Can babies be left alone?

From an evolutionary perspective, human babies are designed to stay close to their mothers so that they can be protected from danger. This is also true for some animal babies. Threats to a baby’s safety used to take the form of sabre toothed tigers and woolly mammoths – but babies still need adults close-by to make sure that they are safe. Babies are vulnerable, especially when they are asleep. They aren’t yet able to protect themselves.

So it’s a survival instinct for your baby to need physical closeness with you. She isn’t likely to manage being left alone for very long.

What researchers have called the ‘separation distress signals’ in your baby’s brain are activated when she is left alone for longer than she is comfortable, and for human babies these distress signals take the form of crying.

Instinctively, your baby feels her life to be threatened when she is alone, so she yells for you to come and protect her from danger. If you don’t come and if it becomes clear to her that you probably won’t be coming to save her from danger, she is then programmed to shut down…or to stop yelling. Babies do that. They give up in despair when they are left alone to cry for long enough. What the researchers have come to understand is that this is natures’ second step of wisdom because, if you are a baby left alone in the wild with nobody to come to your rescue when you cry for help, you are probably better off being very quiet so that the predators can’t find you!

So I think that is why ‘sleep training’ (or leaving babies alone to cry themselves to sleep) works for some babies…but I wonder about the psychological cost of babies reaching this level of despair and losing hope, or giving up on the possibility of being comforted and protected when they feel threatened. Remember that although people don’t consciously remember experiences during infancy, the first year of life has a profoundly important impact on future mental health because the experiences you have as a baby determine how your brain and nervous system become wired. Your brain actually becomes shaped by your experiences during infancy. That’s why babyhood is the foundation or the building blocks of life, and this is why psychologists are very interested and concerned about babies and the way that they are treated.

If you need guidance or support for yourself or your baby, please contact one of our licensed ‘Babies in Mind’ practitioners in your area, or contact Jenny Perkel at For more info about babies, visit our website, ‘like’ us on Facebook or sign up for our e-mail newsletter.

We are interested to hear how things are going with you and your baby. Please share your experiences with us here.



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