Attachment Theory vs. Cry it Out (Empirical Evidence)

For every new parent, two things soon become evident:  (1) everyone has an opinion about EVERYTHING; and (2) they all LOVE to offer their advice.   I too have plenty of opinions but I’m not here to tell anyone how they should do this or that.  Let me be honest, I give advice ALL DAY LONG.   But that’s not the purpose of this blog.  We all try our best to do the right thing.  We don’t need anyone telling us how we should do something to make us worry that we didn’t do it right to begin with.   This entry will provide just a little bit of information about conflicting schools of thought involving a topic near and dear to my heart and my journey to understanding it all.   Let me just tell you, the STRUGGLE  between picking my baby up and letting him cry it out was REAL.  Tears were shed…LOTS of them.  Mostly by me.

At my little guy’s one year check up, the nurse asked me to fill out a questionnaire.   The purpose of the questionaire (like the ones they use at all of his other checkups), was to allow me to provide information to help the doctor assess my little guy’s progress.  Is it me or do they start REAL early with assessing whether or not a new tiny human is living up to everyone else’s expectations?  I answered the questions truthfully, without thinking that my perfect child wasn’t meeting everyone else’s expectations or that my choices were anything but the right ones.

One of the questions was “is your child sleeping through the night??” Well, umm. No.  He wakes up every night around the same time.  I put him in bed with me and he goes back to sleep.

Apparently, my answer was the wrong one and my choice to pick him up was also wrong.  When the doctor entered the room, he physically assessed my precious one then told me that he should certainly be sleeping through the night by then.   According to Dr. Know It All (who I had before never met and have since never seen), I should be making my angel cry it out because if I didn’t make him go back to sleep on his own at that time, he would have insomnia for the rest of his life!!!!  Wow.  And here I am.  Minding my own business.  TRYING TRYING TRYING to make the right choices for my little guy and I am actually ruining his sleep for the REST OF HIS LIFE!!!

I listened to the doctor, tried to understand his point of view, and even tried to let my precious boy cry it out a few times. But I couldn’t.  First, the crying was RELENTLESS.  Second, I didn’t have the heart to hear him that upset.  Third–and MOST important–I needed to go back to sleep.  According to Dr. Know It All, my child will forever have insomnia because I never made him go back to sleep on his own.

More recently,  I had an amazing opportunity to take a class taught by Dr. Robert Mauer, the Director of Behavioral Science at the University of Washington.  The class was on Negotiations but, as you can imagine with a behavioral scientist teaching the class,  it was heavily based in psychology.  Dr. Mauer studies excellence and writes about Mastering Fear to achieve excellence.  His website is The Science of Excellence and his books are fantastic.

In this Negotiations class–of all places– I learned a lot about attachment theory and crying it out.  I probably should have learned a lot of this in college phycology but better late than never.  Dr. Mauer discussed how all animals have certain reactions to fear–including humans.  This is because all animal have similar brain functions.  Raw stimuli that are associated with fear arrive at the place in the brain called the amygdala, which passes a danger signal along to the hypothalamus, which, dictates the body’s autonomic nervous system, and trips the fight-or-flight wire.  Each animal’s fight-or-flight response may be different.

After discussing the amygdala and fight or flight response in animals, Dr. Mauer showed us videos of Harlow’s Monkeys–experiments, which would be considered inhumane in today’s society.  Dr. Mauer’s purpose of showing us the videos was so that we would begin to understand that humans (because of our close relation to primates) have similar reactions to fear as the monkeys.  If you haven’t seen the videos, I encourage you to google Harlow’s Monkeys and watch them on YouTube.  They will change your life.  Or at least maybe your idea of the importance of human connection.

In one of the experiments, a monkey is offered the choice between sustenance and affection.  The monkey must eat to survive but is reluctant to leave its cloth mommy for food–when it does–it is only long enough to eat– then that frightened monkey goes right back to cuddle with its cloth mommy.

Dr. Mauer opined that the human need for attachment is similar to the monkey’s–food keeps us alive–but affection keeps us sane.  In other words, the human reaction to fear is to REACH for someone–just like the frightened monkey in his cage reached out to the only mommy he’s ever known.

If I had seen the video two years ago, I’m pretty sure that I would have been more confident in my decision to pick my little one up when his doctor told me to let him “Cry it Out.”  After class, I told Dr. Mauer that I have a two-year old and asked him if he could explain the “Cry it Out” theory based on his research and the monkey experiments.   Dr. Mauer said that–in his practice– he does not advise parents to let babies cry it out.  He also encouraged me to watch the video for the Happiest Toddler on the Block.

In the end, the important thing is not whether you let your baby “Cry it Out” or whether you pick him up.  The only important thing is that you do what works for you.  Only you know your baby, your own needs, and what best fits into your life.








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