Baby stress and controlled crying
By Penny Johnston (
No matter how hard it is being the parent of a new baby, the last thing any of us want to do is cause our child unnecessary pain. It's hard-wired in us not to. So for those of us who have tried a technique known as 'Controlled Crying' or it's nicer sounding 'Controlled Comforting' we believed that we were doing the right thing. Helping our new babies 'learn' how to soothe themselves to sleep... but what if we were wrong... what if science could prove that our babies weren't 'learning' to fall asleep, they were just discovering that there was no point in crying and that they had just as much stress hormone in their little bodies as a crying baby.
Cortisol is the hormone researchers can best use to measure stress. In the last twenty years or so scientists have developed a technique that measures the body's cortisol levels using saliva. Suddenly it's possible to measure stress without techniques that are terribly invasive (like injections) or don't require extensive questioning. So the stress levels of children and babies can now be measured quickly and accurately by scientists.
So when research from Acting Professor Wendy Middlemiss turned up testing the cortisol levels of babies undergoing controlled crying therapy suddenly a lot of people started to take notice.
What was commonly believed was that babies who were taught to self settle, eventually learned how to put themselves to sleep and stopped fussing but did they do it without stress?
Acting Professor Middlemiss tested babies and their mothers at a sleep clinic in New Zealand and her control group were mothers with their babies in their own homes. What she discovered in a nutshell was astounding. The mothers who attended the clinic had high cortisol levels, after all they had babies who were not sleeping! As the training started to work and the babies stopped crying at night the mother's cortisol levels dropped and they became much calmer...but what about the babies and their levels of stress hormones?
The babies had high cortisol levels when they arrived at the sleep clinic, after all they were having a hard time getting to sleep but while testing their cortisol levels after undergoing the sleep training their stress hormone levels didn't decrease like their mothers, even though they appeared to go quietly to sleep without comforting from their carer.
The study called "Assay of Salivary Responses of Mothers and Infants engaged in Sleep Training Program" is groundbreaking on a number of levels because it shows for the first time babies are able to appear calm when they are not. It was always believed that if a baby was stressed it would be crying, this study appears to show something different.
This story made headlines around the world including this article in The Telegraph and although more research needs to be done this is the first time that research has shown that babies can be stressed without crying.