Imagine for a moment that you have been abducted by space ship
to a distant planet, and you are surrounded by giant strangers
whose language you do not speak. Two of those strangers take you
under their care. You are entirely dependent on them for the
satisfaction of all your needs - hunger, thirst, comfort, and -
especially - reassurance that you are safe in this strange place.
Then imagine that something is very wrong - you are in pain, or
terribly thirsty, or in need of emotional support. But your two
attendants ignore your cries of distress, and you are unable to
get them to help you or to understand your needs. Now you have
another problem, more serious than the first: you feel completely
helpless and alone in an alien world.
In all innocence, a baby assumes that we, as his parents, are
correct - that whatever we do is what we ought to be doing. If we
do nothing, the baby can only conclude that he is unloved because
he is unlovable. It is not within his capabilities to conclude
that we are only busy, distracted, worried, misled by
"experts", or simply inexperienced as parents. No matter
how deeply we love our baby, it is mostly the outward
manifestations of that love that the baby can understand.
No one likes to have his communication ignored. and if it is,
this brings on feelings of helplessness and anger that inevitably
damage the relationship. Such a response seems to be one that is
universally experienced by adults, and there is no reason to
conclude that it is any different for babies and children. Few
people would ignore an adult while he repeatedly said, "Can
you help me? I'm not feeling right." Ignoring such a request
would be considered most unkind. But a baby cannot make such a
statement; he can only cry and cry until someone responds - or
until he gives up in despair.
Immediate response to a baby's cry went unquestioned for
thousands of years until recent times. In our culture, we assume
that crying is normal and unavoidable for babies. Yet in natural
societies where babies are carried close to the care-giver much of
the day and night for the first several months, such crying is
rare. In contrast to what many in our society would expect, babies
cared for in this way show self-sufficiency sooner than do babies
not receiving such care.
In fact, research on early childhood experiences consistently
shows that children who have enjoyed the most loving care in
infancy become the most secure and loving adults, while those
babies who have been forced into submissive behavior build up
feelings of resentment and anger that may well be expressed later
in harmful ways.
In spite of this research, most arguments for ignoring crying
are based on fears of "spoiling" the baby. A typical
baby-care brochure advises the parent to "let the baby handle
it for a while". Though infancy can be a challenging time for
the parents, a baby is simply too young and inexperienced to
"handle" the cause of the crying, whatever it may be. He
cannot feed himself, change himself, or comfort himself in the way
that nature intended. Clearly, it is the parents' responsibility
to meet their baby's needs for nurturing, security, and love, not
the baby's responsibility to meet his parents' need for peace and
The pamphlet implies that if the parents give their baby an
opportunity to become self-reliant, they are helping him to
mature. But an infant is simply not capable of such maturity. True
maturity reflects a strong foundation of emotional security that
can only come about from the love and support of those closest to
him during the earliest years.
An immature person can only respond to stress in an immature
way. A baby denied his birthright of comforting from his parents
may respond by turning to ineffective self-stimulation
(head-banging, rhythmic rocking, thumb-sucking, etc.) and
emotional withdrawal from others. If his needs are routinely
ignored, he may decide that loneliness and despair are preferable
to risking further disappointment and rejection. Unfortunately,
this decision, once made, can become a permanent outlook on life,
leading to an emotionally impoverished life.
Many child-care professionals feel that parental encouragement
of self-satisfiers and over-substitution of material objects -
teddy bears substituting for parents, strollers for arms, cribs
for shared sleep, pacifiers for nursing, toys for parents'
attention, music boxes for voices, formula for breast-milk,
wind-up swings for laps - have led to an age of materialistic
acquisition, personal loneliness and lack of emotional
Ignoring a baby's crying is like using earplugs to stop the
distressing noise of a smoke detector. The sound of a smoke
detector is meant to alert us to a serious matter that requires a
response - and so is the cry of a baby. As Jean Liedloff wrote in The
Continuum Concept, "a baby's cry is precisely as
serious as it sounds."
Stressful though it may be, infant crying should be seen not as
a power struggle between parent and child, but as a gift of nature
to ensure that all babies can grow to adulthood with a generous
capacity for love and trust.