Would You Pick Up This Crying Baby?

I know… The mere suggestion that we not pick up a crying baby sounds callous, even criminal to some. No doubt, soothing a crying baby is a healthy instinct that can never be wrong, but since crying is communication — one of the few ways preverbal children can express a wide array of thoughts and feelings -– shouldn’t we first observe and listen, however briefly, so we might discern what our baby is really saying?

This assumes, of course, that we believe babies are capable communication “partners” and want to encourage that partnership. It assumes we are aware that even the youngest infants are able to connect with us person-to-person, mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart, feel our support and receive our empathetic responses. It also assumes that babies are whole people who (just like us) ultimately feel calmer, more confident, connected, more themselves with people who “get” them, rather than those well-meaning adults who preempt listening with an immediate reaction.

Michael and his mom provided an enlightening demonstration during a recent RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class:

If Michael had wanted to be picked up, he would have let his mom know. In previous instances, Michael’s mom picked him up right away, and we noticed that he would almost immediately lean toward the floor and indicate his wish to go back down and continue playing. Since Michael is able to scoot across the floor, he can clearly indicate his wishes to separate from his mom to explore and can also autonomously return to his “secure base”.

If his mom was unsure whether or not she should pick him up, she might simply ask, “Do you want me to pick you up?” When parents practice this kind of communication, babies learn to indicate “yes” (or their crying escalates, which usually also means “yes”). “Okay, I’m going to pick you up.”

After viewing the video, it seems to me that Michael was expressing stranger anxiety. A father had arrived who hadn’t attended this class before, and his presence seemed to instigate Michael’s reaction. Michael then needed to check in with his mom and tell her about it.

Learning to communicate with our babies is a process that takes time, patience and restraint. It’s much easier to swoop down and scoop up the baby, but when that is our default response we miss opportunities to deepen our connection and convey affirming, confidence-building messages like these:

  • I trust you to tell me what you need.
  • I want to hear what you have to say.
  • I won’t wither or panic when you cry.
  • You are capable of handling this situation with my support.
  • I am paying attention.
  • I want to understand.
  • I want to know you.

Michael’s mom and I are learning that he is a gifted communicator. He vocalizes thoughts and feelings readily. Babies like Michael, especially, need parents who can calm themselves and patiently listen rather than reacting as if everything they express through crying is a crisis or immediate call to action. These children are a blessing, because you never need to doubt that they will tell you what’s going on.

I predict many more of these lively and earnest mother and son conversations in Michael’s future.

“It seems so much easier to do something about crying: to pick up, move around, take for a ride, pat, bounce. When the baby cries, the first step is to try to determine why he cries, rather than to try to stop the crying. When you have eliminated hunger and the other standard discomforts and the baby is still crying, that is the time to tolerate crying, even to respect the infant’s right to cry. You might want to say, “I am here to help you, but I do not know what you need. Try to tell me.” If that is what you feel, share it; this is the beginning of communication.”Magda Gerber

 

20 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Janet,

    I love this video! It so clearly shows the value of putting the child in the lead. Thank you and Michael’s mom for sharing it with us.

    1. You’re so welcome, Sandy! I think these videos help us to understand that these babies really are small people with a wide range of feelings and ideas to express.

  2. Besides that the baby wasn’t crying (or maybe it’s just so obvious to a dad of 4 that the baby was “talking” or interacting rather than panicking or begging to be removed) I love your commentary. I can’t remember back to when I had only the one child, but I see myself in other new parents rushing to save a baby that isn’t interested in being saved — just wants to say something or get something so he can continue his quest to dominate the world.

    1. Alex, you’re a dad of 4?! I had no idea! You always have such interesting, thoughtful things to say. Yes, it is so easy to rescue babies; much harder to use the restraint necessary to understand them.

    2. I think an important distinction here is that the baby’s quest is to dominate HIS/HER world. Not anybody else’s. That’s why it’s so important for them be allowed to find the strength and ability within themselves to achieve and accomplish. The role of the parent, both challenging and most interesting, is to support him in his quest for being the powerful creator of his life. This includess allowing and honoring his expression, the freedom to reach for his desires and explore his safe world, and to accomplish and discover based on his own efforts. This keeps children from growing to depend on people to get what they want, while showing them (because it is modeled) how to love, respect, value, and interact with others, while being true to themselves. What is appropriate keeps changing as a child grows, keeping it interesting for everybody! : )

  3. I agree with Alex as above that he didn’t sound like he was crying, just talking. 🙂 But it’s nice to see people not overreact! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Allison. Not overreacting is definitely something we try to focus on in RIE classes. It can be challenging!

  4. Janet, you have recently become a real cyber mentor to me. This video made me smile! How quickly they grow into talking, walking preschoolers. It brought me back…

    1. “Cyber mentor”… I like that. Thanks, Carina!

  5. Well that was interesting. I watched the video on YouTube prior to reading the commentary. Since I couldn’t see the father walk into the room, I was kind of clueless as to why the ‘fuss.’

    I noticed that my heart beat elevated a bit and my mind started to question “What is going on? What does he need?” I can imagine that this not knowing is a feeling many new parents get and I can completely understand the compulsion to want to pick the child up and stop the discomfort.

    I think there is magic in what you teach! A shift in my perspective to being curious about communication calmed my subtle discomfort. When I was calm, then it was easier to stay with the boy’s experience. When I was calm there was no need to stop the discomfort.

    Once I read the commentary, I fell in love with your comment about Michael being an excellent communicator. A person could so easily label him as ‘fussy’ and miss the beauty of his openness to sharing what he needs. That small perspective shift can undoubtedly have an impact on his entire LIFE!

    1. Buffy, your thought process and discomfort is mine exactly…even after thousands of experiences like this one. I don’t think that really ever goes away, so I guess this is an example of placing our child’s emotional needs before our own. But we end up benefiting, too, because being able to communicate with our children makes parenting about a million times easier…and richer…and more successful!

      Thank you, Buffy! As always, your comment is spot on and much appreciated.

  6. As always, today’s post provides such an insightful look at sensitive infant caregiving. I routinely share your wisdom with child care professionals who work with infants and toddlers. The conventional wisdom that they are taught is to “respond to” (i.e. pick up) a fussy or crying infant. While that’s an improvement to ignoring them, you elevate the sensitivity of the response so that the caregiver is respectfully listening and interpreting the child’s communication. That is a skill that very few professional infant caregivers have, unfortunately. So keep writing and I’ll keep sharing with the ECE community!!

    1. Thank you, Kathy, I will! I’m so glad you are helping others understand and appreciate these respectful care “subtleties”. No, this is certainly not conventional wisdom. Someday…

  7. avatar Miven Trageser says:

    I’m so happy about this post of yours Janet. I already said this on Facebook, but I believe so strongly that parents own anxiety and desire for action causes a reflexive intrusiveness that costs babies their sense of self before it even fully develops. What is great about RIE class is that you get explicit permission to sit back and let go of the fear of what others may think or say. The depth of the relationship and respect between this mom and her son is inspiring. Lucky pair!

    1. “…parents’ own anxiety and desire for action causes a reflexive intrusiveness that costs babies their sense of self before it even fully develops.” Wow, well said, Miven. Thank you for this insight and your corroboration.

  8. I find this fascinating. All my instincts tell me to reassure and comfort and jump in and help. I am trying very hard to stand back, observe, listen……its so hard sometimes but I tell myself i am building my childrens’ confidence levels and their capacity to cope. I can’t be there every moment of the day and need to know they can deal with minor conflict or anxiety without me.
    My middle child is 4yrs old and is extremely sensitive to everything, he is clingy and doesnt like strangers or large groups of people. At 6 months he cried at social gatherings and needed to be held. At 4 things have improved and he has adapted to school but does cry easily. I was reading a book called The Highly Sensitive Child – where they recommend giving your child all the reassurance they need, not overstimulating them with too many after school play dates, giving them quiet time, but also encouraging them to push their boundaries in a safe way (eg playdate with a friend and younger brother with similar temperaments, taking him to parties but allowing him to stand back and not participate, play sport and activities where they are alongside others not head on or contact). This works for him but I am struggling to walk the fine balance between providing a safe haven and pushing him (which can result in extreme distress and set backs). This seems a genetic trait which my inlaws have and they dont worry about it – but they dont want to do fun stuff like fireworks or disneyland. I am hoping that by having a mother who is sensitive but more extroverted, that i can gently coax him out of his shell!

  9. I love your blog! So brilliant! A distinction that occurs to me to Alex’s comment is that the baby’s quest is to dominate HIS/HER world. Not anybody else’s. That’s why it’s so important for them be allowed to find the strength and ability within themselves to achieve and accomplish. The role of the parent, both challenging and most interesting, is to support him in his quest for being the powerful creator of his life. This includess allowing and honoring his expression, the freedom to reach for his desires and explore his safe world, and to accomplish and discover based on his own efforts. This keeps children from growing to depend on people to get what they want, while showing them (because it is modeled) how to love, respect, value, and interact with others, while being true to themselves. What is appropriate keeps changing as a child grows, which keeps it interesting for everybody! : )

  10. Love the video! He seems to calmed down by simply being heard. I’m curios of what you would do if an older baby starts to cry when in his/her safe space? I work from home and I usually do it in the dinning room table while my daughter’s safe space in the living room and lately after a few minutes of independent play she starts to cry pulled up to the play pen. She is 12 months and has all the living room to play and explore but she won’t calm down until I go and sit by her (sometimes she plays very close to me and other she continues to play around). I usually do this when I can but sometimes I need to keep working and I feel bad when she continues to cry after I acknowledge her feelings. Any advice in this situation? Really appreciate it 🙂

  11. I’d be curious if any of these parents have experienced colic? Or had an infant that cried pretty much 24/7. I still have PTSD from my first and now my second is the same. I’ll do anything not to hear that crying. I get anxious, tense, unable to function, when my baby cries inconsolably. I want to fix it. When she’s seemingly uncomfortable in her own skin, I need to help her.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations