Following my previous blogs about sleep and responsive parenting, I wanted to discuss another taboo subject of crying. Back to that rhetoric “good baby, bad baby”. Bad babies being those who are ‘needy’ and cry a lot. Good babies being quiet and not needing a lot of attention. I hear it from my friends and the families I work with, more commonly than not, “They were such a ‘good’ baby no tears at all.” Offering positive praise to babies is amazing. I cannot encourage parents enough to offer huge amounts of praise to their children all the time. However, offering it about not crying, makes me wonder what subtle messages we send children from such an early age – “It’s not ok to cry.”
I have spoken to many parents about how they feel when their baby cries. Reports of feeling inadequate, a failure, embarrassment, low self-worth, panic, and anxiety. Some parents don’t want to leave the house in case their baby gets upset, which can then lead to social isolation. This social construct of babies being quiet was born in the Victorian era of ‘children should be seen and not heard’ which by today’s standards would be classed as neglectful. There have been so many changes in attitudes, policy and law when it comes to parenting, yet some thoughts and behaviours have been so ingrained in society and our language, they are challenging to change.
I do love a challenge, and so there is no misunderstanding, let me be clear; babies are not supposed to be quiet. They were not designed to be quiet and no amount of; tuts, filthy looks, requests to leave restaurants, advice from strangers, massive feelings of inadequacy or positive praise will change the fact, babies cry.
Babies are genetically programmed to call out when they need help or comfort either emotionally or physically. It is their survival mechanism. Crying is their language, it is their way of communicating their feelings. All infant mammals cry, research shows that puppies can call out to their mothers 700 times in 15 minutes, why do we think puppies crying are cute but not babies? Because of the ingrained social belief that human babies shouldn’t cry.
Leading paediatric experts believe crying to be a normal part of child developmental. This stage is thought to start around two weeks of age until three months. Again, animal studies have shown that other infant mammals also cry for around the same period. Babies cry for many reasons; physical, social and emotional reasons. They could be tired, hungry, need a nappy change, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, over-stimulated, not stimulated enough, fearful, lonely, in pain, too hot, too cold, unwell etc. Some babies find coming out of the womb very scary; the world is light, loud and cold. Some need more comfort and reassurance to adjust to the change than others.
Previously parents may have been told or advised to leave their babies to cry so they learn to ‘self soothe’. Parents are often misinformed responding to cries too readily will make a needy toddler. Which goes against recommendations of responsive parenting. The terminology of self-sooth and self-settle have been convoluted. They are both commonly used in reference, to sleep and crying but have wildly different meanings. Self-settle is related to sleep. It is the ability to fall back to sleep unaided, a baby may wake slightly after a sleep cycle and can gently fall back to sleep without much intervention from parents. This is a realistic aim if babies feel safe, secure and loved.
Self-sooth is the ability to calm down from crying. When babies are born their automatic nervous system is also very immature. They are highly sensitive to what is happening around them. When they cry the automatic nervous system is thrown off-balance and they release high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Babies need intervention from another human to help balance their nervous system back. Babies need their cries responding to, they need help to calm, they need contact with another human to release oxytocin, the love hormone which reduces cortisol levels. There is an increasing amount of research relating to the effects of high levels of cortisol on a baby’s brain. Research confirms prolonged periods of stress causes high levels of cortisol to be released into the baby’s body, these high levels of cortisol can hinder brain development and damage neurological pathways. When babies are born they cannot self-soothe.
UNICEF (2019) state;
“Holding your baby when he/she is crying helps him to feel loved and secure, even if he doesn’t stop crying straight away. Research shows that babies who are responded to in this way grow into more confident toddlers who are better able to deal with being away from their parents temporarily, rather than becoming clingy and spoilt. This again can help make life less stressful for you.”
Initially understanding why your baby is crying can be difficult, sometimes soothing does not help immediately which can be very upsetting and distressing for parents. However, over time with responsive parenting you will learn their different cries and cues. All babies are different, they are little individuals with their personality types, they feel and experience things in different ways just like adults. Just because a baby needs more reassurance does not mean it is a bad baby and it does not mean you are a failing parent. At three months crying should become less frequent.
I ask myself regularly, how do we change these ingrained attitudes of good baby, bad baby? How do we challenge the norm, social beliefs and behaviours?
We change and challenge this as a community and as a network. We acknowledge that babies cry, we recognize, crying is a baby’s way of communicating and we accept babies crying in public spaces. We then share this knowledge with others around us. My ask of you; when you next see a mum or a dad in public becoming stressed about their babies cries. Please offer them some kindness and warmth and say “it’s ok, today, your baby just has a lot to say”.
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