Many new parents aren’t sure how to respond when their newborn baby cries. This may be because of all the contradictory information we’re constantly bombarded with. Some sources say that letting a baby “cry it out” is good, others claim that it is harmful. This is why I’ve decided to analyze this issue bit by bit.
Why do babies cry?
Babies cry because that’s the only way they can tell us that something is wrong.
When a baby is born, the only world they know is the inside of their mother’s womb. The outside world is very different, with all of the noises, lights, and other sensations. This is not only confusing but very unpleasant as loud noises and bright lights may hurt the baby in the ears or eyes.
The only place a baby knows is by her mother. She can feel the warmth and hear her heartbeat. The smell is familiar, too. All of these ease the baby and allow her to relax. When she’s put in crib, the sensations are new and strange. No wonder so many babies don’t like it.
The newborn baby’s digestive system is problematic, too. There is a theory that human pregnancy should last 12 months, but the woman might not survive it that long (after all, before the 20th century and its development of medicine, childbirth was the main cause of death among women). The first three months of a baby’s life are sometimes referred to as the fourth trimester of pregnancy.
The child’s digestive system matures during this time. This basically means that a newborn is not fully ready to digest, even if it only drinks milk. That’s why colics happen. Every unpleasant feeling around the tummy makes a baby cry. The newborn doesn’t know what is going on and because of that – she cries for help and consolation.
What does a baby need?
Apart from feeding and changing diapers, what a baby needs most is being connected to other human beings. Best if it’s mommy because the baby knows her already. A baby cannot communicate by speech, yet (I know it’s obvious, but stating that makes other things clear, too). Other ways to say “I love you” are by touch and closeness: hugging, snuggling, carrying, cuddling, etc. The only way to say “I feel bad, I need you, I need your help” is by crying.
What happens when they don’t get it?
When a baby cries, she believes that someone loving will come and help. If she is left to “cry it out”, she learns (yes, newborn babies learn, too, and even better and faster than at any older age) that her needs are not important. If her needs are not important, then she is not important and not loved. These babies are more likely to develop anxiety and are much less resilient later on. There have been numerous studies on so-called “sleep training” and how it actually affects babies’ development. La Leche League provides a nice and thorough summary of them here.
Toddlers and older children cry, too. They can communicate through language, but they still struggle with learning to control their emotions. It is mainly when the emotions are too overwhelming that a child resorts to crying. Learning new feelings is hard for children, be that toddlers, teens or in between. I’ve elaborated on the topic of emotions here.
Remember, a child doesn’t cry to make your day bad. They cry because they don’t know how else to tell you about their problems. That may be emotional problems or other, that they cannot deal with on their own and cannot find the words to describe them.
To sum up…
If your baby (or toddler, or an older child) cries, your heart most probably tells you to go there and give them a hug. And this is a natural response of our brain, passed through generations and even common among animals. Have you ever watched a cat or dog mother looking for a lost kitten meowing or pup whining?
Giving our children love through physical contact, through hugging, through cuddling and carrying is the most vital part of parenthood, both for the child and for the parent.
And I’ll repeat it: your child doesn’t cry to test you, to stress you or to make your day bad. She cries because she needs you. More than anything in the world.