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OUR BABIES, OURSELVES PART 4: Crying

by Sarah on February 9th, 2011

Crying is one of the things that babies do which can really press our buttons. It’s something that is as important to babies as sleeping or feeding, but is also something which is hugely misunderstood by us adults. Hopefully, through explaining what I’ve read about it in Our Babies, Ourselves (Chapter Five), you’ll feel a little clearer about the subject.

In the 50′s it was widely believed in Western, Industrialised societies that picking up or comforting a baby every time it cries is “spoiling” the child, or being “indulgent”. This belief is definitely still commonplace today. Babies can also be seen as being manipulative, and while yes, they are manipulating us to take care of their needs, it is an unconscious part of them which is doing this. It’s part of how they evolved, part of natural selection.

You see, human babies are fully dependent on their caregivers for many months (even years) after birth, and because of this, crying is their only means of communicating their feelings and needs. Their needs (protection, food, warmth, sleep and comfort) are built into their cells. Their bodies and minds expect their needs to be met, because that is what has been done for the few million years.

At the very beginning of its life, a baby’s cry is automatic; a direct result of a need. But within a few months, it becomes an efficient feedback system between the parent and child. When parents ignore their baby’s cries, from the baby’s perspective, the parent isn’t holding up their end of the baby-parent biological system. This creates a gap in the signal-feedback loop.

It’s incredibly difficult for parents, psychologists, scientists and ethno-paediatricians to understand exactly why some babies cry more than others, especially when it comes to issues like colic. It’s difficult because to this day, no one is sure whether nature or nurture plays the biggest role in a person’s development. While research does show that babies definitely do have different temperaments from very early in life, it’s unclear if that temperament is a direct result of their genes, or how their parents have responded to their needs. What is very clear though, is that babies who are responded to more quickly, and who are in physical contact with a parent regularly, cry for far less time than those who are not responded to, or those who spend a lot of time on their own.

Anthropologist, Edward Tronick, and his colleague, Jeffery Cohn, did such an interesting experiment, looking at how how babies are affected by their mom’s response. For three minutes moms would interact happily and animately with their babies. The babies all responded with positive sounds and movements. The moms then had to act uninterested for three minutes,  using no facial expressions, talking in a monotone, not touching the babies and being unresponsive in general. At first the babies smiled and tried to engage and reach out, but they soon became”sober and wary”, looking away, even turning their bodies away. Then, for another three minutes, the moms were allowed to act normal again, but the babies did not switch back easily. It took at least 30 seconds for the babies to engage again. The effects of unresponsive parenting can clearly be seen after three minutes, imagine a lifetime!

Overall, I think what is important to remember is that crying is a form of dialogue for your baby. It’s how they express themselves, and it’s also a way for them to test out their voicebox and experiment with sounds. It’s really important for us moms (and dads!) to remember that the communication is a two way thing. Our babies are relying on us to respond (because their cells expect it).

Even if not entirely, we are hugely responsible for how our baby turns out, how they view themselves and view the world. Imagine a planet filled with children who value themselves, value their ability to communicate and who fully trust their parents to meet their needs. I want to live in a world like that!