Keeping Mum

Dita De Boni looks at the trials and tribulations of being a parent.

Keeping Mum: Should babies be left to cry?

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Leaving babies to cry at night can cause brain damage, according to one of the UK's leading authorities on child-rearing.

Dr Penelope Leach claims that there is no advantage to leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep, and in making this bald statement, she is issuing a direct challenge to one of the foremost baby "schedulers" of today, Gina Ford. Ford, who has also sold millions of books on child rearing, advocates a strict routine for babies and makes provision for letting the child "cry it out" after he or she has reached a certain age.

Leach's reasoning is that leaving a baby to cry raises the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the baby's brain, which can be damaging. It is the same argument advanced by those who criticise putting very young children into long-stay daycare, which is getting another airing this month after the publication of psychoanalyst Sue Gerhardt's book The Selfish Society, which argues that mothers go back to work too soon and our advanced capitalist system undervalues parenthood.

According to Britain's The Telegraph newspaper, the author uses recent advances in neuroscience to argue that putting children into nurseries before their second birthday damages their mental health.

Apart from the fact Ford and Leach are grand dames of babycare in the UK, and their respective camps are becoming increasingly entrenched - the spoilers vs the disciplinarians - they are also feeding into an increasingly heated public conversation in the UK about choices for working women.

Apparently, the upcoming election is being dubbed the "mumsnet election" (Mumsnet is a very influential UK mummy website) because the parties that are wanting to attract the female vote (presumably all of them) are having to think carefully about what they're offering in terms of parental leave provisions and flexi-time working conditions.

Looking at the trajectory of literature coming out on the subject, I don't think it will be long before one political party or another comes out and says mothers with young children shouldn't be working at all. Of course if they do that, they will then have to come up with some sort of Scandinavian system of payment for stay-at home parenting, which may be even less politically popular than criticising working mums.

While leaving children to cry or not may seem a relatively insubstantial issue on its own, it is often directly related to the working mother. My own 'take it or leave it' advice to a friend who is about to have a baby was "write off the first six months, go with the baby's rhythm and forget about routines". But that's all very well to say when the mother doesn't have a job to get back to. The "no system" system just doesn't work for the working mum.

But is it any easier to avoid the baby's cues, and the mother's instinctual responses, in order to fit our children into our own timetables?

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