There are people who don’t mind hearing babies cry. They ignore a baby in distress, won’t pick the baby up ‘so as not to spoil him’, think nothing of leaving babies crying alone for hours in a dark room. I know these people exist because I read articles about them all time. But seriously, who are they? In my 18 ½ years as a mother, 16 years as a parent educator and 2 years blogging, I’ve never encountered a parent like this.
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.
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 are 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 parent- infant guidance classes, I make a point of letting them know – crying is allowed here. I sense their relief. 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 ancestral 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
“The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.” – Parker J. Palmer
These books offer wonderful, respectful suggestions for helping your crying baby:
Magda Gerber’s books: Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect and Your Self Confident Baby: How To Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities From The Very Start
CALMS A Guide to Soothing Your Baby by Contey and Takika
My book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting.
Aletha Solter: “What To Do When Your Baby Cries” and “Crying For Comfort – Distressed Babies Need To Be Held” from Aware Parenting
Patty Wipfler: “In Your Arms Crying Heals The Hurt” from Birthways Newsletter
(Photo by tostadophotos.com on Flickr)
this post has been a great source of inspiration to me since you wrote it the month after my daughter was born! I’m actually currently finishing writing a parenting book about crying and children, and I was wondering if you knew of any research to illustrate your point about babies in primitive society not crying because of danger? It’s such a fascinating piece of information, that I’d love to share in more detail, thanks, Kate
Thank you, Kate. I have read about this several times in several places… a quick search brought up Aletha Solter’s book: http://primal-page.com/solter3.htm. I’m sure there’s more that’s readily available, but I have nothing specific to quickly refer you to… Good luck with the book!
Excellent resource thank you!!
I’d like to share to my private Facebook group with permission please?
My group is “mother to mother’s collaboration with professionals” I’m a postpartum doula, sleep consultant
Thank you for this article. I have been following you for the past month and o am starting to notice your philosophy on sleeping. My daughter is 6 months old and I always give her the breast until she falls a asleep, she’ll wake up through out the night cryin until I give her back my breast. What can I do to brake this habit I created? My boyfriend has tried putting her back to sleep and she screams until I come back…
She’s six months. She needs to nurse at night still. You don’t need to break the habit, because it’s not a habit. It’s a need. She’s screaming because she’s hungry.
6 month olds are able to go through the night without eating. It is most definitely a habit at this point (which I say entirely without judgment!!). She’s crying because babies don’t like to change the habit. My suggestion to the OP would be to let the boyfriend continue to hold her while she cries until the habit is broken. As long as mom is nearby and she can smell the milk she won’t go for anything else. (Assuming mom wants to break the habit. If she wants to continue nursing at night that’s fine too.)
Feeding her and then laying her back down to fall asleep on her own can help. Janet has some great articles about confidently making changes and supporting your baby through the upset.
The problem with trying to interpret a young babies cries though is that how do you know whether shes hungry or not? What if she didnt have enough the last time she fed, so although she didnt feed long ago she is now hungry again? And sometimes they go through growth spurts and are in need of food what feels like all the time – how do you figure out weather the baby is hungry or not without offering food, and if offering food usually results in a calmer baby, how do you know if that’s what they truly wanted? It just seems like most of the advice there was to first check if they are hungry or wet, then if not try to find out what else might be wrong and to just be with them. But how do you find out if they are hungry without offering food that they would probably take whether hungry or not? I found it very hard with my first baby, i felt completely at sea with her needs! Can you tell? Am expecting another and really wish it not to be quite such a stressful time this time round.
You’ve touched on a very good point, Rhiannon. Communicating with our babies certainly isn’t a perfect process… particularly in the beginning when it’s harder to distinguish each expression, sound or cry. The important thing is that we DO perceive this as a process of understanding another person, rather than attempting to fix or control the uncomfortable sounds as quickly as possible.
After reading your articles, I knew this is the way I want to raise my child. I felt so much calmer when I vocalize my actions. It made me more aware of what I was doing at the same time my son could know what to expect.
My little one is coming 3 months this week but I still can’t get him to take his naps.
For one, he hasn’t learnt the art of sucking his thumb, and for the other, he cries murder when I try to cradle him.
I tired putting him in his cot and told him to get some rest and I’ll be next door if he needs me.His crying will start and cry till he’s red on the face.
I also tried to let him vent his emotions by continuing to let him cry, but he doesn’t stop! (How long is considered too long?)
I sometimes give him a pacifier (not encouraged,I know) to replace his thumb but with or without pacifier, he sleeps for 5 minutes after I put him down and wakes up crying.He’ll be inconsolable for at least 15 minutes and the cycle will start again.
Or am I too impatient and tried to put him to sleep too early?
Please, help me. Any advice will be greatly appreciated.
Thanks in advance.
Thank you so much for this article and all you do. I found your teachings shortly after giving birth. It’s so different to the way i was brought up So not my natural go to but I try every day to think about rie principals and give my son as much respect as I can. I feel a bit stuck, my son is teething he is 11 months old he sleeps well but has been tugging his ears close to bed and nap time. He has been waking up mid naps crying and I go to comfort him, he cries and I let him just let it all out I tell him I’m here for him that I think he might be in pain. When He stops I put him down he sits right up again. If he is not teething he just cuddles his ele and goes off after tossing and turning . I feel he thinks he needs me but he can also get quite frustrated while I hug him on my chest tossing and turning lots, this afternoon after two or three times of cuddling and then crying as soon as I placed him in cot. I didn’t really know what to do so I left the room and waited outside he slept after 8 minutes of crying. It felt like the right thing in a way, but his cries where high pitched and didn’t feel like letting of steam cries.i guess my question is: How would you help your baby feel secure and that I’m here for him but also let him know that maybe space might be the thing to get the rest he is after.
I am sorry to have offended you, Kaya, and I appreciate your feedback. I can assure you that I do not assume whiteness or female gender or even that readers are parents, as many who read here are grandparents or professional caregivers. I would sincerely hope that Claire Niala, the author of the widely read article I linked to entitled, “Why African Babies Don’t Cry,” would not perceive my reference to her piece as a generalization that I was making about either African culture or race. (Did you actually read her article? It appears not.) I did not understand her article as being about race, nor do I think in those terms. It is true that I wrote “us,” meaning those who do not embrace the culture that Claire Niala describes in her article. I will edit that sentence in hope of clarifying misunderstandings.
Never mind, I decided to cut the reference. Not worth the headache. Thanks again for your feedback.
Hi Janet, could you please clarify which culture you are referring to?
I am 57 years old, and my parents were devotees of Dr. Spock. They didn’t pick me up when I cried. They shut the door to let me cry it out. When they talk about how they raised me and my three younger sisters, they refer to us “howling” and their own resistance to spoiling us. I trust their accounts because they reacted the same way when my son was an infant, and told me that picking him up when he cried–as a newborn–would ruin him. He had undergone extensive surgery after birth, and for months I not only carried him in a baby carrier wrap, but also slept with him nestled next to me. I believe that contact–that presence during a painful and scary ordeal–was essential. Babies have no words for pain. But here’s the thrust of my message: in later years, in therapy, I remembered being spanked for crying because I got spanked. In other words, I was not allowed to cry after being struck. This was one of many ways in which the expression of pain was denied me, and it created multiple lifelong problems including an eating disorder, depression and anxiety, sleep problems, and terrible self-esteem. We have yet to understand the profound effects of emotional neglect, repression of crying being one of them. I say hold babies often and as long as they need. Human beings need attachment to survive and thrive, and we as parents deny that at our peril.
Thanks for your article. Curious- at what point would you say it is ok to offer soothing instead of just listening to them- because rocking them or singing or such can feel loving and calming to them/their nervous system and isn’t it important for them to also experience being soothed and to experience us helping them regulate?
You are offering soothing right from the beginning through your presence, holding, gentle words. Singing or gently rocking is lovely, too. All from a place of calm.
We try to let him cry (5month). But sometimes he gets more and more panicy,high intensity until I have the feeling it’s really too much. I guess my own anxiety and panic that I had as a child gets triggered because I was left alone sometimes. So I dont want him to disconnect in panic so I change position or distract for a bit until his cry gets “less intense”. Is that then not allowing him to fully cry or protecting him from dissociation/panic??? Thank you
Hello Janet. I was wondering if you have any advice for this technique when you have autism and the sound of a baby crying can be overwhelming. I have earplugs to take the edge off but there’s still an element of sensory overload.
Hi Andrew. That’s a good question that I, unfortunately, don’t have the answer to. Have you tried noise-canceling headphones? Are there other self-calming strategies that work for you?