Why It's Important To Respond To Infant Crying

In an age of cell phones and e-mail, it seems parenting has centered around parent-convenience rather than baby's needs and natural parental instincts. As a result, baby myths endure the passage of time. Writer Céline V O'Neill shares some thoughts about responding to infant cries and why it's important.
Celine V. O'Neill

Flawed advice
It's in the media, it's in the office, it's at play dates; constant, well-meant, but often flawed advice. "You should not carry your baby all the time," "you're spoiling her; you must let your baby cry-it-out," "You have to show the baby who's in charge." My personal favorite: "Crying is good for their lungs."

People will give you this advice to say it's OK to leave your baby to cry while you do other things, it's OK to give up trying to figure out what's wrong with your baby. They'll tell you it's healthy for your baby to cry. Babies need to learn to be by themselves. Babies need to cry. Sure, sometimes we all need a good cry -- we're stressed and need a release -- but wouldn't it be nicer if when you broke down in tears your husband came and held you and comforted you rather than ignored you? Our babies feel the same way. Most often, baby cries because of a need or desire -- and crying is their only way to express themselves for many months.

Sheila Kitzinger, social anthropologist of birth and a leading authority on pregnancy and motherhood, says, "We are biologically programmed to respond to a baby's cry. It is a basic survival strategy, and it means that the baby needs help. A cry can mean, 'Feed me!', 'I'm lonely', 'I'm over-tired and want help to get to sleep', 'I'm in pain, and please do something about it,' 'I'm soaking wet and need changing', or even 'I've been over stimulated, leave me alone.'

It can take some time for a new mother to learn what her baby's cries mean, but it is an important mothering skill." Rachel Punturiero, mother to five-month-old Gage, says, "The nurses at the hospital told me that 'It's good for his lungs.'"

She didn't like that advice, nor did she follow it. "During the nine months of my pregnancy, I read a lot, most of the magazines and books that are more current told me that you cannot spoil a newborn, and I believe that," she says. "Now that my son and I know each other pretty well, he not only does not cry so much, when he does, I can pretty easily figure out what he needs. I never leave him crying, there is always some reason why he's upset. Even if he just wants to be cuddled."

Hold your baby
After you've examined the long list of possible causes for your infant's crying and he still won't stop, it's OK to hold him, to give him the security of your presence he needs -- and is asking for the only way he can. While babies do sometimes need to cry, they should not be left to cry alone. Kitzinger explains the very fact that you are trying to stop them from crying shows them you care, and this is a very important message -- and the basis of security in later life.

If you ignore your baby's cry -- because that's the advice you were given -- you are teaching your baby he can't always count on you -- and you are training yourself to be desensitized to your child's cry, promoting detachment instead of attachment.

Dr Bruce Taubman, pediatrician and author of Why is My Baby Crying, says ignoring the baby's cries makes them feel "insecure about the environment, and they become very insecure."

Citing a study on maternal-infant bonding -- which examined psychologically healthy kids and what contributes to that versus clingy children, he explained babies who are cuddled are more secure, and "parents who ignore their infant's cries are promoting abnormal attachment."

What about claims that picking up a baby every time it cries is spoiling it? Kitzinger disagrees, saying babies are spoiled by not responding, the baby "can go on making that noise and nothing is going to happen. It's as if the whole world is unresponsive -- the baby can scream and scream and no one is going to notice. One of the important things we teach our children are caring and tenderness -- we teach them that by how we treat them."

Julie Moriarty, mother of two-year old Hannah and three-month old Rebecca, said "I am a firm believer that babies are just small people, and like all people, when they cry it is for a reason. It is their only way to communicate at that point in their lives and it is my responsibility as their mother to ease their way as much as I can."

As a nursing mother can tell you, when her baby cries, she often has a physical response. Moriarty explains "whenever the girls cried as newborns, I could immediately feel my heart start to beat faster and I'd get an adrenaline rush. If it was near feeding time and the cry was a 'hungry cry', I could feel the let-down sensation in my chest and I would rush to get in nursing position before I started leaking."

Designed to respond
Our bodies have been designed to respond to our baby's cries. It's natural -- and healthy -- to comfort your child when she's crying -- even when there seems to be no cause. It reassures them we love them, and we will always be there for them -- even when they are not being cute and adorable.

Responding immediately to your baby's cries has long-term benefits as well. Researchers found that infants whose cries are promptly answered in the first six months of life cry less frequently and for shorter duration, for the next six months and beyond, than babies who are not responded to as quickly.

As for crying being healthy for baby's lungs? Kitzinger and Taubman both agree the advice is "stupid and inappropriate." In her book, Crying Baby, Sleepless Nights, Sandy Jones elaborates, "The real truth is that crying is hard on a baby, and it uses up his limited resources. Although young babies can't help crying, you can tell it is self-punishing behavior. When a baby's cries aren't stopped, his arms and legs tighten, his mouth gets dry, his lips start to turn blue, his lungs probably ache, his blood pressure goes up, the veins in his head may swell and even break, and his blood oxygen level starts to go down, not up."

Don't listen to the well-meant but misguided advice you receive that it's OK to let your baby cry. Only you are your baby's mother, follow your intuition -- pick up your baby, hold him, comfort him, love him. Follow your heart.

What about colic?
Taubman says "the most important thing for the mother to do is to treat the crying as a form of communication." He points out some babies are easy to read and easily distracted from crying, however other babies are difficult to read with low distractibility -- so despite the mother responding, she may not be responding correctly, and the baby will continue crying.

In his book, Why is My Baby Crying, Taubman explains a simple, easy-to-follow program, which results in learning to systematically respond to the cries through a quick and orderly trial-and-error process that has the baby soothed within seven minutes.

Kitzinger says colic is very rare in other cultures where they tend to keep their babies very close to their bodies -- the upright position and constant feeding does not allow distress to build up. "The African mother whose baby is carried against her body, often under her clothes, learns very quickly what her baby needs, and anticipates it, before the child becomes distressed. In most traditional cultures babies can suckle freely, too. Breastfeeding is part of the intimate contact between mother and baby, and takes place casually and often throughout the first year of life, and often much longer."

She believes "it is extremely important for babies to be breastfed -- small amounts, very often, and they need to be fed before they get panicky. A baby who is desperate and begins to cry because he is hungry, gulps in a lot of air, and then feeds ferociously which is not good."

Moriarty says her daughter Hannah was colicky when she was an infant and she needed to be held a lot and rocked.

"It helped tremendously to hold her, belly-down, on my arm and rock her," she says. "On really bad days, the thing that seemed to help a lot was running the vacuum cleaner and vacuuming while I was holding her! Both girls responded almost instantly to being touched. I really think it helped them know that they were not alone and that they were loved."PregnancyAndBaby.com

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