Once on a television news spot, I was asked to demonstrate infant massage and talk about its benefits. As we hurried to the newsroom, the host said, “I hear you have a way to stop a baby’s screams in one second flat with massage. I hope you can show us that today!”
The baby, a sweet four-month-old with whom I’d had a lovely conversation in the “green room,” took one look at the newscaster and began to cry inconsolably. I did not demonstrate massage because I felt it would betray her feelings to use it as a trick to quiet her (even if it could have, which I doubt). The host concluded that the infant massage gimmick did not work. She was right. As a gimmick, it does not. Unfortunately, this was not the only time I was confronted with this “quick fix” mentality. Many people still think that babies should be seen and not heard.
Why do babies cry so much? Why does it bother adults so much? Why are people so confused about how to respond to a crying infant? As babies, we had few ways beyond crying to express negative feelings and release pent-up stress. Growing up, we learned how to deal with anger, fear, pain and excess energy in many ways; facial expressions, body language, and speech patterns now help us to convey how we feel. When the stresses of living pile up, we can go for a walk, take a vacation, or talk to a friend. Even when we are healthy, we cry from time to time; but we rarely cry in front of others.
We have learned that crying is antisocial and a sign of weakness. This was probably one of our earliest lessons. The idea of “spoiling” came into vogue in the early part of this century. People began to think that they should let babies “cry it out” alone. The rationale was that babies used crying to manipulate parents into gratifying babies’ desires, and that this was an unattractive character trait. Responding to it could only cultivate spoiled, boorish children leading their parents around by the nose. In order to teach babies that crying was unacceptable behavior and to train them for independence early on, they were left alone to cry until they grew hoarse and fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
In the 1970s, a movement away from these earlier infant-rearing practices gained momentum. Many more women began breastfeeding, the front and backpacks were invented, and even baby experts like Dr. T. Berry Brazelton recanted earlier advice not to take a baby into parents’ bed. We finally realized that, like fruit, the only way to spoil a baby is through neglect. Other cultures influenced this change; global communication had become sophisticated enough for us to begin looking more closely at cultures on the other side of the world which had not yet been impaired by so-called modern thinking.
Unfortunately, we had. Mothers who previously might have left baby alone to cry while they felt guilty and tearful in the other room now jumped at baby’s smallest peep. But something remained. Getting the baby to stop crying, or not allowing the baby to cry at all, was still our obsession. There are times when we need to cry. It is a release, and crying in the loving arms of another is often much more so. I believe that babies’ feelings are as deep as ours, that their fears, their sorrows, and their frustrations are not less. From observing hundreds of babies in massage classes and in other cultures, I know that sometimes crying can be a relief for them, and that often after a good cry they are happier, their digestion improves, and they sleep more deeply. This “good cry,” however, is in a loving, supportive atmosphere, where the baby is neither ignored nor hushed. The parent recognizes a cry of hunger or physical pain, or a need for cuddling, and responds appropriately to it.
Many of us brought up in the age of “don’t spoil the baby” have mixed feelings about crying. We get anxious, tense up, want the crying to stop right away. It triggers fear and perhaps a reminder of the anguish (and anger) we may have felt, crying alone in a crib with no response. It can also engender guilt — am I a bad mother if my baby cries?
Our culture reinforces these feelings. Many people are extremely agitated by any noise a baby makes and assail its parent with dour looks at the slightest sound. The embarrassed parent often responds by punishing the baby with loud hisses, apologizing for the baby, and fleeing for the safety of home. Researchers have discovered that we have a built-in response to an infant’s cries. For example, in several experiments, one-day-old infants became distressed upon hearing another infant’s cries, but not upon hearing a synthesized, fake cry or the cry of an older child.
This suggests that the “distress response” is innate.1 How we act upon this distress, however, is determined by cultural factors. Western culture, as it has developed over the last hundreds of years, has systematically reduced our sensitivity to infants’ cues and placed an unnatural distance between parents and babies and between family and community members.2 This split between “nature” and “nurture” has created a vicious cycle of crying babies, sleepless nights, and sometimes, abuse.
Two types of infant rearing can be found in the animal kingdom: the caching, who leave their young for long periods while the mother gathers food, and the carrying species, who keep their young in continuous contact and closely space feedings. Behaviors which characterize the caching species are not found in humans. The babies must remain silent for long periods of time while the mother is absent, so as not to attract predators. They do not urinate or defecate unless stimulated by the mother, for the scent would attract predators in her absence. In addition, the young have internal mechanisms that control their body temperature. The mother’s milk is extremely high in protein and fat content due to the length of time between feedings, and the infants suckle at a very fast rate. Humans are in every way the opposite, much closer to the continuous-feeding, carrying mammals. Human milk, in fact, is identical in protein and fat content to that of the anthropoid apes, a carrying species. Human babies suckle slowly, and they cry when distressed or out of contact with the parent.3
Konner’s, Brazelton’s, and Mead’s observations and studies of several non-industrialized cultures showed virtually continuous contact between mother and baby. Cultural patterns characterized by close mother-infant contact and prolonged breastfeeding also fostered a highly developed sensitivity to baby signals and subtle cues, such as body movements and facial expressions, that precede crying. This does not mean, however, that babies in these cultures
never cry. While they rarely cried during the day, it was quite common for infants to cry for long periods in the evening.4 Adults knew this was release crying and allowed it. As Sandy Jones says in Crying Babies, Sleepless Nights, “There’s a difference between not responding and responding and allowing, in which you’ve used your judgment about what your baby seems to need.” People in these cultures, because of their own experience of responsive parenting and a strong social support system, are quite able to automatically and naturally discriminate between a baby’s distressed crying out for help and other kinds of communication. The baby’s cry rarely pushes the parent into egoistic impulses.
Egoism and Altruism
Researchers have found that people respond to babies’ cries in either an egoistic or an altruistic manner. Egoistic responses are characterized by agitation and concern with self; one wants to stop the baby’s crying because it is aggravating. Altruistic responses are characterized by empathic discomfort; one wants to alleviate the baby’s suffering. Egoism and altruism are fostered by both biology and culture. Maternal hormones, such as prolactin, have been shown to be a factor in an altruistic response to infant crying; these hormones are elevated by extended contact and breastfeeding.5 Our culture, in many ways, encourages and cultivates egoism. We have isolated people more and more over the last several generations. Thus, the social support network for most new parents is nonexistent. The demands of our economy and our social values motivate both parents to provide financial income, often at the cost of increased stress for parents and infants.
Social Support Crucial to the Parent-Infant Bond
Studies reveal that the social support network is very closely related to the security of the parent infant bond. A lack of external support can distance parents from their babies and thus threaten the baby’s healthy development. Babies who are “high need” — colicky, hypersensitive criers — are especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect in situations where parents are suffering marital or financial difficulties. A good social support system can mitigate problems between baby and parent. Unresponsive mothers, who are given a lot of support, help, encouragement and physical affection can become responsive to their babies, and babies who have a lot of contact with loving friends, grandparents, and caregivers are not as affected by difficulties in the mother-infant attachment6 The philosophies of the behaviorists in the early part of the last century spawned several generations of people who lacked the basic security of a strong parental bond. We, and many of our parents and grandparents, grew up concerned with our own security above all; the anxious attachment created by the anti-spoiling atmosphere of infancy could only bring about self-concern.
Responsiveness Reduces Crying
The result of this culturally promoted egoism is an overall lack of responsiveness to babies, which fosters more crying. Bell and Ainsworth’s studies showed that not responding properly to babies’ cries in the first six months actually increases the frequency of crying and distress in the next six months and later.8 Battering is an egoistic response. According to Steele and Pollack’s work, abusing parents (often the victims of abuse themselves) frequently have extreme views about spoiling and independence training — views handed down and culturally reinforced — which contribute to their baby’s distress, thus further agitating the already stressed parent.9 In addition, these views inhibit close contact, carrying, and breastfeeding, thus lowering the chances of hormonal support fro sympathetic responses.
It does little good to recoil in shock at the statistics on battered children when our entire cultural set-up actually creates this behavior. Battering is an extreme example; almost all of us are caught in this cycle in one way or another. Most new parents in our culture periodically experience high levels of stress, regardless of their philosophies. Who has not had thoughts of “throwing the baby out the window” or fears of losing control and shaking or screaming at a crying baby?
How Can We Heal the Split?
Like all of us, babies have many different reasons for crying. Unfortunately, we have lost much of our capacity to intuit their thoughts and feelings. Most people are able to recognize a sharp cry of pain, but our interpretation of other cries and fusses are filtered through the veil of our own insecurities and projections.10 It may be easier to adopt a mechanistic philosophy, whereby one always responds in the same way — either ignoring or hushing. But babies are not interested in philosophy and are unable to attend to their parent’s (or anyone else’s) comfort. To begin to get a more centered awareness, observe yourself when your baby (or someone else’s) cries. When you understand your reactions, you will be able to begin to understand the baby. Notice what a crying baby stimulates for you. Breathe deeply, relax your body, perhaps think of an affirmation such as “I release fear and tension, and go with love to comfort my baby.” If it is someone else’s baby crying, imagine that it is you and picture yourself, as an adult, soothing yourself as an infant. In my seminars, I use an exercise that helps people (not only parents) identify the feelings and reactions:
The next time you hear a baby cry, jot down the images and feelings that come into your mind. Circle each word or phrase, and connect it with others. Each word will suggest another, then another. Continue doing this until it feels complete. Now, using this “map,” compose a short poem or paragraph. What does your poem tell you about yourself? Sometimes people find that the anguish they hear in a baby’s cry is really their own. When you let go of this fear, you can hear what the baby is really saying.
It is not necessary to overanalyze yourself or your baby. Just take some time to think about how you respond to your baby’s cues. Eventually you will find the intuitive bond growing between you and your baby, and your confidence in understanding his or her needs increasing day by day. Dr. William Sears, author of The Fussy Baby, advises parents to picture several response buttons on their “internal computer.” “If your baby cries and you push the right response button,” he says, “there is an inner feeling of rightness about your response.” Daily massage can be an aid in this process, because it helps you to literally keep in touch with your baby’s body language and nonverbal signals. Changing our society begins at home. Even so, there are opportunities to influence the culture beyond our own doorstep. We can help grandparents, friends, and prospective parents gain an awareness of babies’ needs. We can make an effort to provide support and encouragement to friends with new babies. We can also model consideration of babies at social functions and in public.
I was standing in line at a department store, and a baby in a stroller began to cry. Several people nearby became uncomfortable, some scowled and whispered. The baby’s mother picked him up and turned with a warm smile to the others standing in line. “He has a lot to say!” she shouted. Instantly, everyone smiled and relaxed. One woman reached over and patted the baby. Forcing babies to “cry it out,” hushing babies’ cries by stopping up their mouths, and letting babies cry “cathartically” can all be excuses for not taking the time to listen to what they have to say. There is no quick fix. A good parent — a good culture — must go through the sometimes difficult process of responding to babies’ cues individually, with compassion and with common sense.
- A. Sagi and M. Hoffman, “Empathic Distress in the Newborn,” Developmental Psychology 12 (1976): 175-176; and M. Simner, “Newborn’s
Response to the Cry of Another Infant,” Developmental Psychology 5 *1971): 135-150.
- A. Murray, “Infant Crying as an Elicitor of Parental Behavior,” Psychological Bulletin 86 (`979): 200- 201, 211.
- N. Burton-Jones, “Comparative Aspects of Mother-Child Contract.” In Ethological Studies of child Behavior (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972).
- T. Brazelton, “Crying in Infancy,” Pediatrics 29 (1962): 579-588; I. Devore and M. Konner, “Infancy in a Hunter-Gatherer Life: An Ethological Perspective,” in Ethology and Psychiatry (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1974) ; M. Konner, “Aspects of a Developmental Ethology of Foraging People,” in Ethological Studies of Child Behavior (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972); and M. Mead and N. Newton, “Cultural Patterning of Perinatal Behavior,” in Childbearing; Its Social and Psychological Aspect (Baltimore, MD: Williams and Williams, 1967).
- A. Murray, “Infant Crying as an Elicitor of Parental Behavior,” Psychological bulletin 86 (1979): 204-208.
- S. Crockenberg, “Infant Irritability, Mother Responsiveness, and social Support Influences in the Security of Infant Mother Attachment,” Child Development 52 (1981): 855-865.
- A. Lieberman, “Preschooler’s Competence with a Peer: Relations with Attachment and Peer Experience,” Child Development 48 (1977): 1277-1287: and L. Matas, R. Arend, and L. Stroufe, “Continuity in Adaptation: quality of Attachment and Later Competence,” Child Development 49 (1978): 547-556.
- S. Bell and M. Ainsworth, “Infant Crying and Maternal Responsiveness,” Child Development 43 (1972): 1171-1190.
- B. Steele and C. Pollock, “A Psychiatric Study of Parents Who Abuse Infants and Small Children.” In The Battered Child (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
- M. Sherman, “Differentiation of Emotional Responses in Infant: The Ability of Observers to Judge the Emotional Characteristics of Crying in Infants,” Journal of comparative Psychology 7 (1927): 335-351.
For More Information
Jones, Sandy. Crying Babies, Sleepless Nights. New York: Warner Books, 1983.
McClure, Vimala. Infant Massage, A Handbook for Loving Parents. New York: Random House/Bantam Books, 1979, 1982, 1989. 2000, 2017.
Sears, William, MD. The Fussy Baby: How to Bring Out the Best in Your High Need Child. Franklin Park, IL: La Leche League International, 1985.