Something many mothers have known for ages has now been studied and proven scientifically — not to ignore your crying baby. It turns out that infants that cry for prolonged periods have abnormally high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower growth hormones, inhibiting the development of nerve tissue in the brain, suppressing growth, and depressing the immune system.
A study conducted by scientists from Yale and Harvard Medical School found that intense stress on a child during their early months can alter their brain’s neurotransmitter systems and can cause structural and functional changes in their brains similar to those seen in depressed adults.
One of the researchers, Bruce Perry, said, “For example, when a baby is repeatedly left to cry alone, the child will grow up with an overactive adrenaline system and so the child will display increased aggression, impulsive behavior, and violence later in life.”
Dr. Andrew Bundi, pediatric neurologist at Kenyatta Hospital says, “When the portions of the brain responsible for attachment and emotional control are not stimulated during infancy. . . these sections will not develop.” He added that the result is a violent, impulsive, emotionally unattached child. Neglect occurs when a parent is unable or unwilling to provide caring attention to a crying infant.
In another study, the researchers found that infants who were ignored did not develop healthy intellectual and social skills. The study showed that infants who cried continuously in the first 3 months of life had an average IQ 9 points lower at 5 years of age and showed poor acquisition of fine motor skills.
These infants showed more difficulty controlling their emotions and became even fussier when parents tried to control them at 10 months of age. “The most important influence of a child’s intellectual development is the responsiveness of the mother to the cues of her baby,” said Allan Schore, the lead researcher of the study. He added that prolonged crying causes increased blood pressure in the brain and elevates stress hormones.
Many of us grew up with advice from our parents to “let the baby cry it out.” Bucking that advice was difficult; we were told that to hold or pick up a crying baby “spoils” them and turns them into demanding, selfish little monsters. I’m so glad that now the pendulum has swung back and most mothers go to their crying infants to assess what is needed and then provide it.