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Picking Up Your Baby in a Cry-It-Out Culture


My husband and I thought we were ready. We read tons of books, talked to friends who were already parents, and took prenatal classes. We also had LOOONG discussions throughout our nine year pre-children life where we talked about how we wanted to raise our children. We would see other people with kids acting in ways that we didn’t agree with and we would not only heavily judge those parents, but we would also swear that we would never let our kids do something like that

We. Were. Ready. 

And then, we moved 13 hours away from all of our friends and family, got married, and had boy/girl twins in 2009. 

Holy. Hell. 

We were NOT ready. 

We have since had two more children; totaling four. Four. And I can honestly tell you that we were not adequately prepared for large chunks of this whole “raising humans” thing.

Well, the good news is that there is actually no way for anyone to adequately prepare oneself for the inevitable trials and tribulations of parenting. If you feel like you don't know what the hell you're doing sometimes, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. In fact, one study asked participants to describe the first year of parenthood, and the large majority of people called it overwhelming. This oftentimes causes parents to feel moderate to extreme uncertainty about their ability to cope with and even enjoy this new adventure (Belsky & Kelly, 1994; Cox et al., 1999; Weigel & Martin, 2004).

Subsequently, uncertainty can lead new parents to seek out parenting advice (Schultz & Vaughn, 1999; Young, Davis, Schoen, & Parker, 1998) from friends and family, doctors, parenting books, or Facebook (Plantin & Daneback, 2009). And even when new parents are not actively seeking out advice, they are still being inundated with, many times unsolicited, parenting advice (Crawford, 2007). 
 
This abundant advice, coupled with the socialization of cultural values, construct a set of norms about expected parenting behaviors and beliefs. Let’s unpack that. 

The United States is THE MOST individualistic culture in the world. So, we live in culture where we are heavily motivated by our personal goals and we’re driven by this idea of making sure that we are successful (however one defines success) and that we are responsible for our own success.

The U.S. is also considered a relatively masculine culture, which values competition, being the best we can be, and again, where personal achievement is important.

Many times, these cultural ideals cause us to base small and large life decisions on what is best for us individually. For instance, personal happiness is seen as highly valuable to Americans.

As I already mentioned, advice, coupled with the socialization of cultural values, socially construct a set of norms (Berger & Luckmann, 1991) about expected parenting behaviors and beliefs.

This is how social construction works: Parents are overwhelmed, uncertain, and many times, desperate. They seek and/or receive parenting advice, advice is in line with cultural values, individuals then talk about this advice with others and share their interpretations, behaviors become habitualized, and then the advice becomes an acceptable part of our parenting reality (Rosier & Cassels, 2020).

One area of parenting that is heavily impacted by these socially constructed cultural norms revolves around sleep practices. Although individuals are free to choose how they parent their own children, U.S. culture still heavily influences how parents FEEL about their parenting decisions.

This brings me to the cry-it-out method.

government pamphlet from the time recommended 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." (See Blum, 2002.)

In the early 20th 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 baby’s 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 baby’s needed to cry in order to “develop their lungs.”

Why do people use it? It works sometimes. If your goal is to get more household sleep. Unfortunately, it also has this pesky side effect of causing your baby to increase his cortisol to unhealthy levels and potentially lower her trust in you.

Based on the United States’ masculine, individualistic cultural values that I just talked about, like personal happiness achievement and competitiveness, the cry-it-out method seems acceptable. And, many parents become desperate to try anything when they’re exhausted.

Most people believe that the research is mixed on the CIO method, which causes them to think it’s really a “to each their own” decision. This idea that the research is mixed is unfortunately due to the few pro-CIO studies that have made their way into the media with flashy headlines like, “It’s OK to let your baby cry himself to sleep” on CNN.com and “Parents can let sleepless babies cry it out.” This feeds into the cultural norms of CIO being acceptable and the cultural and social pressure to engage in sleep training an infant, even though there is a large body of literature arguing against the practice.

As Douglas (2013), who conducted a systematic review of sleep training literature, states, “The belief that behavioral intervention for sleep improves outcomes for mothers and babies is historically constructed.” In other words, our culture has created sleep training as a parenting option.

And there is evidence for this claim. In fact, Dr. Darcia Narvaez, a professor of psychology at Notre Dame, has extensively studied and written about the history of our use of sleep training methods. She has argued in several articles that many individualistic countries have strayed from our human instinct to cuddle and consistently attend to our babies. And, as Narvaez contends, we have traded in our instincts for convenient practices at the expense of the most needy in our culture: children.

Even though research typically encourages parents to avoid sleep training and its instinctual to cuddle babies, people still make the decision to sleep train their infants.

When individuals conform with cultural ideals and social norms, they tend to feel good and experience positive benefits like feeling like they fit in, feeling part of a group, and literally being congratulated by other members of the culture. Individuals who go against their culture and don't follow social norms, however, could experience negative consequences. Specifically, Chekroun and Brauer (2004) found that people who violate cultural norms could receive an angry look, a negative comment, or even worse-- attempts could be made to exclude violators from the group.

Moral courage is the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences. I argue that individuals who are able to violate cultural norms, especially in the presence of others who follow the norms, are extremely courageous.

In this context, men and women who go against the grain and decide to pick up their baby are courageous. Men and women who listen to their relatives tell them that “crying develops your babies lungs” or that “you’re going to spoil that baby by picking him up so much” and still choose to avoid sleep training are courageous. Men and women who go to the pediatrician for medical checkups with their babies and instead are told to “let their 4-month-old cry for 10 minute increments at bedtime until she falls asleep” and still decide to follow their heart and rock her to sleep each night are courageous. And men and women who make the decision to have interrupted sleep for years on end because they cannot stand the thought of ignoring their children are courageous. Be courageous. Follow your instincts and pick up your baby.
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