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A Baby Cries: How Should Parents Respond?

by Jan Hunt

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 solitude.

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 fulfillment.

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.
 

 
Portuguese translation

Polish translation
 

 
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers phone counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting, unschooling, and personal matters. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.
 
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