"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 adults.
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
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 Traumatology.
"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."
should recognize that having their babies cry
unnecessarily harms the baby permanently. It changes the
nervous system so they're sensitive to future trauma."
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
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
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 Philadelphia.
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
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 relationships.
"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."