Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Always Pick Up A Crying Baby

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 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!".


  1. LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS POST MICHELLE! And I plan on printing it and giving a copy to all of my family members who have looked at me like I was a crazy lady when I said, "you cant spoil an infant".

  2. i wish everyone in america that was capable of producing or raising children would be in your and lisa's classes. one of the many things you taught me that i will never ever forget and that i will always defend.

  3. It's one of the huge fallacies that I still see educated people struggling with...that they can spoil an infant by comforting it. It's heartbreaking to see parents and their children suffer because of some archaic idea of spoiling a baby and teaching it to manipulate adults. Spread the word...grow a brain, snuggle a baby!

  4. grow a brain, snuggle a baby.... I like it michelle!! haha!

  5. It was HUGE decision to try the method (as you know b/c you were the first person I went to). When my twins got a little older at 6 months I decided (reluctantly) to use the cry it out method. This consisted of very little crying for two nights. They cried for about 25 minutes total each night with me going back in to reassure them at decreasing intervals. The reason for trying this method was that my husband and I were getting little to no sleep which is not a good thing either. I do not regret this decision for a moment b/c in the long run it has helped them sleep very well and we are better parents since we are rested. They are fantastic sleepers to this day. We say "Are you ready for night-night" and they walk to their cribs with smiles. So, used in moderation I think this method can teach them how to accept their bedtime routine. I agree with many of the things you said, however, I also know from my own experience that it can work as a last resort. It makes me feel bad to think I might have done anything to harm them (even for the short amount of time they 'cried it out'). So, while I appreciate this post in many ways I don't think it's an all or nothing issue.

    I was already struggling with other twin issues when my babies were infants. I felt like I was damaging the one who had to wait (someone is always having to wait and crying b/c he or she doesn't understand what the hold up is). I know I am probably taking it to the extreme but articles that reference crying impacting brain development make me feel worthless since I had to let one child cry much of the time. Thoughts?

  6. Jennifer, I think you bring up some great points. Like we discussed at the time, the issues surrounding your particular situation had to do with the quality of your entire family's well-being rather than a misplaced philosophy from the beginning. I think that's what I was trying to get at with this post. I've seen so many adults who force infants at a young age to "cry it out"--not because they're exhausted or because they're at the end of their rope, but out of some misplaced idea that a very young infant should learn to self-soothe the hard way. The reality is that "crying it out" doesn't happen for these people just at bedtime. It happens throughout the day. Baby's sad? Cry it out. Baby tired? Cry it out. Baby cranky? Cry it out. Those are the situations that I think become really detrimental and DO impact brain development...not situations where mom and dad knock themselves out all day long to meet baby's needs and need to get a good night's sleep so they can do it again tomorrow.

  7. Thanks Michelle. I know you didn't mean "always" due to our past conversations, but I needed to clarify because along with the parents who let their kids cry it out for the wrong reasons there are many educated and nurturing parents that have researched their decision and go ahead with the method. On one hand they feel relief with the success while on the other they have a little doubt about their decision.

    I have to add to my original post as well because it wasn't just as simple as two days and POOF they were sleeping through the night 100% of the time. My son actually went through a phase for a month or so where he had night terrors. An example of misuse might be to let him cry it out without looking into the situation. Instead I listened to his cry and determined it was different than usual. I decided to get him up and rock him. I ended up rocking him for about 15 minutes and talking to him about being ready to go back to sleep. He would confirm his readiness by saying "night-night" and I would take him back to bed. All he needed was some reassurance. We did this for at least a month and then he went back to his regular sleeping pattern.

    I think it's important to evaluate each situation even after you've made the decision to use this method. I knew he was a great sleeper and the cry was related to something else. I trusted my Mommy instinct with this decision just as I finally did when I decided to use the cry it out method.

    A second example was just this week. My babies were sick and vomiting. A parent who chalked cries up to manipulating would have never known two sweet babies were lying in bed in vomit and terrible pain. It's still your job as a parent to evaluate each situation and rule out other causes for the communication of crying.

    You know my husband is a director of DHS so I know as much as anyone about the people you are concerned about when you say "always pick up a crying baby". So, I also like your friends post "build a brain...snuggle a baby" (I hope I got it right) because it states what you should definately be spending most of your time doing with children.

  8. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing your expertise--if more people with your experience and level of trust in the parenting community spoke out against CIO and other baby-unfriendly parenting techniques, I think we'd make some headway :)

  9. Lara, I think a lot of it is educating people about the options they have, and that picking up crying infants is NOT damaging to them. So many people are under the false assumption that they will somehow harm their baby if they respond and comfort the child. Hopefully with more education, people will realize that's not the case at all.