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Cave Babies, Cry it Out, and Ruffling Feathers

Cave Babies, Cry it Out, and Ruffling Feathers
By Tracy Gillett

Ever wondered whether sleep training may be for you? Do your friends swear by sleep training?

Many doctors and pediatricians often recommend crying it out (CIO) for babies as young as a couple of months old. CIO goes by many names such as the Ferber method, sleep training, and controlled crying.

As a mother, I felt this was an unnatural method for helping babies sleep. So I immersed myself in the world of infant sleep. And I learned about what normal infant sleep should look like. Want to know what I found out?

When did babies begin sleeping in cribs?

Babies sleeping alone is a new concept. Our prehistoric ancestors knew that a crying baby could attract predators. So, babies were kept close, slept with their mothers and nursed on demand.

These days, sabre-tooth tigers don’t roam our bedrooms looking for dinner. You and I know that. But babies don’t.

Babies are born with their instincts intact. They don’t know they were born in 2015 as opposed to the Pleistocene! They truly are Cave Babies!

So, if babies used to sleep with their parents, when did it change? And why?

A little history lesson can give us a lot of insight.

In the late nineteenth century, the spread of “germs” was a huge concern. With limited knowledge, doctors advised parents to touch their babies as little as possible to prevent the spread of infections.

Family members were told to sleep in separate beds. So they would limit “sharing breath.” Doctors thought breath contained “vapors” which may cause disease. Babies were moved out of parental beds and into cribs, often in separate bedrooms.

Another factor was “overlying” or deliberate suffocation of infants. Among the poor, in crowded cities, overlying was common. It led to local church authorities imposing laws banning parents from sleeping with their babies.

The Industrial Revolution also had a dramatic effect on family life. Nuclear families moved into cities away from extended families. Parents, especially mothers, had less help with child rearing. Early independence in young children became a valuable trait.

The beginning of detached parenting

In the early twentieth century, Dr. Holt, considered by many to be the father of pediatrics, taught that babies should never be played with. He suggested parents could “spoil” their infants if they gave into their babies’ needs, such as frequent feeding, carrying, and comforting. Although infant crying increased as a result of Holt’s advice, concerned mothers were told “not to worry” as babies needed to cry in order to “develop their lungs.”

In the 1920s, Dr. John Watson, the founder of behaviorism, wrote many papers on topics of child rearing. Despite no evidence to back up his claims, he warned against the dangers of too much mother love. Together with his wife, Watson (1928) advised the following to avoid over-coddling children:

“Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task.”

In an essay in Psychology Today, Professor Darcia Narvaez explains that in the early twentieth century most parents saw “men of science” as the experts in child care. New parents chose to listen to the advice of these experts rather than to the wisdom of their own mothers and grandmothers.

The motivation for this advice was, again, to establish early independence in children. Parents were told if they showed affection, played with, carried, hugged, and kissed their babies that children would become whiney, needy, clingy, and “failed individuals.”

We know now, and to be fair, knew then, the opposite is true.

Garcia quotes a government pamphlet from the early twentieth century which stated that “mothering meant holding the baby quietly, in tranquility-inducing positions” and that “the mother should stop immediately if her arms feel tired” because “the baby is never to inconvenience the adult.” A baby older than six months “should be taught to sit silently in the crib; otherwise, he might need to be constantly watched and entertained by the mother, a serious waste of time.

Reading this type of advice today seems absurd and somewhat comical. Sadly, though, it has entwined its way into contemporary parenting like a weed choking our inborn mothering instincts.

The rise of cry it out

In 1894, Dr. Holt published his book The Care and Feeding of Children. It became an instant bestseller. Structured as a series of questions and answers, the book asks the question, “How is an infant to be managed that cries from temper, habit, or to be indulged?”

Holt’s answer: “It should simply be allowed to ‘cry it out.’ This often requires an hour, and, in some cases, two or three hours. A second struggle will seldom last more than ten or fifteen minutes, and a third will rarely be necessary.”

Holt is right about one thing. Once you’ve ignored a baby and left it to cry, the second occasion is usually shorter. And the third is shorter again. Does this mean Cry It Out works? No, it doesn’t.

It means babies learn crying is pointless. It makes babies feel abandoned. And erodes the trust babies instinctively have in their parents.

The negative effects of cry it out

CIO causes stress. Here’s why:

  • Ignored crying increases blood pressure in the brain, raises stress hormones, obstructs blood from draining from the brain, and decreases oxygenation to the brain.

  • Excessive crying results in an oversensitive stress system. Later in life this can lead to a fear of being alone, separation anxiety, panic attacks, and addictions.

  • Chronic stress can lead to an over-active adrenal system, and increased aggression, impulsivity, and violence.

  • One study showed that persistent crying episodes in infancy is linked with a ten times greater chance of the child having ADHD, resulting in poor school performance and antisocial behavior.

Our interactions with babies, whether positive or negative, affect the way the brain grows. Neuroscientists have documented that loving interactions can increase the number of connections between nerve cells.

According to the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health: “Infants are more likely to form secure attachments when their distress is responded to promptly, consistently and appropriately. Secure attachments in infancy are the foundation for good adult mental health.”

What does cry it out say about our society?

Sleep training has become so ingrained in parenting culture that it is almost seen as a rite of passage for new parents. It is more a question of “when” rather than “if” you will sleep train your baby.

What are we teaching older siblings when we say it is ok to ignore a crying baby? Are we teaching them empathy?

Parenting culture tells us that if a baby has been fed, has a dry diaper, is warm, and continues to cry, it is crying for no reason.

I say bullshit. It may be inconvenient. But it’s the truth. Babies are helpless, defenseless little creatures who need comfort. At a young age, they need their mums…..a lot! They need to be carried, touched and comforted. It is as necessary as food! They are crying because they need their mums. How could that be a bad thing?

I recently read Tizzie Hall’s book Save Our Sleep, Toddler. I wanted to make sure I had a well-rounded understanding of all aspects of sleep training. One paragraph caught my attention:

“I often come across a toddler who has learnt to vomit at bedtime during failed attempts at controlled crying. If you have one of these toddlers you will need to teach her that vomiting will not get your attention or buy any extra time. This is hard, but it has to be done to stop the vomiting. The way you achieve this is to make the bed vomit-proof.”

Does this make you feel…sick?

This advice is akin to cruelty to children. Suggesting parents to ignore their child who is so upset that they make themselves vomit is criminal. Yet, Tizzie is a best-selling author. How many books would she sell if it were babies buying books and not adults?

Managing an inconvenience or raising children?

Many believe that babies and children must fit around adult schedules, and adhere to artificial timetables. Parent-led rather than baby-led parenting has become the standard. The notion that “the baby is never to inconvenience the adult” is an oxymoron. There is nothing convenient about parenting. Becoming a parent has been the most inconvenient….and blissful, joyous, awe-inspiring, humbling experience of my life.

It would be easier to follow the crowd: to use a crib, a pacifier, an exersaucer…to ignore my baby and let him cry. It sure would make for far easier conversations at mummy groups! But that’s not for me. My only important parenting critic is my son. And he never cries because he sleeps with me and his dad. He’s in our cave, as Nature intended.

We owe it to our kids to have the courage to honor our innate instincts in the face of society’s expectations. Let’s ruffle a few feathers!

Does it matter if it takes a little longer to get babies to sleep by helping them with compassion?

Does it matter if we miss a rerun of yet another TV show? And instead lay with our babies while they fall asleep? 

What are we setting our kids up for if we teach them they are on their own?

Our society needs more love. More compassion. More hugs and more kisses. Rates of depression, suicide, anxiety, and addiction are skyrocketing. Isn’t it time to take a good look at the way we shape our society? It begins with children and parenting choices.

Childhood is fleeting. In the blink of an eye our babies will be all grown up. And I know I will be daydreaming of lying in the dark nursing my boy to sleep.

Tracy Gillett is a passionate writer, mother and founder of the blog Raised Good. She’s on a mission to help new parents free themselves from the “rules” of modern parenthood. Create a closer bond and develop a deeper connection with your child at


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