“With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted—that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated person who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.”
Psychology Today, “Letting Baby ‘Cry it Out’”
When a friend recently shared a link to this article about the negative, long-term impact of not answering a baby’s cries, several people commented. One mom wrote a heart-breaking comment, “Wish I had read this 12 years ago. My first-born was a crier and the pediatrician even told me to let her cry it out. Now at 13 we are dealing with what is above normal distrust and inability to relate to others and a whole realm of emotional issues.” The article, and the comments, got me thinking about answering our children’s cries, and providing them with nurturing, loving attention…at all ages.
When I had my first-born twenty years ago, there was a well-known baby nurse who catered to new parents. She would come live with the family for two weeks, as soon as they got home from the hospital, and “get the baby on a schedule” immediately. She was booked well in advance, and new moms swore by her method of letting their newborn baby cry between the exactly-every-four-hour feedings. Her baby protégés got on schedule quickly.
At the time, I was horrified at the thought of (1) Having someone else take care of my baby and (2) Letting my baby cry when she was hungry or needed comfort. So, I did what most new moms do and muddled tiredly through the early weeks, getting to know my baby and what she needed and taking turns with her dad holding, rocking, and feeding. Since she was born four weeks early and was only five pounds at birth, we were told to feed her frequently. We even had to WAKE HER UP to feed her if she didn’t wake up on her own. Thankfully, our other children were full-term, and we could follow our “never wake a sleeping baby” rule. But I digress. It felt right to me to respond when she cried, and after a few months, without even realizing how it happened, we were on a fairly predictable feeding schedule, and she was sleeping decently well. Did she cry? Yes. There were a few times when she was about three months old (I think) when she cried A LOT. We tried to comfort her but weren’t very successful. We always blamed it on teething or colic, but it was probably our own ineptitude. At least we held her, fed her, and tried to soothe her when she was crying. We definitely answered our baby’s cries as best we could.
When I was a new mom, my mother shared with me that my grandmother (her mom), who was not a touchy, feely person, criticized my mom for giving us too many kisses and hugs when we were little. She thought we’d turn out badly from all that love and attention. Having been born in the early 1900s, I’m sure my grandmother had believed when mothers were told to “not let babies inconvenience them” and to instead let them cry.
I firmly believe that a baby’s cries need to be answered, and that those early months are a vital time for babies to form secure attachment to their parents.
A friend, commenting on the article about not answering a baby’s cries, said, “This has been taken to extreme in Europe and other countries. They have subscribed to not allowing their children to cry at all, which teaches them that crying will always get them what they want. I speak from experience after going on a cruise ship with distant family… the mom is a psychology major. Their toddler & baby were unmanageable terrors (Trust me, I don’t usually speak that way about children).”
I need to clarify that I am talking about answering babies’ cries. I am not talking about answering the fake, demanding, irritating crying of a toddler or young child who is not hurt. Once a child can communicate with words, I believe in giving kids attention for positive behaviors and not perpetuating negative behaviors like tantrums or fake crying.
I believe in a lot of love, affection, and attention, but the practice of co-sleeping was not a good fit for us, so although I like the name “Attachment Parenting,” and I feel very attached to my children, I didn’t follow those practices. I did breastfeed and answer my young babies’ cries. When our daughter was still waking up during the night at one year old, we briefly used the “Ferber Method” and, instead of picking her up out of her crib when she cried, we rubbed her back, reassured her, and came back at designated intervals until she fell back asleep. So, we let her cry. We called it “Ferberizing,” and it was hard.
As we had more children, we perfected our own method of putting babies to sleep without tears, which included a predictable routine – bath, reading, saying “good night” to everything in the house as we walked to their room, prayers, and lots of kisses. Most importantly, we learned to put our kids in their crib when they were sleepy, but still awake, so that they learned to fall asleep on their own and thus learned good sleep habits that didn’t depend on us helping them fall asleep. That was a lot more peaceful than Ferber’s method. And we didn’t have to drive them around in the car for their naps, like some of our friends did.
In an article by Melanie Beingesser called “Making an Impact on Baby’s Intelligence,” which also makes the case against letting babies cry it out, she says, “In the western world, we have been led to believe that babies will manipulate their parents for attention and that letting children cry themselves to sleep builds good character. However studies have shown that babies who are attended to when they cry will cry fewer hours per day than babies who are left to cry themselves to sleep. Crying is a baby’s way to communicate a need, whether it is for safety, food or comfort. Through a parent’s actions, babies learn to trust the parent’s authority. When parents respond to their babies’ cries, babies are reassured that their parents can be depended upon. Babies learn that their needs are valid and they begin to develop a positive image of themselves.”
The research is strongly in favor of answering babies’ cries. In the tragic circumstances at Romanian orphanages in the 1980s, where babies were fed but rarely given any nurturing or touch, “the children were in the third to tenth percentile for physical growth, and grossly delayed in motor and mental development.” The children’s development was severely damaged in these tragic circumstances, and people now understand that nurturing is as vital to a baby’s survival as nutrition. Those were extreme circumstances, but it makes sense that a baby whose cries are not answered consistently will have a changed stress response (as per the article) and long term relational damage.
Big Kids Need Love, Too
“The most important assignment a mom has is to nurture her children.”
Tim Sanford, M.A. (Losing Control & Liking It)
I contend that nurturing and attending to their emotional needs is just as vital for older kids as it is for babies. My kids are no longer infants, but I still maintain daily, nurturing touch. My children rarely cry these days, but I can tell when they are sad or upset about something. They’re quiet. They spend a lot of time alone in their room. They don’t smile or talk as much. Big kids aren’t as loud and demanding as babies, so they aren’t as obvious in their need. Just like depressed adults, sad kids withdraw from other people. But they need attention and nurturing, even if they act like they don’t.
I remember my eleven-year-old daughter coming home from a sleep-over and saying that her friend told her, “My mom doesn’t tuck me in anymore.” My daughter felt sad for her friend, who still would have liked to be tucked in, but didn’t expect it anymore. No matter how old my children are, they still get a hug goodnight (if they’re staying up later than I am) or a proper tuck-in. In the case of the younger two (ages 8 & 10), a nightly story, back rub, and kisses are also part of the package. We also snuggle up next to each other on the couch while watching T.V. or reading. If I’m sitting in my morning coffee chair, my kids come over for a morning sit-down hug and snuggle.
My kids know that a morning hug from mom is just part of their day, and they can’t get past me without it. I will keep up this routine even when my boys are surly, smelly teenagers. Even when they act like they don’t like it. Because, I know, deep down, they need it. In my un-researched, unproven hypothesis, teenagers who get plenty of loving touch at home are less likely to seek out fulfillment of this basic need elsewhere. I’ve just always thought that.
Ideas for Catching up on Nurture
Is it possible to “catch up” on nurture if your child didn’t get it as an infant because you let them “cry it out”? I’m banking on the hope that you can catch up, because my twelve-year-old son (adopted in 3 years ago) did not benefit from the same nurturing and attachment that my other children received. I’ve been working hard to “catch up” with extra nurturing now. I hope it’s enough to help him gain relational skills he may be lacking due to his early deprivation.
If you’re out of the habit of connecting via nurturing touch, your kids may balk at having to start hugging or kissing you and think it’s “babyish.” So, I suggest you start with a back rub – everyone loves those! Even if you don’t call it “tucking in,” stop by for a nighttime chat and offer to give a backrub to your teenager. I’m betting they’ll like it and start asking for more!
And, I really think hugs are important. A lot of research has been done about how hugs have a positive impact on people of all ages: “Hugs have also been shown to improve overall mood, increase nerve activity, and a host of other beneficial effects. Positive physical touch has an immediate anti-stress effect, slowing breathing and heart rate.” (from Hugs & Heart Health)
So, a side benefit of hugging your kids more will be that it makes you happier, too!
These are some of the resources I used writing this article. Please let me know if you read about this topic in other places — I’d love more info!:
Losing Control & Liking It: How to set your teen (and yourself) free, Tim Sanford, M.A.
The Connected Child, Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D.(Note: Although this book is geared towards adoptive parents, I found many applications to all kids.)
Hugs & Cuddles Have Long-Term Effects