Did My High-Need Child Need To Cry? (Guest Post by Jane Roets)

When my babies were small, I absolutely hated to hear them cry. I thought my job was to meet all their needs until they were big enough, or old enough to meet them themselves.  I was an Attachment Parent all the way!

Especially with my second child. She was my “high-need” baby.  For the first 6 months of her life she was either in the sling or sleeping next to me. She nursed all night long sometimes and was happy as long as she was in physical contact with her mama.  I was SO THANKFUL for Attachment Parenting, which confirmed my suspicion that if I didn’t wear her and co-sleep with her, she would be miserable 24/7 and I might not survive her infancy!

Once she was mobile, the constant physical contact decreased, but she continued to be intense.  She could go from 0-60 in no time flat, and I was determined to be there to soothe her and meet her needs.  While I was exhausted, I was a little smug as well.  Not many other mothers could handle such an intense, demanding child!

I had studied Developmental Psychologist Erik Erikson’s work in college and was sure that as my children resolved their “developmental issues” like trust vs. mistrust, they would move on. I would have done my job to give them an excellent foundation.  I still believe that in many ways this is what happened.

Then I read Janet Lansbury’s blog post “7 Reasons To Calm Down About Babies Crying”, and it was so thought-provoking for me. It made me think that perhaps my focus on resolving all of my sweet girl’s unhappiness was not so useful to her.  Maybe, in fact, it took away some of her own power and self-determination.

At 16 we have a lovely, smart, caring, powerful girl who is terrified of her own grief and sadness.  The intensity of her feelings has resulted in interventions I never imagined facing.  In some ways we are doing remedial emotional management education.  What I believe now is that by meeting her every emotional need as an infant and young child, I wasn’t allowing her to learn how to process them herself.

Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t an “I’m a bad mom and it’s all my fault that I have a teenager who has had struggles” post.  We do the best we can with the knowledge and support we have at the time.

I do wonder though, that if I had had the perspective offered by Magda Gerber and her approach to child-rearing, or if I’d simply listened to my own mother and accepted that “sometimes babies cry and that’s ok”,  maybe my sweet girl would know that her feelings, while intense, will not hurt her.  She can get through them.  She would know that her mama believes in her strength and power to get through the most difficult situations, and while I will always be there if needed, I won’t get in the way.

“Parents have asked me, if crying is a child’s language, isn’t she telling us to do something? My answer is, not necessarily. It’s different from when a grown-up cries. It’s the baby’s mode of self-expression. Since an infant cannot talk, crying is the only way she can express her feelings or discomfort.

Allowing a child to express her feeling positive and negative, is a healthy way to prepare her for life. If you accept your child’s feelings, you will help her accept them, too.”  – Magda GerberYour Self-Confident Baby

Jane Roets is a mom, wife, daughter, sister, singer, dancer, teacher, friend. All of the roles in her life endlessly bring her back to exploring who she is and who she wants to be. With 3 children, 14, 17 and 20 she began “Out of the Nest”, a blog about the process of launching them, but it turned into one about launching herself as a person and a professional.


(Photo by Flashbax Twenty Three on Flickr


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

  1. This just reminds me of how happy I am to have stumbled on this site and others like it while my son was still very tiny. I may argue with you fairly often (and I have to admit I sometimes do so just to play devil’s advocate) but I can’t imagine how much more difficult my son’s first two years would have been if I hadn’t had it slowly come into focus that my job as a parent is NOT to stop my child from crying. I think allowing myself to step back and have his say as an infant has made toddler tantrums so much easier to understand and tolerate. If you’re constantly doing everything in your power to shush a baby, doesn’t a tantrum, meltdown or blow-up feel kind of like a betrayal? If you can’t get over the notion that crying is an evil which must be stopped, eventually your kids get old enough that you no longer have the power to stop them crying all the time… And I think usually there is so much anxiety involved in this transition that it turns to anger almost at once.

  2. Jane,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I love your explanation of your movement from hating to hear your child cry to your awareness “that her feelings, while intense, will not hurt her.”

    That’s such an important point for all of us recovering “fixers of feelings” to remember. I think you must be the perfect parent for your daughter.

    1. Thank you for your kind response Sandy~ We are having some pretty big struggles at this point, but I know we’ll all come out on the other end just fine~

  3. I really like this post! Thank you to the author who shared her experience. : )

  4. Sounds like the author’s daughter may be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I am and wish I and my parents had known when I was growing up. I would recommend that she Google Elaine Aron’s work or visit hsperson.com.

    1. Dear Sally,
      I am the high need daughter 🙂 And hsperson.com is incredibly helpful! I definitely experience some of the traits involved, so it is quite a possibility.Thank you so much for suggesting so crucial to the rest of my development!

  5. Hi Jane,

    your daughter is lucky to have such a caring mom as you! It is so hard to hear our children cry sometimes, and we want the very best for them to be happy. It’s sounds like you’ve done a wonderful job to help her, and let her know she’s loved.

    Since having my daughter I’ve been getting a lot of support from an amazing organisation called Hand in Hand parenting. (Patty Wipfler, one of the founders was one of the people quoted in the original Janet Lansbury article). Through listening partnerships where I talk and listen to another parent, about our thoughts and feelings I have been relearning that forgotten art of expressing my feelings through crying, as I help my daughter to do the same. It can be scary at first to face feelings, but I always feel much better after crying.
    It’s never too late to catch up on the crying we didn’t do when we were younger. Your daughter is still young, and it sounds like she has a very loving open-minded mom to support her.

    Wishing you all the best.


    1. I am very lucky to have her! Also, nice name 😀

  6. Serendipity says:

    Really struggling with this and would love some help and advice. What you say makes complete sense to me but finding it difficult in practice. I have a 4 week old baby and if I don’t respond to her crying by rocking, singing, jigging about by walking around or nursing – her cries turn into very desperate, loud, bright red in the face, stop breathing momentarily, I need your help right now type cries…then what…do I still just hold her and allow her to cry so much that she eventually falls asleep from exhaustion? I read your articles re crying before she was born and promised myself I would allow her to cry and not be tempted to jig or offer the breast ( as I did with my first daughter) but this has been impossible with her getting completely distressed. Help me please!!

    1. Are you breastfeeding your 4 week old? Does it sound as if she has reflux? (Is she spitting up?)
      I would maybe take her to a peds chiro to see if she needs to get adjusted…it may be that she is not comfortable when she is laying down. (I had that issue with my now 14 month old)
      I would acknowledge her distress, and I’m sorry, RIE or no, that’s a brand new baby to this world- don’t feel guilty about hold your baby, BUT please see if there is an underlying issue. (the crying till red and stopping breathing seems to be more intense than regular baby crying in my opinion)

    2. I think at the heart, you have to follow your mama-gut. With a tiny baby, you meet their needs as best you can – I’m not sure I would have survived had I not worn Kate in a sling and nursed her on demand around the clock as a newborn. I do wish I had gradually begun to listen more closely to her as she began to grow and become more her own person. My bias is that especially during those first 6 weeks of establishing a nursing relationship, you can’t “spoil” those babies.
      I do thing that having her checked out for reflux and/or other issues would be a good idea. Our pediatric chiropractor was a life saver many times! Best wishes to you~

    3. The first 3 months of life are nicknamed the “4th trimester”. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that they are nicknamed this because developmentally, infants need what they have in the womb constantly (calmness, to be “held”, and constantly touched, soothed, a belly always full, etc.). I wouldn’t stress too much about this behavior at this point in time with your baby.

  7. I really enjoy your words on this matter. I remember struggling with how constant my baby cried. I didn’t realize anyone could cry that much even after I had met all her needs. I probably spent the first 5 months of her life in constant rotation of nursing, holding, swinging, changing her diaper. Nothing calmed her. She had spent a week before we brought her home in the NICU. I always blame that moment in her life because we had to leave her for two 1 hour shifts for changeover nurses. Separating from your baby at any length of time felt wrong to me and I’m sure it felt wrong to her. The nurses would always call me after the hour because she had been crying for awhile. It killed me.

    On a separate note I am a believer that children need to work out their own problems. If she gets stuck and fusses I leave her alone for a bit. Seeing if she can work out her situation by herself. She may just be frustrated and letting out some of the emotions vocally. It’s not always easy to gauge though. As a parent we are just doing the best we can.

  8. Thank you Jane for such a beautifully honest and authentic post. Janet’s 7-Reasons to Calm Down About Crying along with this link are so helpful to my sleep clients. Posts such as yours, as well as the wonderful comments that follow, help ME so very much.

    I often wonder if my head is trying to change the parental heart. I do not want to convince parents to simply “let them cry”. I encourage all of us to remain open and present. However, what we must remain open to as parents is our own anxiety. When we are faced with our child’s intense struggle and expressions WE have to tolerate a fair amount of panic in the self. In the moment it feels irresolvable and we are driven, programmed perhaps, to resolve it.

    I love Meagan’s comment above that uses the word betrayal. Because it feels that dire and that desperate. Our efforts as parents are so intense and the emotions that drive those efforts are as well.

    My job to usher parents through the tears of change would be too big a task if it were not for discussions such as this one.

    Thank you…from the depths of my highly sensitive heart!

    Eileen Henry, RIE Associate

    1. Thank you for your response Eileen! I think you are absolutely right that we need to figure out what is “our” anxiety and what is our child’s. Still learning this lesson and looking forward to learning more and more through RIE that I can apply to the work I do.

  9. I am a grandma who has raised four wonderful children. I really like the idea of letting babies cry when they need to as a way of expressing their feelings. And letting them work things out on their own and treating them with respect as the little people they are. I don’t think there is one mold on how to raise a child. Each child is different. If a baby is crying extensively,especially at 4 weeks old, and turning red in the face,there may be another underlying problem. Some babies are born needing the rocking, cooing, singing reassurance that everything is going to be alright at first. Then maybe working into the incouraging them to work things out once they feel safe, and secure. When I raised my children life was a little more laid back. Now days there is allot more stress, and tension everywhere. Things are moving faster. Babies, and children are aware of this. They have a need of feeling safe, and secure first.

    1. Suzanne and Emily , Love your common sense comments! I learned about Magda Gerber through West.Ed PITC training. Besides all the components of. Respectful Care one phrase I always remember is “it depends” when people are looking for an “answer”. Each baby and situation is different and requires different responses. It bother me a little that even the Magda Gerber followers here forget her advice – to follow the baby and not what some “expert” ( including her) says.

      1. Sheri, to follow the baby means perceiving him or her as a separate individual –understanding where we end and our baby begins. This is a challenging process for just about every parent I’ve known (including myself). Magda Gerber’s approach is designed to help us discern how to truly follow our child…rather than projecting our own fears and concerns. Yes, “it depends”. It always “depends”. Each child is unique. It is difficult to perceive our child’s unique needs (and abilities) when we are clouded by our impulses to make crying stop.

  10. I find your post so inspiring! And honest! I was quite an AP mother with my first boy. I just couldn´t stand hearing him crying. When I read about Pikler and Gerber I felt I had found a treassure and as an educationist now I find it quite easy to apply Magda´s approach towards crying. As a mother it is a bit more difficult, isn´t it? Even now, that my older boy is 11, I find it somewhat unbearable to see him in distress. But now I do understand we are both learning how to deal with our inner struggles and this has made a huge difference in our relationship. I am SO GRATEFUL I found Magda Gerber (thank you Janet for introducing her into my life!).
    When people criticize her approach towards crying babies, I have the feeling they haven´t grasped the true meaning of her advice, nor have put it into practice. But once you stop discussing theories and really apply her teachings, wow, that´s a real blessing! I just wrote about this in my English blog last week: http://wp.me/pYQgn-iV
    Hope you like it.
    Love, Fernanda

    1. I enjoyed your post Fernanda and am looking forward to digging more into the magic of Magda:-)

  11. As a mom to two older children (17 and 14) and each AP’ed – though very different personalities, I agree with Jane’s retrospective! My second was fussy- keeping him above that point of no return was a full-time job sometimes until he hit the age of 4. Utterly adorable and captivating and showing his very best when out about the town – but at home … he just really relaxed into being high need. And yes, I feel as though I ‘rescued’ both my children from sadness. In part out of compassion (we all want people to be happy) but also because I felt that as supreme mom, I must not be at my best if my children were gloomy! In reality I believe that my son wanted to do far more than he actually could and when he turned 4 – he had the verbal and physical capability that met his need and he was able to take off. At home, there were no distractions to this dilemma – even though as a former preschool teacher our home was a haven for the under 6s! Crying or fussing was a way to let off steam perhaps or to express his frustration – and I tried to roll with that but ultimately what I heard was- Do better, Mom!

    He is a wonderfully jovial, content, purposeful teenager now! As he moves into the bigger world it will be interesting to see how he deals with upsets, challenges frustrations, etc. Now he really gravitates towards those things he is competent at – and is okay leaving behind those things he lacks competence in. That may be okay. He certainly does not dwell in what he cannot do! We all find our way – hopefully in a productive manner.

    But I do think about what I have rescued them from may be full emotional strength. And accomplishment of this sort. Physically, I allowed them any challenge they wanted to take on – but I wonder about the emotional piece. And what I love about RIE is the chance to reflect on that. To step back and consider. To pause and have a different voice going through your head – that just may allow you to change one experience that could build on the next experience.

    I also think about this as an adult. If I am outside struggling in the heat and the bugs and the scratches of gardening and pruning and digging … and sometimes I want to cry! I imagine my husband seeing my struggle and coming to rescue me – “Let em do this. You go and do something easier. It is not worth the struggle.” And yet, all the hard work and having the finished product – a beautiful garden – is so well-worth the struggle! If he took over – I might have the beautiful garden to look at but so much less of an investment. If he gave me tools to make it easier or offered to reach the places I could not or helped me placate the bee sting I may have gotten … yes! Support, understanding but not a rescue!

    How do I want to be talked to, to be listened to, to be treated … we should want nothing less for our babies – who are in fact human beings in their own right.

    Thank you for the post and the opportunity to reflect!


  12. Thank you so much for your response Beth! Always love to hear of others experiences~

  13. From my own history, I really despise the idea of shutting anyone up who is expressing themselves. But, the one thing I’m not sure of is that my son will cry and get upset, and I do my best to listen and accept his turmoil as natural, but it seems like something triggers him to go “over the top.” I’ve found that when he’s like this, it’s better to help him calm down, rather than let it escalate further and further. Crying is not the problem, it’s when he starts out small and gets large – hyperventilating and holding his breath – even though nothing (that I’m aware of) in my demeanor implies that I’m trying to shut him down or not listening. In fact, the opposite is true – there are times where the more I try to understand, the greater his turmoil. Not sure where I’m going wrong there…?

  14. I feel a little more human after reading this. My little boy is starting to teeth and he is crying all the time. I feel like I am betraying him when I can’t calm him down. I try everything I can think of and he just wants to cry. He is a very intense baby too. I understand that crying is normal. But the guilt of not being able to help him eats me alive. I try to remember that I’m not abandoning him if I need a few minutes to myself. I tell him that I am frustrated because I can’t help him and I feel bad about it.. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever gone through. Yet being his mommy is the most rewarding feeling I’ve ever had.

  15. I have a 6 month old son who is about as HN as they come. His intensity scares me at times. He sounds just like your lovely daughter Kate, who goes from 0-60 in a matter of seconds. Right now our issues lie with sleep training. He screams bloody murder if I lie him down in his bed drowsy and awake. I’ve let him CIO twice, and the longest length of time was 5 mins. It took me almost an hour to get him to calm down after that. ;( I don’t know how you taught Kate to sleep but as a mother of a HN baby what are your opinions on CIO for sleep training? Any advice would be helpful and appreciative. Thank you!

  16. I put all my efforts in meeting all my baby’s needs for 2 full years, after that she just changed. Still quite shy and gentle and very attached but very very different from the 100% time physical contact baby she was before. It just got better, she’s the most easy going kid ever (and now she’s 7,5).

  17. I have to say I do not agree with this post and I am quite surprised to see so many people don’t take any issue with it.

    The original post about Reasons to Calm Down About Crying was basically saying that we don’t have to stop the crying, but we do need to provide a safe and loving presence in which a child can cry if needed. It was NOT saying that anyone should ignore their child or let them crying without meeting their needs.

    I would bet you anything you like that meeting your daughter’s emotional needs did NOT result in her issues. Rather, as you stated yourself, she has always had a heightened sensitivity and set of needs. What you have done is responded to these with love and presence – which it sounds like you still continue to do. If you hadn’t been the kind of parent you were, she may indeed have MORE problems, not less.

    I firmly believe that we should NEVER second guess or question that deep maternal instinct that screams at us to hold our babies when they are upset. And yes, try to figure out why they are upset and if possible, help them feel better. That is what we are there for, that is our job.

    Obviously there are times when we can’t “make it better”, when all they need is to cry and express their feelings. In that case, yes, our job is not to stop the crying but rather to provide a loving presence while the emotion is expressed.

    1. Emily, I agree about the message of my “Reasons to Calm Down” post. I think you might be misunderstanding Jane’s post. She is not implying that she should have left her daughter alone to cry. She is wondering if she “got in her daughter’s way” by believing it her responsibility to quell all her daughter’s tears, rather than calmly supporting her and, therefore, “normalizing” these feelings for her. That is how we help children build resiliency.

      The way we define our child’s “needs” (and how we should meet them) comes into play here.

      “Terrified of your own grief and sadness” is a very uncomfortable place to be.

  18. Oh dear, this is my husband. Let me tell you, having to help him through every bad feeling, with two boys under 3, is quite exhausting.

  19. My first is also intense and has been since day one, and although I did not know about RIE at the time I did naturally follow many of the tenets (allowing her to cry, getting to know who she is, treating her like her own person, lots of floor time etc).

    She is now 5 years old, and has “big feelings!” (Her words) and feels very comfortable expressing them all at home, however preschool was a different story and it was a bit of a rough year. I fully embrace that she is herself, and love (not always in the moment) that she has “big feelings!”, but the rest of the world is not always so welcoming.

    What I am trying to say is that as parents we can only do so much, my daughter has a great big life outside of my control and all I can do is love her and accept that I belong to her but she belongs to the world.

    Thanks for sharing your story, it is hard when our children struggle. It is never too late to learn to walk through our emotions, best of luck to both of you.

  20. I think there needs to be a balance to this. You do need to meet the needs of your newborn/infant (meeting them before they cry or as soon as you can ) and then as they start to learn how to communicate as they develop we need to teach them to communicate appropriately and age appropriate. Showing them that’s not acceptable and then showing them what is acceptable. I am an attachment parent (it just worked for my personality and how I was taught ) but I am also very firm not taking any nonsense. Good balance works well firm fair and fun as they get older and nurture and love while they are little bubbas 🙂

  21. My first is super intense, and although my second is only three months, I’m sensing a similar personality in him. I think it’s important to recognize that each child develops at their own pace, self-regulation included. At the very beginning, babies need help in regulating themselves (not just soothing, babies need contact to help regulate their breathing and body temperature). Eventually they can do more and more themselves, and it is SO important to give them space to be able to develop those skills. But they still emerge much later in some kids, especially those who are extremely sensitive (both emotionally sensitive and physically sensitive). My thought had always been that these kids who experience MORE all the time, need more time to be able to manage their input. As much as I tried to do otherwise, and I truly wasn’t the anxious must-stop-the-tears sort of parent, he relied on me and on nursing to get him back from the ledge until he was 3-ish. And that’s okay. I think the important thing is to be in tune with them so you’re giving them enough space to grow, but not so much that they flounder. At 4.5 he has big feelings (I’m sure he always will), big tears, and all he needs is someone to sit near and hold space until it’s over.

  22. My baby is 5 months and has always been very high needs compared to other babies I have known. She seems to eat a lot and be genuinely hungry as well as apparently having a lot of trouble with trapped wind. She can get distressed and frustrated very quickly when put down and wakes at least every 2 hours (sometimes every 30mins) throughout the night.

    The trouble I have when trying to follow a RIE approach is in discerning when she has a genuine need. For example I have attempted to sit with her and talk to her instead of picking her up straight away when she was upset only to find that when I did she had a massive burp or really wanted feeding. A lot of the RIE advice seems to say things along the lines of make sure their needs are met and then leave them alone (not alone exactly but you know what I mean!) How do I know if they are met without checking though? Especially when she seems to get so worked up so easily.

    1. Sounds like you might be misunderstanding the RIE approach, Frances. It isn’t about talking to your baby for the sake of talking or in order to stall before addressing her needs… RIE recommends asking questions while really listening to your baby’s communication, so that you know for sure.. “oh, sounds like you need to burp, so I’m going to pick you up and help you”…or “Seems you are saying you’re hungry…is that right? Okay, I will pick you up so you can nurse”… or “I’m not if you are hungry or need to burp, so I’m going to pick you up to see… Are you ready?” Children gain confidence when they feel understood by us, or we are at least attempting to understand, rather than making a snap decision because we can’t stand the sound of our baby crying.

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