the subject.

The way we are brought up colors our entire society, Commons and Miller say.
Americans in general don't like to be touched and pride themselves on
independence to the point of isolation, even when undergoing a difficult or
stressful time.

Despite the conventional wisdom that babies should learn to be alone, Miller
said she believes many parents "cheat," keeping the baby in the room with
them, at least initially. In addition, once the child can crawl around, she
believes many find their way into their parents' room on their own.

American parents shouldn't worry about this behavior or be afraid to baby
their babies, Commons and Miller said. Parents should feel free to sleep
with their infant children, to keep their toddlers nearby, perhaps on a
mattress in the same room, and to comfort a baby when it cries.

"There are ways to grow up and be independent without putting babies through
this trauma," Commons said. "My advice is to keep the kids secure so they
can grow up and take some risks."

Besides fears of dependence, other factors have helped form our childrearing
practices, including fears that children would interfere with sex if they
shared their parents' room and doctors' concerns that a baby would be
injured by a parent rolling on it if it shared their bed, the pair said. The
nation's growing wealth has helped the trend toward separation by giving
families the means to buy larger homes with separate rooms for children.

The result, Commons and Miller said, is a nation that doesn't like caring
for its own children, a violent nation marked by loose, nonphysical

"I think there's a real resistance in this culture to caring for children,
"Commons said. "Punishment and abandonment has never been a good way to get
warm, caring, independent people."

Reprinted with permission of Dr. Commons.

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