Babies cry. It’s really no surprise to anyone who has had a child or been in the vicinity of a child, and yet if you read articles on crying and how parents should react, we find ourselves presented with two very distinct camps. On one hand, we have those who propose responding to babies’ and children’s cries, under the belief that this is how they communicate and that their distress is telling us something. On the other, we have individuals (often baby “experts”) who tell us that babies will “cry for no reason”, that you can leave children or babies to cry and it will not harm them at all; in short, they don’t put much stock in the value of the cry, or at least argue that you can ignore these cries sometimes or even often in order to “teach” children lessons about the world.
If you’ve read anything on this site before, you know I am firmly planted in the former category of responsive parenting. There is simply nothing in science, history, instinct, evolution, or common sense that suggests we ought not to take our babies’ cries seriously. However, one of the topics that arises frequently when talking about responding to crying is the “stress release cry”, or the idea that babies need to cry to release stress. Some believe this is antithetical to responsive parenting because it suggests there is nothing parents can do to stop the crying, yet responsive parenting advocates often experience and understand stress-release crying in their children. I have noticed, though, that once you bring up stress-release crying, you hit a few snags in how people interpret this and how it influences their parenting. As such, there are a couple things I’d like to address when it comes to stress-release crying so parents know how to handle this type of crying as a responsive parent.
[Additional note: Stress-release crying is VERY different from crying-in-arms when a parent is refusing to meet a specific need, like a feed. If you are actively avoiding providing your child with the type of response that calm your baby then we don't know if the being "in arms" is actually reducing the stress. We hope it does minimize it because there is a level of comfort there, but there is also the problem that you are preventing your baby from comfort. As your child ages, there will be moments this happens - especially when the distress is over wants like cookies, tv shows, etc. - but as a baby, the needs are very simple and your baby is trying to communicate with you. Pay attention.]
Children Should Not Be Left Alone for Stress-Release Crying
As soon as some parents hear about stress-release crying, they take it as license to leave their child be during this period of what is supposed to be a supported calming down stage, even though no one who speaks of this type of cry suggests it’s the right thing to do. The idea that the baby is “just releasing stress” seems to signal to these parents that it’s okay to put baby down and walk away. This completely ignores the role of crying-in-arms and the mitigating effect it has on stress. If you are not offering comfort to your child, you are not mitigating the stress and the crying is likely adding to the stress your baby is experiencing. I have written on my own experience with my daughter needing some stress release cries and the science surrounding the mitigating effect of cortisol when a child is supported while crying and I won’t repeat myself here except to say there is a lot of evidence that supporting our children while they cry is essential to their well-being during this time of stress. This is why crying-in-arms is one way to actually respond to your baby who is upset and give her what is needed during this period of crying, even if it doesn’t stop the crying.
But my baby falls asleep after without me so she must be fine! Let me ask you some questions: When you’ve been exhausted from crying – even if your crying was never supported – do you not collapse into a sleep after? Is it a good sleep? How do you feel about the individuals around you who left you to experience that distress alone? Simply because a baby falls asleep after crying for five minutes or twenty minutes does not mean that baby doesn’t need some level of support during this period of stress release. In fact, the way the cry ends may be categorically different (physiologically-speaking) when this stress-release cry is supported or unsupported.
But my baby gets more upset if I pick him up! Some babies do get upset at touch when they are upset and this becomes particularly noticeable as children age and start exerting independence. However, this does not mean that you cannot support your child during this period of calming down. “Crying-in-arms” does suggest a baby should be “in arms”, I get it, but the fact is that you have to be aware of your child and if your baby doesn’t want to be in your arms you need to put them down and be there with them to offer verbal comfort, some touch if they will take it, and to be there in case they change what they are willing to accept.
One thing that I ask people to consider if they have a baby (not an angry toddler exerting independence as this is developmentally normal) that is refusing touch is: Why? Physiologically speaking, this shouldn’t be common at all and certainly not as common as it seems to be based on the amount of times I hear parents pull this nugget out. There are a few obvious reasons this might be the case. First, if you have a highly sensitive child (and you will know this because things like touch and noises will be difficult at all times, not just when upset), the stimulation of touch may be too much and just being present is enough to help calm them. Second, you yourself are so upset that physiologically you’re passing on even more stress to your infant and they are trying to get away from that. You must remember that to calm an infant, you yourself need to have a level of calm about you as well. Finally, you are not a source of comfort to your child when they are upset. The main cause is insecure attachment and sadly just over 40% of babies in modern American society are insecurely attached. The way to built up attachment is to be responsive to your child’s distress and if you have been leaving your child or responding mixed (there sometimes, angry others), your child will not see you as someone who can provide comfort. Unfortunately with the type of parenting that is often advocated for in our society, responsiveness is not high on the list and parents – even parents who mean so well – can end up with children who are insecurely attached, especially if they have a child who is more sensitive to their environment than others (see here for a discussion of high needs children).
Stress-Release Crying Should Not Happen Every Day
One of the biggest problems I have is reading or hearing from parents who are sure their child just needs to release stress at the end of the day, every day. Often this is accompanied by leaving the child alone at the end of the day to fall asleep after this bought of “stress-release crying” but that part has been covered.
As I have already acknowledged the role of stress-release crying for infants, it isn’t that infants may not exhibit this type of stress-release crying each night, but rather that if they are, parents are failing to take note of what may be causing it and working to address that. If you are telling everyone that your child needs this cry each night, you are acknowledging that every single day your child is getting so stressed and lacking the support or ability to cope with it that it cumulates in this type of behaviour each night. If you, as an adult, came home every day that stressed, you’d be bugged by family and friends and doctors to get help and decrease your stress levels because we know how awful that type of repeated stress is for the human body. Especially the developing human body.
But how can I figure that out – it could be anything?! Yes it could be anything; however, there are things to start with that may be more likely than others. First, is over-stimulation during the day can be a key culprit. If your child is spending a lot of time in noisy or brightly lit places it may be too much; even having the TV or radio on constantly in the background can be stressful for some infants. Making sure there’s enough down time, quiet time, is essential. If your child is in a daycare, you may want to make sure that the environment there isn’t stressing your baby out and if you think it’s too much, ask the caregivers what they can do to help calm your little one.
Second, your baby is not getting enough touch. Touch is so critical to babies as we adults help regulate them physiologically; their system is immature and many of the regulatory functions we have for coping with stimulation and stress, they lack, and so it is us who helps calm them. Making sure your baby is spending much of the day in arms can help them cope with the usual stressors in the day that may be too much for them to handle on their own. This is where babywearing for periods each day can help your infant: The proximity to a caregiver, especially one to whom the child is attached, helps keep the baby feeling safe and secure. Furthermore, wearing your baby also helps you to be more in tune with your child, picking up on stress when it first starts which can help you identify the sources of your infants’ stress.
Third, food may be a culprit. Infant guts are rather sensitive and many foods can cause an infant to feel upset by the end of the day. Many times families with children who have food sensitivities, intolerances, or allergies find nighttime to be one of the worst times for crying and discomfort. Notably, babies who haven’t started solids are still susceptible. Breastmilk contains elements of what mom has eaten so if a baby is, for example, sensitive to gluten or dairy and mom has eaten it, the baby will have a reaction. Similarly, some of the ingredients in formula can cause even stronger reactions as the babies ingest it directly. You may want to consider an elimination diet if you feel diet is an issue for your child.
Regardless of the cause, as a parent it is your job to try and discover what it is so that your child doesn’t need to experience this level of distress day-in and day-out. It may take time – and this is why being there to support your child during this time is critical – but you owe it to your child to figure it out and help them. Responsiveness includes trying to prevent stress when possible and though we can’t eliminate stress for our children, we can try to eliminate unnecessary stress.
Stress-release crying is real. Many infants will have to have this type of cry periodically as the world can be a stressful place. The issue, from a parent’s perspective, is not only how we respond to them in that moment, but how we work to minimize unnecessary stress so they don’t experience this distress on a regular basis, even if you think they need it to learn how to cope in the “real world”. As the always gentle and kind L.R. Knost said, “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” That is what responsiveness does.