Campus & Community

Children need attention and reassurance, Harvard researchers say

5 min read

America’s “let them cry” attitude toward children may lead
to more fears and tears among adults, according to two Harvard Medical School

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 L. Commons and Patrice M. Miller,
researchers at the Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry.

The pair examined childrearing practices here and in other cultures and
say the widespread American practice of putting babies in separate beds
— even separate rooms — and not responding quickly to their cries may
lead to incidents of post-traumatic stress and panic disorders when these
children reach adulthood.

The early stress resulting from 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 overly sensitive to future trauma.”

The Harvard researchers’ 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.”

Figley said Commons and Miller’s work illuminates a route of further
study and could have implications for everything from parents’ efforts to
intellectually stimulate infants to practices such as circumcision.

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 the 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
human development from the Graduate School of Education.

The pair say that American childrearing practices are influenced by fears
that children will grow up dependent. But they say that parents are on the
wrong track: physical contact and reassurance will make children more secure
and better able to form adult relationships when they finally head out on
their own.

“We’ve stressed independence so much that it’s having some very
negative side effects,” Miller said.

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.

Commons and Miller, using data Miller had worked on that was compiled
by Robert A. LeVine, Roy Edward Larsen Professor of Education and Human
Development, contrasted American childrearing practices with those of other
cultures, particularly the Gusii people 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 stressful time.

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, the pair said 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 the parent and baby shared
the bed. Additionally, 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. But “punishment and abandonment has never
been a good way to get warm, caring, independent people.”