Will letting your kid ‘cry it out’ harm them for life? The answer isn’t in a blog post.

Argh.  A few days ago I saw this sensational headline on Strollerderby:  Psychology Today:  Crying-it-out Can Cause Lasting Anxiety.

I thought to myself, “Hmm, I guess a psychologist published a study comparing children whose parents allowed them to ‘cry it out’ to those who did not.”

I assure you this was only short-term neglect. I made up for it later with kisses and breast milk.

I read the Strollerderby piece and while it included an excerpt of the article, there was no mention of the study design or data collected.  However, the piece did say,

In the new issue of Psychology Today, Associate Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame, Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., writes about the dangers of letting a baby “cry it out.”…  Narvaez challenges the claims of the cry-it-out advocates with new research about how baby’s brains work. (Source)

Since the Strollerderby piece mentioned this ‘new research,’ by a bonafide PhD no less (!), in Psychology Today, I looked up what I expected to be a research article.

What did I find?  Well, first, Pyschology Today isn’t a scientific journal at all.  It’s a magazine full of news magazine type articles and blog posts!  Nothing peer reviewed about it.  According to their website:

Psychology Today is devoted exclusively to everybody’s favorite subject: ourselves. Founded in 1967, Psychology Today covers all aspects of human behavior and mental health, from the workings of the mind to the bonds between people and the larger cultural forces that drive our most intimate decisions.

Here at PsychologyToday.com we have invited the leading academics, clinicians and authors in our field to contribute their thoughts and ideas in the form of blogs — there are currently over 750 of them. The accumulated knowledge bank represents the largest archive of its kind in the world. (Source)

So, PsychologyToday.com published blog posts.  Dr. Narvaes’ blog is called “Moral Landscapes.”

According to the site, “Moral Lanscapes” is a BLOG (like this one), not a journal publication, not subject to peer review.  The blogger, Dr. Narvaez says:

The Moral Landscapes blog is typically about conveying to the public research findings related to moral functioning and living a good life. Sometimes I muse on things that I puzzle about (politics). I am very concerned about how much our society doesn’t seem to know about how to raise good, healthy and happy children, so I spend a great deal of time on parenting and other issues related to moral and virtue development. I also write about things that I am working on myself–the endless quest for virtue! (Source)

OK.  So this ‘article’ cited by Strollerderby really is just a post by a psychologist on her blog where she posts muses on things and attempts to convey research findings to the public.  Not exactly the journal article I was expecting, more like the opining I would avoid.

The “new research” mentioned in the Strollerderby article, I couldn’t find it.  Other than citing her own book, which is currently in press so I can’t see what sources the book cites, the most recent source cited in the blog post “Sample References” is a piece from the World Health Organization published in 2008 (and Dr. Narvaez does not link to the source).  Not exactly up to the minute information.

So, yes, Dr. Narvaez cited some sources, perhaps some are relevant- I doubt the Strollerderby author or any of its readers (except for me?) would bother to check them.  However, from her explanation in the text she makes no reference to any study that directly compared children whose parents used ‘cry it out’ versus those who did not.  Instead, she says, “There are many longterm effects of undercare or need-neglect in babies (e.g., Dawson et al., 2000).”

I’m certain that longterm neglect and lack of care is devastating to babies.  I don’t think that most parents’ implementation of sleep training would constitute longterm neglect.  Most parents who even know what ‘sleep training’ means are probably well-informed enough to have read up on infant sleep patterns, love their children, and are quite nurturing.

Comparing ‘cry it out’ to long-term neglect is like comparing sending a kid to bed without dinner for not eating what was served to starvation.

Letting a baby cry it out, or using the Ferber Method doesn’t equate with neglect.  Whether you think it’s a good approach to getting your kid to sleep through the night is up to you.  I didn’t write this post to debate the merits of sleep training, only to point out the flaws in the original Psychology Today blog post, and its misrepresentation by the Strollerderby piece.  Bottom line, I wouldn’t use this opinion piece to make a decision about sleep training- because while it has some “Sample References” it doesn’t include a lick of data.

I wasn’t going to bother posting about this- although the way the media misuse/misrepresent/misconstrue science is something that always irks me (see this post)- because I just couldn’t be bothered raising my blood pressure that much.  However, today, Shine had a sesational headline:  Is Crying It Out Dangerous for Kids?

What do they cite?  The Pychology Today Moral Landscape blog post.  How to they present it?  As a research article:

In an article published this week in Psychology Today, one researcher says that crying it out could be dangerous for children, leading to a lifetime of harm. (Source)

Let’s get some terminology clear.  In scientific parlance, the word ‘article’ generally refers to original research containing data that has been peer reviewed before being published.  A work that is a summary of the current literature on a topic with extensive references will be called a ‘review article’ to make it clear that it is not original research.  What Strollerderby and Shine are calling an ‘article’ is what scientists would call an ‘opinion piece’ or perhaps an ‘editorial’ or, as the author refers to it, as a ‘blog post’- but NOT an article of any sort because it contains neither data nor extensive references, and does not constitute a summary of the current literature.

Attention Media:  Please stop misleading your readership!  Please do not present blog posts or editorials or opinion pieces as vetted scientific research!

To my readers, whatever your stance is on ‘cry it out’ please don’t use any of these ‘articles’ as your source of information.


Filed under #scimom, Mother, Scientist

16 responses to “Will letting your kid ‘cry it out’ harm them for life? The answer isn’t in a blog post.

  1. Thanks for writing this. I saw the blurb on Yahoo! and came across this post while doing more research (since the Psychology Today “article” didn’t have much by way of links). Now I don’t have to write my own scathing complaint. You might like this article about science journalism.

    • You are welcome. It took the second article from Shine to spur to action. It’s quite frustrating.

      That article you linked to on Salon/New Scientist is dead on. Thanks for sharing it. Communicating science can be hard, but with a slight additional effort, can be much more reliable and responsible.

      • doting grandma

        Thank you so much for your informative thoughts on this subject. It was a good reminder to me on how to evaluate ‘articles’ of any sort. I’m a grandmother to three adorable babies, two of whom had ‘sleep training’ :-)–and one whose parents felt it would harm her to ‘cry it out’. She’s a wonderful, amazing child, of course, but her parents sure had a very tough first 18 months…The two little ones sleep like angels. Anyway–I hope more moms read your blog to help them know more clearly what they’re reading. Blessings

  2. This is the problem with attending the University of Google. Yes, we have any and all information at our fingertips and, yes, this is *generally* a good thing. But, when people forget to put on their critical thinking cap, they are bound to believe anything they read. I mean, it’s on the internet, it must be true! Also, thanks for pointing out the Psychology Today is just a fancy blog aggregator. While I don’t really read it (not because I was against it, I just never had the need to), I know now that this is a collection of opinion and not the outcome of peer review (which is sort of a bullshit system anyway, but that’s another issue all together).

    Good catch!!!

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  4. Suzy

    Thank you so much for writing this. I was quite surprised to find news stories presenting this information as if it were legitimate scholarly research. I immediately looked for the original study and found just what you did: this particular professor merely aired some personal opinions that have no basis in actual empirical study. In addition, I discovered that her own concerns about having grown up in a family with depressed, demanding, and insufficiently nurturing parents are a motivation for her opinions. The idea that human evolution has shaped us to need (as babies) or to provide (as parents) instant responses to crying, lest we be assailed by predators, is ludicrous. I would love to see her try to apply the same reasoning to an explanation of colicky babies.

    I would add that Ferber has often been misinterpreted on the “cry it out” issue. No matter how many times he insists that there is no one preferred sleep solution for babies, and no matter how many times he explains that simply abandoning the baby to “cry it out” is not at all recommended by him, it seems someone will equate his suggestions to the practices of bad orphanages behind the Iron Curtain! This doesn’t mean he’s right, but at least it would be nice if people stopped dressing him as a straw man.

    • Sara McHugh-Grant

      I cannot manage to start my own thread so Suzy, this is not specifically in response to you but rather the author. I am really confused because the “article” is published in a scholarly, reputable and peer reviewed article in the Journal of Clinical Lactation (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/springer/clac/2013/00000004/00000002/art00005?crawler=true&mimetype=application/pdf).

      No it is not an experimental study but rather a commentary piece that is initiating the conversation because research is severely lacking in this arena. There is preliminary findings, which many have heard about, that cortisol levels continue to rise even after a child stops crying during sleep training but much more investigation is needed to replicate and understand this further. For studies that do assess CIO, the majority include children much older than 4 and 5 months that everyone is really talking about.

      I do fully agree with you that CIO is not comparable to prolonged neglect but we are absolutely interfering with the biological drive to be near a caregiver, specifically mom in most cases, throughout the night. Now the consequences of the latter remain unclear but as a parent we have to follow our instincts regardless of fear tactics (i.e. your child will never learn to sleep independently or you will kill your child if you sleep on the same surface)!

  5. I have so much to say about this topic and SO much frustration about this Psychology Today article. I’m working on a belated response to it myself. I did CIO, and it worked wonders for my daughter. After seeing all these claims of the harm that can come of it, I’m looking at the research myself to see if it has any merits, mainly because I want to know if I would feel comfortable doing it again. So far, I’m finding (as you did), that CIO hasn’t been studied directly, and these claims are all based on extrapolations from animal studies or studies of children who were severely neglected or abused. Anyway, I’ll be posting about it soon, but I really appreciate your post on this! You are so reasonable and so agenda-free – I love it! Do you know how impossible it is to find writing about this topic that is without agenda? Meanwhile, my local parenting forum participants were crowing about how finally a legitimate PhD supported their theory that CIO was akin to child abuse. Sigh.

    You might have seen that Narvaez posted a follow up post entitled “Recovering from CIO parenting as an adult.” I’ll have to print it out and stick it in BabyC’s babybook so she can use it as a resource when she gets older and realizes how many ways I screwed her up. It contains gems such as, “It sounds crazy, but for me shampooing with cool water seems to prevent depression,” and because she suffers from a “poor immune system” due to being breast-fed for only 3 months, “When in a period of low sleep and high stress I illness-prevention measures like vitamin C, zinc lozenges or immune boosters like Una de Gato.” But first I’ll be sure to teach BabyC not to take medical advice from blog posts, particularly carelessly written ones.

    Sorry, I’ll stop now. Thanks again for a great post.

  6. Cassandra

    Thank you. As a new Mum and an academic I have been searching data bases all day myself for peer-reviewed articles concerning controlled crying/crying it out as there is so much stigma around this and I have exhausted all other options to get my baby to sleep. I have seen reference to the Narvaez “article” in numerous baby forums recently and your blog has saved me the effort of critiquing it’s massive short-comings myself to share with others. It’s times like these that I realise “Health Research Methods” wasn’t such a bad unit to study afterall!

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  11. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog
    and was curious what all is required to get setup?
    I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?
    I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice would be
    greatly appreciated. Thanks

  12. Pingback: How sacrifice dulls reason, prevents sleep-training | SAHMurai

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