The parents and caregivers I know and have known (myself included) are of a very different ilk – 180 degrees different, in fact. We’re jolted by our baby’s slightest expression of discomfort or dismay. Our instinct is to do anything in our power to stop a baby from crying. When our baby’s cries aren’t easily abated we’re unnerved, frustrated, feel like complete failures. One sound from the baby, and the pressure we feel is enormous. Make the crying stop so I can breathe again.
Perhaps we shush, rock, jiggle, use electric swings, washing machines, pacifiers, drive all over the neighborhood, nurse babies for hours on end, afraid to take them off the breast even while they sleep lest they wake up and cry. Some moms might attempt to sleep all night with a baby latched on. Our own discomfort is better than bearing even a moment of our baby’s.
We do our best to discern the different cries and respond appropriately, but doubts and comparisons loom… Apparently, ’tribal babies’ don’t cry, so what’s the matter with us?
Later, the time comes when we have to say no to our toddlers and they object to our decision and end up crying. This also feels innately wrong. So we either find ways to distract our child or just give in and please him instead, which then causes our children to make increasingly unreasonable demands…because they desperately need our “no” and their cry. But instinct and culture tell us our children shouldn’t be crying, and it’s up to us to make them stop.
Thankfully there are some intelligent, insightful, compassionate voices of reason out there. Experts like Magda Gerber, Aletha Solter, and Patty Wipfler are champions for your baby’s emotional health…and yours, too. Their books and articles help us to understand that an infant’s cries are not only okay, they serve an important purpose. When babies cry, our job is to tune in, provide help, love and support as needed, but not necessarily stop the crying.
These experts agree that crying is the primary manner in which babies communicate, and we must, without question, respond to our baby’s cries. As Magda Gerber notes in Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect: “Crying must be responded to. But how is a more complicated issue. To follow the advice, “do not let your baby cry,” is practically impossible. At times the harder a mother or father tries to stop the baby’s crying, the more anxious everyone becomes.”
1. When we calm ourselves, we’re able to listen and respond to the true need
When we follow our impulse to quickly stop the crying, we aren’t taking the time to listen to and understand our baby’s cues and less likely to validate the baby’s communication by giving her what she really needs.
“When babies and toddlers don’t feel good, they cry in order to clear the tension they feel. We try to get them “settled down” with patting, bouncing, walking, pacifiers, and sometimes, the breast. We’ve been trained to believe that a baby will do better as soon as she is able to stop expressing her upset. …However, you’ll see that when you stop a baby from expressing feelings, she doesn’t actually feel better” –Patty Wipfler, Hand In Hand Parenting
“An anxious and irritated parent (crying does irritate!) will most likely do what brings the fastest relief – give the breast or bottle. The baby almost always accepts it, calms down and often falls asleep. Of course, this is the right solution if the baby is hungry. However, if the baby has other needs (for instance being tired or having pain), she will learn to expect food in response to these other needs, and grasp the breast or bottle even though she is not hungry.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect
“Why is it so difficult to hold a crying baby and to accept the crying? Probably because few people were allowed to cry as much as needed when they were little. Your parents may have tried to stop you from crying when you were a baby. Perhaps they gave you a pacifier, or kept trying to feed you, or jiggled you every time you cried, thinking this was what you needed at the moment. Perhaps they tried to distract you with toys, music, or games, when all you needed was their undivided attention and loving arms so that you could continue with your crying.” –Aletha Solter, Aware Parenting
2. Crying is natural, healthy healing
When parents first attend my RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Classes, I make a point of letting them know – crying is allowed here. I sense their relief. Gina from The Twin Coach wrote an insightful account of her visit to my class, but her observation that the babies “never once cried” was a rarity! Usually someone cries at least a little. At RIE we understand that babies cry and parents need not feel stressed or embarrassed about it.
”Fortunately, babies come equipped with a repair kit, and can overcome the effects of stress through the natural healing mechanism of crying. Research has shown that people of all ages benefit from a good cry, and tears help to restore the body’s chemical balance following stress.” -Solter
“… when a baby cries about something that’s not actually threatening, or something that is an unavoidable annoyance, she’s engaged in a natural and important endeavor. She’s having some feelings, and telling you about them.” -Wipfler
“All healthy babies cry. We would worry if they didn’t cry – no infant can be raised without crying. Respond to the baby, reflecting that you are there and that eventually you will understand the reasons for the crying.” -Gerber
“A growing number of psychologists believe that the healing function of crying begins at birth, and that stress-release crying early in life will help prevent emotional and behavioral problems later on.” -Solter
3. Wild animals won’t eat our babies
Babies could not cry in primitive societies because their survival was at stake. Nor could these children squeal with exuberance like my neighbor’s children are doing at this very moment (and I love that sound), or sing at the top of their lungs in a high-pitched voice like my son often does first thing in the morning. His joyful noise is a little unnerving before the caffeine’s done its job, but I’m grateful to have a child who wakes up exceedingly happy, feels free to express himself and lives in a society in which freedom of expression is not only allowed, but encouraged and valued.
I can certainly understand relating to a particular primitive practice and choosing to adopt it. But comparing ourselves and our babies to tribal families without taking into account the context in which these ancestral behaviors “worked” makes little sense to me. The realities of our lives and the expectations we have for our children couldn’t be more different.
4. Passing down our discomfort
“Our culture tends to block and suppress the healthy expression of deep emotions. Some adults remember being punished, threatened, or even abused when they cried as children. Others remember their parents using kinder methods to stop them from crying, perhaps through food or other distractions. This early repression of crying could be one factor leading to the use of chemical agents later in life to repress painful emotions.” -Solter
“It’s painful to listen to a crying baby. Grown-ups tend to overreact to a child’s cry. Why? Because crying often stirs up painful memories of our own childhood, churning up issues of abandonment and fear. Perhaps as babies or young children we were not allowed to cry and were distracted or reproached when we did. Our children’s tears many trigger in us these buried memories of rage, helplessness, or terror, taking us back to those early years. Our baby’s message may then become muddled in our own issues. Try to listen to your baby to hear what she is saying.” -Gerber
5. Less abuse?
If we could all be more comfortable with babies crying would parents be less likely to abuse? My guess is yes.
“For instance, sometimes babies cry when we disappear into the shower, when a friendly stranger approaches, or when we put them down to crawl or walk. Many babies develop a hatred of their car seat. Some parents decide to go for days without a shower, or to carry their baby all the time, in an effort to remedy this kind of crying. Life gets harder, and parenting less enjoyable.” -Wipfler
6. Calm breeds calm
There is no one more sensitive than an infant and the people he is most sensitive to are his parents. Every interaction we have is an educational experience. Babies want what all of us want when we cry — to be heard, understood, and helped if possible. Sometimes the help they need is our calm support so that they can fully express their feelings.
“Do not start crazy tricks. Infants do not need them at any age, and neither do you. Do not make babies dependent on distractions that you do not want them to depend on later. …Your baby will learn to be calm from a calm parent in a calm atmosphere.” –Gerber
7. We bond through gentle, calm listening and observing, honesty and acceptance.
“What can parents do? First of all, it is important to check for immediate needs and discomforts, such as hunger or coldness. But if your baby is still fussy after you have filled her basic needs, it is quite appropriate simply to hold her lovingly and allow her to continue crying.” -Solter
“A crying baby responds to gentleness and calmness. Respond slowly and acknowledge that she is crying by saying, “You’re crying. What’s the matter?” Next, make sure that her basic needs are taken care of. Be sure your baby is fed and warm. Some babies are more sensitive to a wet diaper than others, so check that. If she is neither hungry nor tired and seems to have no other pressing need, observe her to discover the possible source of any other discomfort. Tell her you’re trying to understand what she wants. This is the start of lifelong, honest communication.” – Gerber
“After a good cry, your baby will connect with you. And she will thrive. …You’ve listened and let her tell you, in her powerful nonverbal way, what was on her mind. There’s nothing like being heard fully to settle a child’s mind, and help her feel loved.” -Wipfler
References (all of which I recommend):
Aletha Solter: “What To Do When Your Baby Cries” and “Crying For Comfort – Distressed Babies Need To Be Held” from Aware Parenting
The Twin Coach: “How Doing Less Could Make You A Better Parent”
(Photo by tostadophotos.com on Flickr)
I LOVE your comments and questions. Please add them here...