There are lots of things that parents are told today that drive me nuts. Ranging from the ridiculous notion that leaving a baby to cry will teach them self-soothing (it may get them to be quiet and sleep, but it is definitely not self-soothing) to the equally wrong idea that we need to teach our kids they aren’t the centre of the universe by ignoring them, these ideas centre on one premise that needs to be addressed: Babies will sometimes cry for no good reason.
I’ve heard people explicitly tell mothers that if they know the baby isn’t hungry or in pain or tired or in need of a diaper change that their babies’ cries don’t mean anything and they can ignore them. This fallacy (yes, it is a fallacy) is the basis for most of the non-responsive parenting techniques that get advocated for today. Sometimes it’s so an expert can sell a book, but sometimes it even comes from the most well-meaning of programs aiming to reduce things like infant abuse or shaken baby syndrome. Regardless of the source, though, the message remains wrong.
And it has to stop.
Every time a baby cries, he or she is trying to communicate. There is no time in which babies just cry for the heck of it. There really, honest-to-goodness isn’t.
But my baby isn’t visibly hurt and is clothed, fed and has a clean diaper!
Somewhere along the line, someone (I wish I knew who) seemed to decide that these are the only reasons a baby might cry and if your baby is crying after you’ve checked for injury, fed them, changed them, and made sure they are warm enough then your baby is just crying for the heck of it. Perhaps they’ll argue your baby is “overtired” and therefore the best thing you can do is just leave him/her alone. What these people will not tell you is that there are many other reasons your baby may be crying all of which are entirely valid.
Just because you can’t see it or don’t know doesn’t make it not real.
Unfortunately there are lots of reasons that your baby may be in pain and crying without it being visible to the naked eye. For example,
- Babies teeth and experience teething pain before the emergence of a tooth and not all babies show the same teething signs (e.g., putting things in the mouth, drooling, etc.) meaning parents may only have the cry to go on;
- Babies can have silent reflux which means they do not vomit regularly (as with regular reflux) but rather experience a lot of pain every time they eat;
- Babies are frequently exposed to foods they have sensitivities to such as dairy, wheat, and soy either via formula or mom’s breastmilk (from her ingesting it) which can cause gassiness and stomach cramps, often referred to as colic;
- Babies experience many growth spurts and these are all painful and while many of us don’t remember these now, some individuals experienced them when they were older and can attest to how awful it is;
- Babies can have an undiagnosed tongue tie which can inhibit feeding and mean a baby is crying from hunger pain even though s/he seems to be eating regularly; or
- Babies can experience sleep apnea in which they stop breathing for periods and upon being able to breathe again will often cry from panic and possible pain.
There are also other reasons besides pain that babies will cry to communicate that won’t necessarily be apparent to us right away:
- Babies get scared from something in the environment, from a bad dream, from any number of things that are scary to young ones that we take for granted;
- Babies experience separation anxiety which is very common and very frustrating for parents, but it is in this period that babies are learning that their caregivers will be there for them when they need it;
- Babies get overstimulated in today’s environment – in fact, one hypothesis is that the “twilight cry” that often happens regularly at night is a product of babies being in a modern environment with more stimulation than they have evolved to handle and as such they cry out of stress; and
- Babies cry when they are too hot or too cold and unfortunately many parents layer babies according to how they feel and have to learn to read their own child’s temperature (for example, I am consistently cold whereas my daughter is the opposite and when she was a baby I had to work hard to overcome my desire to overdress her because I was feeling cold).
As you can see, many of these things that cause crying are things that are not always apparent to parents right away. As such, it can seem like baby is crying “for no reason”, but really we need to think of it as “we haven’t figured out the reason yet”.
So what is the problem?
The real problem as I see it is that parents expect that they need to be able to understand what every cry means and be able to stop it. When we fail at this, it is incredibly heart-wrenching and frustrating because the cry has evolved to stimulate us to action. In these situations, the easiest thing to believe is that the cry means “nothing” so therefore they can feel okay about not being able to fix what’s wrong and in many cases, walk away from the crying baby. The feelings of helplessness that parents feel at this time lead to anger, frustration, and sometimes a lashing out at the baby for not “cooperating” by not crying. This is why we see the notion that “babies cry for no reason” as part of campaigns to stop shaken baby syndrome: Letting parents off the hook for not responding to a baby who doesn’t settle will hopefully lead them to avoid frustration. The problem is that there’s a lot of questions about whether this is effective in the short-term or long-term.
In the short-term, research that I got to listen to at the last conference for the Society of Research in Child Development looked at a state-wide implementation of a program to reduce shaken baby syndrome which included the idea that if you have checked all you can check, that baby is crying “for no reason” and it’s okay to put them down and walk away. Now, before I continue, let me say that I believe if you are at risk of hurting your baby, you absolutely without doubt need to walk away, but I question if people are prematurely walking away because they now believe there’s nothing they can do. Regardless, this research found that there was no decrease (and in fact an increase, though that is likely due to other environmental factors such as the declining economy) from the implementation of the program.
In the long-term, we have to ask if this mental schema that parents have about their babies helps them communicate and be responsive and if it helps them feel efficacious in their parenting. The idea that babies’ cries mean nothing can lead parents to believe that they need not listen to them all the time; it shuts down that communication and in turn, that responsiveness. I also believe it leads parents to feel less competent at parenting in general as they are basically told that there is nothing they can do to help their babies which is reinforced when they put baby down and walk away.
What’s the solution then?
Let me propose the following: What if parents knew that even if they couldn’t stop the crying at that moment, that their responsiveness, their belief in your child’s cry actually meant your child did not experience a flood of cortisol and that their child is less likely to cry in the long-term? Both of these things are true[i]. Parents who are responsive to their babies cry regardless of how successful they are at stopping it dampen and can even prevent the cortical stress response from happening. This is why it is incredibly hard to get a cortical stress response after two months of age in research paradigms: Babies are often tested during events like inoculations where they have a caregiver holding them and comforting them. (Notably, this should speak strongly about the findings by Dr. Middlemiss and colleagues which found extremely high stress responses in a sample of infants undergoing cry-it-out sleep training.) Furthermore, the more responsive a parent is to their child’s cry, the less the child cries as time passes.
Would parents be more comfortable not knowing why their baby is crying if they knew they were still having a positive impact on their child by simply holding them while they experience distress? That they can take their time to try and determine what is causing the crying by looking at the possible reasons and noting the times and events surrounding the crying while still providing comfort? Or simply allow parents whose children have health problems that cannot be fixed in the moment realize that they can still offer the comfort that is incredibly important to their child’s well-being during an otherwise stressful time?
I for one believe they would. I believe we would instill a sense a feeling of efficacy at those times when the crying just doesn’t seem to end. I believe this would allow parents to approach all areas of parenting with a greater understanding of their child, of how to listen to their child to help them, and to realize that they don’t need to be perfect to be helpful. I also believe it would highlight a lesson in parenting which is often lost in today’s society: The most important thing you can do as a parent is simply be there.
Our babies don’t cry for no reason. We may not know the reason and we may not be able to stop the crying at a given moment, but it does not mean we are helpless or cannot help them. All we need to do is make sure we are there for them.
[i] For a full discussion and myriad citations, see http://evolutionaryparenting.com/my-baby-cries-too/ and http://evolutionaryparenting.com/educating-the-experts-lesson-one-crying/