Do cribs cause brain damage?

Do cribs cause brain damage
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By Celeste Rushby, parenting coach and occupational therapist.

Articles that are written on these topics can often be disturbing due to misconstrued information that is offered up as “research”, with highlighted extracts such as “stress and lack of sleep damages brain development”. And it can, of course, but not in the way that these articles are claiming.

Over the past few years I have read, among many others, Jill Bergman’s book Hold your Prem (2010) and I’ve also attended many courses presented by Dr Nils Bergman, who is an expert on Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) and its positive effects on young babies, especially premature infants.

I have also attended numerous other baby sleep courses, studied Neurodevelopmental Supportive Care of High-Risk Infants and read many articles about the research on baby sleep and the neural implications of various environmental influences that have an impact on it. Unfortunately, I have often found that a selection of social media articles incorrectly references some of the below-mentioned books/courses, often twisting the wording in the hopes of selling their own views on the subject.

“Often referred to as ‘Ferberizing’, the old ‘cry out method’ can actually cause a baby to go into fight-flight-fright mode, which releases cortisol and adrenaline hormones.”

Firstly, these articles often refer to studies that have been done with “infants”. The term “infant” can refer to any child between the ages of newborn to 12 months.

The generalisation is a concern, since the actual age of the baby is extremely important in formulating relevant conclusions. Results of these type of studies done on a two-week-old baby, for example, would differ significantly when done on, say, a six-month-old.

Personally, I encourage moms to practise Kangaroo Mother Care and baby wearing often for the first six weeks, while their baby adjusts to the change from womb to world (or until four to six weeks adjusted age for premature infants). That is when babies need it.

Then we gradually help the baby to feel comfortable in their own cot by including the mom’s scent on a cuddle blankie, along with slow, rhythmic patting (to mimic mom’s heartbeat in the womb) and a sucking tool to help baby transition to the comfort of the cot – but never leaving the baby to cry at this stage.

Often referred to as “Ferberizing” (thanks to Dr Ferber who first started with this method), the old “cry out method” where you put baby down in the cot, walk out, close the door and leave baby to scream and scream to eventually give up and pass out, can actually cause a baby to go into fight-flight-fright mode, which releases cortisol and adrenaline hormones.

This is what is referred to when articles start referencing neurological damage and a reduction in brain growth. It can also make a baby feel rejected and unloved, with possible long-term negative psychological effects. Some sleep trainers still encourage the use of this method, which is not a method that I support at all.

The proposed “research” offered in one such article that this response is based on compares co-sleeping babies to cot-sleeping babies, was conducted on a mere 16 babies. Accurate medical research would only be recognised when conducted with at least 1 000 babies.

Nevertheless, the reason that babies who sleep on the mom have far more “quiet sleep” versus their cot-sleeping counterparts is quite simply due to the Moro reflex (also known as the startle reflex).

If the cot-sleepers (like those sleeping on their moms’ chests) or if they had been swaddled when either on their back or on their side, they wouldn’t have any of the autonomic responses caused by the Moro reflex – especially if given a sucking tool.

The Moro reflex is responsible for the frequent waking (with arms flailing) in un-swaddled, back- or side-sleeping babies and continues until 12 to 15 weeks of age.

A baby that is dependent on the mom to fall asleep (after 10 to 12 weeks) is also dependent on mom to put them back to sleep after every sleep cycle.

This broken sleep is not only bad for a baby’s development and health, but terrible for the mom too! How on earth are you supposed to be an affectionate, caring, nurturing mother (which is what your baby needs most) when you are stressed and severely sleep deprived? When mom and baby sleep well, both are so much happier and have better brain function and immune systems, as well as better overall psychological health and a stronger bond with each other.

Babies over six weeks do not need their moms to assist them to achieve sleep happily and comfortably without any stress. Unfortunately, parents often make the mistake of teaching their babies that they aren’t able to self-soothe and need their mother’s help.

This continues to become a learnt behaviour, which leads to dependence on external sources to help them fall asleep (and stay asleep).

I have often found when helping parents whose six-month-old babies (and over) are still dependent on mom to fall asleep (and to stay asleep), that the babies are anxious at sleep time and “fight” sleep.

But in the case where a baby has been gradually and age-appropriately taught to self-soothe, the babies would be more likely to enjoy a little cuddle with mommy than just about dive into their cots with the same “oh yay, it’s sleep time” feeling we experience when we get to go to bed! Do cribs cause brain damage

They are then most likely to happily roll over with their cuddle blankie and peacefully drift off to sleep. Then everyone gets good quality sleep, which results in good quality awake time too!’”

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