When should you make your child cry?
It is the scene from the documentary "Elternschule" that caused the greatest outrage among moviegoers: A boy of around two years of age is supposed to learn in a children's clinic in Gelsenkirchen to fall asleep and stay asleep on his own. But the trend of making children scream is becoming more and more en vogue. Doctors also still advise it.
To achieve this goal, the child is pushed into a hospital room in a bed with extra-high bars. His mother tearfully says goodbye before leaving the room. The boy is crying too.
Then the light is turned off and the door is closed. From now on his mother is no longer allowed to enter the room. Your child should learn to calm themselves down.
This "sleep training", as it is called in the clinic, is strongly reminiscent of a method that the American doctor Richard Ferber made famous in the 1970s. In Germany she became known through the book "Every child can learn to sleep" by psychologist Annette Kast-Zahn and pediatrician Hartmut Morgenroth. The book remains a bestseller to this day.
In short, it is about "making the babies cry in a controlled manner" until they fall asleep on their own. Parents should stick to certain time intervals, only let their children scream for a few minutes and gradually let the intervals become longer and longer.
Screaming "works" - but at what price?
After a short time, the babies should learn to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. Quite a few paediatricians recommend the method to this day, and the German Society for Sleep Medicine also advises parents to let their children scream.
Even in the "monthly journal for paediatrics", a specialist journal that is in the waiting room of paediatricians, you can read: "You can encourage to put the child in bed screaming and wait until after 15-30 minutes, often abruptly , falls asleep. "
The debate about making babies cry is often ideological, the report says.
The fact is: The method is controversial.
But the fact is also: In the vast majority of cases, it actually works.
But at a high cost, as leading scientists and researchers in the field of attachment research point out.
Because parents who deliberately do not respond to the needs of their children can jeopardize the important bond with their child.
Parents should therefore be aware of the possible consequences that crying can have on their children.
The children do not learn, they switch off
"Controlled Crying" advocates often claim that the method teaches babies to calm themselves. In fact, at some point the children stop screaming and fall asleep.
But can it really be said that a child learns to sleep when it is forced to? Has a child learned to sleep when they fall asleep from exhaustion?
In their book "Sleep well, Baby", the pediatrician Herbert Renz-Polster and the author Nora Imlau explain why children really stop screaming:
"They do what all mammals do when they are stuck in a hopeless situation: They become mute. They fall into what biologists call a protective rigidity: Those who cannot get on by fighting or fleeing are well advised to save energy. And those who have learned that no help will come anyway shouldn't draw the attention of predators to themselves. The fact that the child is calm does not mean that they have learned to sleep. They have learned not to protest. "
The attachment researcher and child psychiatrist Karl Heinz Brisch describes this paralysis as a dissociative state. That means: you just switch off.
When children scream and yell, but are not comforted, it is an emotionally traumatic experience, explains Brisch.
To protect themselves from this, they switched off their feelings and felt nothing more. Brisch, who heads the child psychosomatics department at Dr. von Haunersche Children's Hospital at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich explains in an interview with FOCUS Online:
"If you let the children scream, then the feeling anchored in them 'I am alone, I am fainting, I am panic, I am at the mercy of here and no one comes, I will die because I cannot survive without help' And this feeling of panic and powerlessness is unbearable for the babies. That is why they dissociate, switch off. And then the children no longer feel fear, no more panic, no hunger, no more thirst, nothing at all - they no longer speak up at all . "
These children then lie awake in bed at night, are afraid or hungry, but do not answer.
Babies and toddlers who have been accustomed to not answering at night due to crying do not sleep through the night.
Like all babies around the world, they wake up at night. "These children then lie awake in bed at night, are afraid or hungry, but do not answer," says Brisch. And further:
"They learned very early on to switch off basic, vital needs, even to no longer notice their feeling of hunger and to stop crying because of it."
There are good reasons that children cannot sleep through the night
The fact that children often wake up at night and seek closeness to their attachment figures is healthy behavior that is linked to our evolutionary heritage.
The nights in particular were life-threatening for a Stone Age baby. Without close contact with its attachment figures, it would have been chilled or eaten by wild animals. So it was vital for children to make sure that they are safe, especially at night. And that means: close to your attachment figures.
Therefore, the children also panic if they are left alone in this seemingly dangerous situation. You don't knowthat the wild animals cannot climb up to the third floor of the city apartment and eat them. You don't know eitherthat the central heating will keep them from freezing.
They just know that they need their attachment figure to feel safe and secure. And it is precisely this feeling that is crucial for a peaceful and restful sleep.
In addition, babies and toddlers process everything during the night that they have experienced during the day. And especially in the first three years of life, that can be an overwhelming amount.
The brain develops very quickly during this time. And sometimes the perception and understanding that children have of their environment changes from one day to the next.
No wonder that they are then upset and need consolation and attention from the most important people in their lives in order to process these experiences.
So the child's screaming is always a signal that parents must take seriously. If they don't and leave the child alone with their fear, the bond with the parents can be damaged.
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Letting screams is not without consequences
Sleep training, during which a baby cries itself to sleep, can not only put a strain on the bond with its parents. It can also lead to profound anxiety in adulthood.
"The emotional experience of being left alone creates fear," explains Brisch. "There are, for example, people who have experienced this and who, even as adults, cannot sleep in the dark, or for whom being alone triggers a feeling of panic, even though they are objectively not in danger."
Pain circuits are activated in the brain that are very similar to those caused by physical pain.
Even the brain can be damaged if babies cry too often without being calm. Because the crying leads to the baby's brain being showered with stress hormones, as Brisch describes:
"Pain circuits are activated in the brain that are very similar to those caused by physical pain. The stress reaction systems of the brain can thus be permanently programmed for hypersensitivity. A possible long-term effect of repeated separation anxiety is therefore an increased sensitivity to stress in adulthood."
The brain of a crying baby
In her book "The New Parent School", the British child psychologist and psychotherapist Margot Sunderland explains what exactly happens in the baby's brain when it cries without being calmed and the consequences: "Brain scans show that early childhood stress programs the stress response system for permanent hypersensitivity can. "
Such stress programming in early childhood could make a child susceptible to depression, anxiety disorders, stress-related physical illnesses, and alcohol abuse later in life.
Sunderland describes another terrifying long-term episode of the screaming:
"On brain scans of children who suffered profoundly from uncomfortable grief, the hippocampus appears slightly shrunk. We don't know how this cell death affects the child's memory performance, but adults with a shrunken hippocampus do worse on memory and verbal reasoning.
Brain scans have shown that the hippocampus of a severely stressed child resembles that of an old person. Some scientists rate early childhood stress as a risk factor for premature aging in this part of the brain. "
Other physical ailments can also be traced back to early childhood stress, as Sunderland describes. For example, breathing problems such as asthma, heart disease, eating and digestive disorders, insomnia, high blood pressure, panic attacks, muscle tension, headache and chronic fatigue.
For a child's physical and mental health, it is crucial that their parents respond to their signals and understand that they are crying out for them out of need.
With a strong bond, parents make a great gift for their children
It may not always seem like the easiest, fastest, and most efficient way to deal with a child in a bond-oriented and needs-oriented manner.
But for the child, secure attachment does not only mean physical and mental integrity. It has even more advantages, as attachment researcher and child psychiatrist Brisch explains:
"Children who grow up with a secure bond can cope better with difficult situations and stressful situations in kindergarten. They have more coping strategies, they are able to get help. They are already more empathetic in kindergarten because they have precisely these skills at an early age, that we need for successful interpersonal behavior, for example as friends, partners or even as parents. "
And that's not all:
"There are many other advantages that children have when they grow up with a secure bond. For example, they have better language development, memory, learning, creativity, flexibility and are better able to solve tasks."
How sensitive and empathic a person will be also depends on how their parents and close caregivers treated them.
"A child must first experience that his own feelings are perceived, taken seriously and answered and that someone empathizes with the child and his inner feelings. Only then can he learn to do the same with other people."
A child who, however, has to scream itself to sleep, who has to experience that its feelings Not taken seriously and his needs Not found to be important may find it more difficult as an adult to respond appropriately to his own feelings and those of his fellow human beings.
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