Amongst people who are generally against sleep training babies, I've noticed a trend. There seems to be this idea floating around, that at some point in a baby’s development CIO stops being harmful.
That point? When tantrums hit.
Thus, you see people who are generally anti CIO saying things “like I’m against CIO, but how far does this stretch into your waking life?” and “if your toddler is having a tantrum because they can’t have something they want, do you let them CIO?” or “My 9/10/11 month old had suddenly developed a real temper and personality, and is always stroppy about things not going his own way. How do I teach him that he can’t always have his way in life, should I just ignore the tantrums?”
I find this such a sad reflection of how brainwashed we are as a society.
Let's for a minute pretend that we are talking about adults and re-frame the above statements accordingly.
“If my husband is angry that he didn’t get the promotion he was working for, should I just let him CIO?”
“My wife has suddenly developed quite the personality, she’s always stroppy about things not going her own way. How do I teach her that she can’t always have her way in life, should I just ignore the tantrums?”
Clearly that would not make for a healthy marriage (or any relationship).
If we were dealing with two adults we would say that the person who is asking if they should ignore their spouse has a serious lack of empathy, and faulty communication patterns. We would very possibly diagnose them with sociopathic tendencies.
Yet we are taught that we should treat our children this way.
And not just babies either. All the way up untill our kids turn 18, parents are expected to always either ignore or complain about their children's ‘negative’ emotions.
For children and teens, showing ‘negative’ emotions gets you labeled things like, stroppy, drama queen, little dictator, and brat. We tell them they have ‘attitude problems’ or need an ‘attitude adjustment’ or that you’ll ‘give you something to complain about’, all for doing something that we adults have free reign to do as much as we want, whenever we want.
We can yell at the coffee guy for getting our order wrong, or vent to our co-workers about some ridiculous new rule at work, we scream at our kids for getting on our nerves, and rant to our friends about something annoying our partner did. And every day, other adults tell us, “you’re still a good mum”, “i’d be pissed off too”, “your husband is being an arse’ etc etc.
But if our kids protest a rule they think is stupid………
If our kids get angry that their lego creation they spent hours on was packed away without asking…….
If our kids just aren’t tired enough for bed yet, but we are insisting they have to sleep………
If our kids are tired and hungry and being dragged around to do errands………
If we won’t let them do something for reasons they see as stupid……..
They aren’t allowed to complain.
We as a society expect children to simply accept all adults rules and control, without any complaints. We expect them to always be happy, and punish them for feeling anger, frustration, sadness, irritation or being ‘hangry’.
We tell them that we don’t want to see or hear their complaints, their upset.
Their feelings aren’t worthy or valid or wanted. And they should squash them down, and never show them.
That’s what we teach them with our expectations and our parenting/teaching every day.
So how did we get this way?
Well once again, it all started with Victorian morality and the ever so wonderful (sarcasm font) Drs John Watson, and Luther Emmett Holt.
Watson, as I outlined in this post, was the first Doctor to write a parenting manual claiming that hands off and emotionally detached parenting (and nannying) was the key to raising moral children. On pages 81-2 of “Psychological Care of Infant and Child” he states:
"Let your behaviour 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 good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made and extraordinarily good job of a difficult task"
According to Watson a Happy Child is one who only cries when in physical pain, can occupy himself through his problem-solving abilities, and that strays from asking questions. In other words, a child that doesn’t bother his parents.
All of Watson’s exclamations were due to his belief that children should be treated as a young adult. In his book, he warns against the inevitable dangers of a mother providing too much love and affection. Watson explains that love, along with everything else as the behaviorist saw the world, is conditioned. Watson supports his warnings by mentioning invalidism, saying that society does not overly comfort children as they become young adults in the real world, so parents should not set up these unrealistic expectations. - Wikipedia
Holt, (who was the first male parenting author to ‘go viral’) agreed; maintaining that mothers should refrain from kissing their babies, and a baby under 6 months old should not be played with. Ever.
If said infant should cry in protest wanting to be “indulged” by it’s mother then “It should simply be allowed to “cry it out.” This often requires an hour, and in extreme cases, two or three hours. A second struggle will seldom last more than ten or fifteen minutes, and a third will rarely be necessary.”
That’s the very first record of the term “Cry it out” in parenting literature.
As you can see, it was never actually meant to be a sleep technique, it was meant to be a way of dealing with “habitual” crying or tantrums. This makes the whole “should I just ignore my toddler when they tantrum” question at least more legitimate than the “should I let my baby cry itself to sleep” question, as the parents are at least asking about using the technique in the manner it was intended to be used. But there’s one major problem, neither Holt nor Watson had any proof for their claims.
Watson was a psychology researcher and lecturer, so you might think that there was some credibility to his work. Only, he didn’t write Psychological Care of Infant and Child until after he was fired from John Hopkins for having an affair with his grad student. Which means he no longer had the means to run a proper study. His sole “research study” underpinning the claims he made in his book, is the way he raised his own kids. And well…. That didn’t end well. His second wife (the grad student) later wrote an article called “I am a Mother of Behaviourist Sons” in which she distances herself somewhat from Watson’s extreme views, two sons tried to commit suicide, (one was successful) and his granddaughter's memoir “Breaking the Silence” is scathing.
And then there’s Watson himself, who later regretted having written in the area, saying that "he did not know enough" to do a good job.
Even before he was fired from John Hopkins, Watson’s research had serious ethical and methodological issues.
Ok it was the 1910’s, but really, read the Little Albert experiment and try not to be appalled (not just at the poor baby’s treatment, but) at the fact that an experiment with only one case study, one subject, has gone on to be the foundation for an entire branch of psychology.
There was no such thing as a peer-review process.
These days in order for a study to be able to claim universality it needs to have well over 100, preferably thousands of participants.
These days (if we could ignore the ethics of doing that to babies) Little Albert would be a preliminary study, the kind of thing master's students might do in order to open up a field of investigation. But for the theory to be accepted as fact, the researchers would have had to replicate it multiple times, with babies from all sorts of socio-economic backgrounds, and control for the possibility, that Albert’s reaction may have been a result of the fact that as an orphan, contrary to Watson’s belief that he was “emotionally stable” he had already experienced multiple ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and chronic stress, and was therefore, possibly more susceptible to researchers messing with his sense of safety.
So what about Holt?
Well Holt did actually at least make some worthwhile contributions to the medical field, he was a frontrunner of Paediatrics, and is credited with inventing the doctor’s chart. (Though that idea and the handout that became his book, were actually just borrowed from (female) nurses, and he gets all the credit because he was a bloke, but whatever). So that’s great, only “The Care and Feeding of Children” was (stolen) adapted from a nurse’s notes, and we have no reason to believe that the nurse in question ever did any sort of observational study. She simply wrote her opinions and handed them out to parents as medical advice, then Holt came along and published it under his own name, giving it more credibility because, you know, a (man) doctor wrote it.
There are many entries in “The Care and Feeding of Infants” which have long been discredited. For instance, despite telling mothers and nursemaids that they should “let” a baby cry-it-out for hours to avoid “spoiling” them, he also believed that babies could rupture their abdominals from crying, unless of course the parent used a special abdominal band applied the correct way, (sound like Tizzie Hall much?)
So why is it that the Cry-it-out bit not only stuck, but was expanded upon to include sleep?
God only knows. But somewhere along the lines the idea that you should ignore a crying and upset child, (be they upset over sleeping alone, or having a tantrum,) was so completely normalised that it was the method of choice for trainee teachers for the newly established Pre-Schools that Education Queensland were rolling out.
My mum was one of those trainee teachers. Thus when I started having tantrums (a normal developmental thing all healthy children do) I got locked in the toilet until I stopped crying. If that didn’t work, I was put under the cold shower to shock me into stopping crying.
Today we’d call that child abuse. But in the late 70’s/early 80’s it was pedagogy.
Lock the child in a neutral room where they can do no damage, and ignore them until the tantrum stops.
(True to the textbook, by the time I started Pre-school myself, I didn’t have tantrums anymore. But i’d also learnt that I wasn’t allowed to be upset. So I wouldn’t exactly say that the tactic “worked”. Besides most children grow out of regular tantrums by the time they start school anyway, purely due to age.)
Meanwhile Robin Grille points out that these days, psychologists would be far far more concerned by a child that doesn’t tantrum, than one who has tantrums at the drop of a hat. Why? Because tantrums are a sign of healthy development, and because toddlers need to feel safe in order to express their frustrations and ‘negative’ emotions. If they don’t feel safe they won’t tantrum. (Heart To Heart Parenting, pg 176) That’s why it’s so common for toddlers to hold in all their emotions until they get home when they first start daycare or kindy. They don’t have a strong connection with their caregiver yet, therefore they don’t feel safe to show their upset, so it all gets stored up for home. But an abused child, a neglected child, they either don’t tantrum and cry at all, or they only do it at school where life is safer.
Toddlers are also learning how to manage their emotions, all of their emotions, including sadness, disappointment, frustration and anger. These emotions are felt very strongly, which can be scary for small people, but “your toddler is trying to understand and master the energy of” these emotions. Now if we look specifically at anger “over the next few years he will be trying to learn how to channel this potent and life-giving emotion. You are his helper in this regard. The greatest thing that a toddler can learn here is that we can disagree, we can have conflict, we can even be angry with each other - and this does not mean a loss of love.”
(Heart To Heart Parenting, pg 179)
But tantrums generally start sometime around 9-12 months of age, which is also the peak period of separation anxiety, as baby is just starting to understand that they are actually a separate person to mum. So this means that you have a pre-verbal child, who is only just starting to get a grasp on the whole idea of object permanence, and who has no concept of time.
You really don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that leaving them to cry-it-out alone, is going to exacerbate their distress.
Suddenly instead of just being really angry that someone else is playing with the toy they want, they are now also feeling abandoned by the person who is supposed to comfort them.
Yes, that’s what I said, abandoned. No i’m not being hyperbolic, they have no real understanding of either object permanence or time. There’s no difference in their mind or experience between you leaving them alone for one minute or one hour. As far as they are concerned, you might not be coming back, and right now, they need you.
Besides, re-framing this to an adult scenario, again we see how bizarre our reactions to children are.
You’re really angry that you got passed over for that promotion, how would you feel if your partner (or friend or mum) told you that you had to learn you couldn’t always get what you want in life, and that they weren’t going to speak to you until you had stopped being upset, and then left you alone to cry?
How would you feel?
I’m pretty willing to bet that abandoned or betrayed would be on most people’s list.
You’d feel hurt, and angry and likely confused as to why they were reacting that way.
You wouldn’t trust that person to be there for you next time something went wrong for you.
And that applies no matter how old you are. 4 months, 4 years, 14, or 34. It doesn’t matter.
You wouldn’t stay friends with someone who treated you that way, because it’s a fundamentally shitty way to treat someone, especially someone you are supposed to care about. But kids can’t just say, “looks like I need to find some better parents”. They’re stuck with the parents they’ve got. You’re the only one they have, so they have to trust you, and keep hoping and trying to get you to respond to them, to connect to them emotionally, because their survival and growth depends on you, and when you shut them down by ignoring them because you think they have to “learn” not to be coddled, what you are actually teaching them is not to bother coming to you with their problems.
So don’t be surprised if they don’t tell you anything when they are teens.
And there’s no magical cut off date at which you can safely just say, “all right, you can just go cry and complain then, i’ll talk to you when you’ve stopped tantruming” and expect it not to do damage.
Because there’s no magic switch that flicks at a certain age that means we stop needing comfort and support. Or that we stop having “negative” emotions. The only way that we learn to handle those negative emotions in a healthy manner is by seeing other people do the same. Having grown ups help us to learn how to cope with and handle them when we are small.
Leaving your child to Cry-out their tantrums doesn’t model healthy emotional regulation. It doesn’t teach skills for calming down and using your anger productively rather than destructively. It doesn’t achieve any of the outcomes that we want…….children who grow up to have a healthy relationship with their parents, who are skilled at emotional regulation, who can express anger and disappointment without violence and intimidation, men who are able to feel sadness and cry without feeling weak and emasculated, women who feel they are 'allowed' to be angry.
If we want our children to learn these skills then we have to model them for them. Which means comforting them when they are angry and sad. Hugging them until they have calmed down enough that their brain is able to switch back into higher thinking, and then helping them work through the feelings with discussion, calming techniques and problem solving.
That’s what is going to get the outcomes that we want.
So no, you shouldn’t use CIO as a strategy for tantrums, at least not if you actually care about parenting in a way that works long term, as opposed to simply doing whatever “works” right now to shut your child up.
Hi I'm Nicole