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

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How should we respond to cries?

Here's an article by Ingrid Bauer

Loving Responses to Baby's Cries

By Ingrid Bauer

Not knowing why your baby is crying or how to respond can be one of the most difficult times any new parent faces. No matter what you've been told about spoiling or not responding to every cry, your whole body and instincts tell you to help. Now! That intense feeling is perfectly natural. It is part of an optimal nurturing system to help assure that babies have their needs met.
Here's how it works: if the vital needs of a baby aren't responded to promptly and adequately, the baby may attempt to communicate with a few more sounds or body signals. If these still do not relieve the problem, an alarm system kicks in. Everyone within earshot hears about it. Those cries are meant to get attention and response. Quickly!
Rarely, however, are they the first indication that something needs to be addressed. Except in cases of sudden fright or physical pain, crying is often a last resort. It indicates that earlier communication hasn't been understood or responded to in a satisfying way. That's why it feels so heartrending when you don't understand what your baby is trying to communicate.
Parents who practice a natural attached style of infant-care have a distinct advantage in responding to a baby's needs fully. Babies who are breastfed, are carried in-arms and have frequent or constant contact with their mother's bodies feel satisfied, secure, and content. In turn, this strengthens the parent's confidence, pleasure, and responsiveness. Studies have shown that these infants are more likely to have their subtle signals heeded, and cry less. Even when these babies cry, they do so in the loving arms of a parent who is doing their utmost to understand and help.
It's clear that babies are not the passive beings they were once believed to be. They are absorbing and processing new stimuli and sensory information moment by moment. They are also signalling in both subtle and not so subtle ways throughout the day, trying to communicate to their caregivers exactly what they need, when. When babies cries and signals are not answered At first, it's difficult to understand all the nuances of a baby's language. Yet when we listen closely, the signals become loud and clear. We soon learn that this snuffle means "I'm hungry", that look means "There's too much noise", and that squirm means "I need to poop".
What's hard then, is to overcome our cultural conditioning, which often denies these infantile needs, and to respond promptly. When parents are not responsive to their babies, this is usually because they themselves were not adequately responded to in infancy. As we learn compassion for our children, we simultaneously give ourselves the gift of compassion and gentleness on our journey.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), nature also has an emergency back-up plan when a baby's signals and urgent cries are consistently ignored. Biological design protects the baby from experiencing an extended, acute state of stress that taxes the adrenals and immune system. The body opts instead for a state of withdrawal and self-preservation.
The needs do not go away. They just become secondary to basic physical and emotional survival. In her fascinating and well-researched book Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent (Anchor, 1998), anthropology professor Meredith Small writes, "When signals are missed, babies stop signalling; they withdraw; they suck their thumbs; they turn away; they try to right the system themselves by not sending out any more signals." The baby protects herself by shutting down, and "accepts" the situation because she has learned that a response is not forthcoming.
We've been led to believe that this is more "convenient" and easier in the short term from the adult's point of view. After all, it seems to "work": the baby eventually stops crying. That partially explains the popularity and usually well-intentioned use of such nighttime techniques as "Ferberizing" or "crying it out". But for the baby (and in the long run for all concerned) the results can be potentially life-long and detrimental. When mothers are generally unresponsive or lack empathy, Small writes, babies "are more likely to exhibit negative responses and the attachment process does not go well. It is reasonable to predict that babies developing in such a system will not fare well in other interpersonal interactions."
As well, mothers who don't nurture this strong attachment with their infants are missing out on one of the greatest pleasures in life. As we nourish our babies at our breasts, we are given the gifts of increased intimacy, lasting convenience, enjoyment, and confidence that our babies' needs are being optimally met. We carry them next to our hearts throughout the day. Through the night we sleep with them next to our skin, their warm milky breath caressing our cheek. We're well aware that we do all this for our babies. May we remember that in the process we are also giving abundantly to ourselves.

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