One of my absolute favorite shows on television is Law and Order: Criminal Intent. I could launch into a variety of reasons this is so, but I won't, because that's really not why you're reading this blog, is it? Instead, I wanted to talk about an episode a couple years ago that I found a bit bizarre. This woman wanted her child to attend an extremely prestigious NYC preschool, so her solution to the problem of getting her child in was to kill off the parents of the other children. Nice, huh? Anyway, as Detectives Goren and Eames corner her in the children's nap room at the preschool, she tells them, "Never wake a sleeping baby." Then she pulls out a gun and all drama ensues.
Anyway, one of my former students recently had a baby and had mentioned feeling completely relieved upon reading that you can't spoil a baby by picking it up. For some reason I started thinking about my mantra, "always pick up a crying baby" and it reminded me of crazy lady's "never wake a sleeping baby". Okay. I never said this blog would always make sense, but it was fun to me.
I have huge issues with the idea of letting a baby "cry it out". What in the world are they crying out, exactly? Energy? Frustration? Fear? Infants have very few ways to communicate, and crying is one of them. When a baby cries, s/he is trying to tell the adult something...it could be something identifiable and easily fixable (I'm wet, I'm cold, I'm hungry) or something not so easily recognizable (I miss you, I'm scared, I'm just damn uncomfortable today!).
When I taught, I often asked my students to imagine that they had a piece of duct tape over their mouths and needed to tell me that they had to leave for an emergency. How would they do that? There were no ways to write; no tools to use. Only their emotional ability to convey an important message. Of course, the logical thing to do would be to fuss or cry to gain attention. The point here is that none of them were fussing or crying at random, or in an effort to manipulate me. They were desperate to get meaning across.
The long-held belief that "babies cry to manipulate" is a crock. The ability to manipulate another person is something that an infant isn't cognitively able to do yet. WE, as adults, may label it manipulation when we see that the baby is happy and comforted when we pick him up but begins to cry when we put him back down. That's not manipulation, folks. That's your baby telling you, "Hey, dude, I really, really love you."
There are even more important reasons that babies cry and adults need to respond. Emotionally, trust is built between the baby and the caregiver. The baby learns to trust that the same reaction will happen, and s/he can count on the adult to care for him or her. Neurologically, when infants are held, comforted, eye contact is made, and there is a nurturing bond being built, the baby's brain literally lights up like a switchboard. All sorts of things are connecting that enable that baby to develop cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. Babies who are severely denied these experiences, involving touch and response, may develop conditions ranging from failure to thrive (a condition where the child fails to grow as expected) to reactive attachment disorder (a disorder where a child fails to develop the emotional and social skills necessary to bond with others).
So many well-meaning parents ignore their crying babies in an effort to teach them to "self-soothe". Self-soothing--the ability for a baby to calm itself--is important, but it's not optimally learned by adults ignoring a child's cries. Children who are ignored and eventually settle are learning to self-soothe, but at what cost? The cost of realizing nobody will comfort them? Self-soothing is best taught through modeling and close contact and comfort. As infants begin to develop blanket preferences, suckling preferences, even particular positions they prefer to sleep in, they are learning to soothe themselves--to do what feels good to calm down.
No baby should ever completely learn to self-soothe. If so, parents wouldn't be necessary for any more than dropping some food by and checking for a pulse. So pick up your baby and don't feel guilty about it. Trust me, those days are shortly numbered and before you know it, your infant is going to be singing a different tune...usually one that starts with "I do it!".