I am a social worker and parent in Australia concerned about the western practice of a method called 'controlled crying' that is used on infants to get them to sleep. This blog talks about the use of this method and other parenting methods. Search all the information on this site to be better informed about the practice of controlled crying. For any comments or questions, my email is

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Baby Cries: How Should Parents Respond?

by Jan Hunt, M.Sc.

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.
The Natural Child Project

Ten Reasons to Respond to a Crying Child
By Jan Hunt, M.Sc.

1. A baby's first attempts to communicate cannot be in words, but can only be nonverbal. She cannot put happy feelings into words, but she can smile. She cannot put sad or angry feelings into words, but she can cry. If her smiles receive a response, but crying is ignored, she can receive the harmful message that she is loved and cared for only when she is happy. Children who continue to get this message through the years cannot feel truly loved and accepted.
2. If a child's attempts to communicate sadness or anger are routinely ignored, he cannot learn how to express those feelings in words. Crying must receive an appropriate and positive response so that the child sees that all of his feelings are accepted. If his feelings are not accepted, and crying is ignored or punished, he receives the message that sadness and anger are unacceptable, no matter how they are expressed. It is impossible for a child to understand that expression of sadness or anger might be accepted in appropriate words once he is older and able to use those words. A child can only communicate in ways available to him at a given time; a child can only accomplish what he has had a chance to learn. Every child is doing his best, according to his age, experience, and present circumstances. It is surely unfair to punish a child for not doing more than he can do.
3. A child who has been given the message that her parents will only respond to her when she is "good" will begin to hide "bad" behavior and "bad" feelings from others, and even from herself. She may become an adult who submerges "bad" emotions and is unable to communicate the full range of human feelings. Indeed, there are many adults who find it difficult to express anger, sadness, or other "bad" feelings in an appropriate way.
4. Anger that cannot be expressed in early childhood does not simply disappear. It becomes repressed and builds up over the years, until the child is unable to contain it any longer, and is old enough to have lost his fear of physical punishment. When this container of anger is finally thrown open, the parents can be shocked and perplexed. They have forgotten the hundreds or thousands of moments of frustration which have been filling this container over the years. The psychological principle that "frustration leads to aggression" is never more clearly seen than in the final rebellion of a teenager. Parents should be helped to understand how frustrating it can be for a child to feel "invisible" when crying is ignored, or to feel helpless and discouraged when his attempts to express his needs and feelings are ignored or punished.
5. We are all born knowing that each and every feeling we have is legitimate. We gradually lose that belief if only our "good" side brings a positive response. This is a tragedy, because it is only when we fully accept ourselves and others, regardless of mistakes, that we can have truly loving relationships. If we are not fully loved and accepted in childhood, we may never learn how that feels or how to communicate that acceptance to others, no matter how much therapy or reading or thinking we may do. How much easier our lives would be if we had simply received unconditional love throughout our early years!
6. Parents wondering whether to respond to crying might give some thought to their own responses in similar situations. Parents may consider it appropriate to ignore a child's cries, yet feel intensely angry if their partner ignores attempts to have a conversation. Many in our society seem to believe that a person must be a certain age before he has the right to be heard. Yet what age would that be? Infants and children are not any less a person just because they are small and helpless. If anything, the more helpless someone is, the more they deserve to have our compassion. attention, and assistance.
7. If children are taught by example that helpless persons deserve to be ignored, they can lose the compassion for others that all humans are born with. If, as helpless infants, their cries are ignored, they begin to believe that this is the appropriate response to those who are weaker than themselves, and that "might makes right". Without compassion, the stage is set for later violence. Those who wonder why a violent criminal had no compassion for his victims need to consider where he lost that compassion. Compassion does not disappear overnight. It is stolen, through unresponsive or punitive parenting, drop by drop, until it is gone. Loss of compassion is the greatest tragedy that can befall a child.
8. When a child learns by her parents' example that it is appropriate to ignore a child's cries, she will naturally treat her own child the same way, unless there is some intervention from others. Inadequate parenting continues through the generations until fortunate circumstances come about to change this pattern. How much easier it is for a parent to have learned in childhood how to treat his or her own child! Perhaps the cycle of inadequate parenting can begin to change when bystanders no longer walk past an anguished child without stopping to help. This may be the first time the child has been given the message that her feelings are legitimate and important, and this critical message may be remembered later when she herself has a child.
9. Crying is a signal provided by nature that is meant to disturb the parents so that the child's needs will be met. Ignoring a child's cries is like ignoring the warning signal of a smoke detector because we find it disturbing. This signal is meant to disturb us so that we can attend to an important matter. Only a deaf person would ignore a smoke detector, yet many parents turn a deaf ear to a child's cries. Crying, like the detector signal, is meant to capture our attention so that we can attend to the important needs of the child. It just makes no sense to think that nature would have provided all children with a routinely used signal that serves no good purpose.
10. Parents who respond only to "good" behavior may believe they are training the child to behave "better". Yet they themselves feel most like cooperating with those who treat them with kindness. It is as though children are seen as a different species, operating on different principles of behavior. This makes no sense, because it would be impossible to identify a moment when the child suddenly changes to "adult" operating principles. The truth is much simpler: children are human beings who behave on the same principles as all other human beings. Like the rest of us, they respond best to kindness, patience and understanding. Parents wondering why a child is "misbehaving" might stop and ask themselves this question: "Do I feel like cooperating when someone treats me well, or when someone treats me the way I have just treated my child?"

Jan has some interesting views.
Someone in my family was 'controlled cried' and had terrible headbanging at night later in his life. He was pushed into a room and left to cry for 15 minutes as a newborn, when he woke for a feed at night. I'm not saying this is definately why he had other sleep problems later, but it's just interesting that this happened in my family.

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