Babies and Crying: What’s a parent to do?

December 18, 2011 · 25 comments

in Development, Our "View" of Babies

“Crying must be responded to. But how is a more complicated issue. To follow the advice, “do not let your baby cry,” is practically impossible. At times the harder a mother or father tries to stop the baby’s crying, the more anxious everyone becomes.” Magda Gerber


In The Dangers Of “Crying It Out, published this week in Psychology Today, psychologist Darcia Narvaez argues not only should babies never be left to cry for any reason, but in fact, parents have an obligation to parent in a way that will prevent any crying at all, lest the baby suffer a whole host of emotional and physical repercussions, including brain damage.

She argues that it’s not normal for babies to cry: “A crying baby in our ancestral environment would have signaled predators to tasty morsels. So our evolved parenting practices alleviated baby distress and precluded crying except in emergencies. Babies are built to expect the equivalent of an “external womb” after birth. What is the external womb? —being held constantly, breastfed on demand, needs met quickly. These practices are known to facilitate good brain and body development. When babies display discomfort, it signals that a need is not getting met, a need of their rapidly growing systems.”

Reading the article, I found myself asking “Really, Doctor Narvaez?”

Cry Baby

Apparently Narvaez is not familiar with the period of Purple Crying, which is an evidence-based infant abuse prevention program which aims to educate parents about normal infant crying and its relation as a trigger for abuse. Purple refers not to the color the baby turns when he or she cries, but to:

P–Peak of crying. The worst crying tends of occur around 2 months of age and decline from 3-5 months.

U–Unexpected. The crying often comes on and stops for no apparent reason.

R–Resists soothing. The baby is often difficult to soothe.

P–Pain-like face. The baby may appear to be in pain even if they are not.

L–Long-lasting. The crying may go on for several hours a day.

E–Evening. The baby often cries more in the late afternoon or evening.


The goal of the Click For Babies project which is being organized by the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome (NCSBS) is to help parents understand that frequent and sometimes intense crying is often normal in the first few months of life, and does not necessarily mean anything is wrong with the baby, nor does it mean the parent is inadequate or doing anything wrong if they aren’t able to stop their baby from crying. The hope is that by educating parents about this common developmental stage, many may be helped to learn to respond sensitively, while preventing cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome, which occur more commonly when babies are especially fussy.

Doctor Heather Wittenberg, “The Baby Shrink” (and mother of four), was similarly outraged by the polarizing tone and misinformation in Narvaez’s article, and she wrote a short, but pointed response, in which she concluded:

“The fact is, there is no evidence whatsoever that occasional CIO in typically developing babies causes any damage. PERIOD. More importantly, there IS evidence that severely sleep-deprived mothers are at much higher risk of developing an already common –and dangerous — condition: postpartum depression. And PPD certainly CAN lead to long-term damage to both baby — and the entire family. CIO is a method that, when implemented thoughtfully, can often lead to improved sleep (and health and happiness) for everyone.”

Janet Lansbury posted Dr. Heather’s response to the Psychology Today article on her Facebook page, prefacing it with a note that asked: “What do you think?” Within a few hours 58 responses had been logged, which speaks to the very strong feelings aroused when people hear the words baby and crying (or “crying it out”) in the same sentence. Dr. Heather received an equally overwhelming and intense response on her site, and some of the responses were barely civil. It seems this is a conversation that needs to continue to happen. There is so much emotion, judgment, misinformation, and misunderstanding around this issue, and that’s not good for parents or babies.  Also, the question of how to respond to a baby’s cries goes right to the core of how we view babies, and how sensitively and respectfully we care for them.

Janet Lansbury has written eloquently on the topic on numerous occasions, most recently in  7 Reasons To Calm Down About Babies Crying  where she says: “When babies cry, our job is to tune in, provide help, love and support as needed, but not necessarily stop the crying.”

The number one question and concern new parents have is this one: “Why does my baby cry? What’s the best way to respond when s/he cries?”  I also have parents come to me who are beyond exhausted, and desperate for some sleep (when their babies are a year old or 15 months old, and still waking many times a night), but fear they will somehow be harming their baby if they allow so much as a whimper. What’s a parent to do?

One of the responses to this discussion was penned by Carla Prosch, who is an early childhood professional currently working as a nanny for two families in Seattle Washington, and is herself the mother of two children. Her response was so thoughtful, and so closely mirrors my own progression of thinking, feeling, and understanding about babies and crying, that I asked her if (and she graciously agreed) I might share her words here:

“I really appreciate the dialogue going on here because I find it all very fascinating. It seems that it would be so much easier if there was ONE WAY to handle all situations with all children at each developmental stage. Imagine if there was only one book to be used and we all took that book home in our diaper bags when we left the hospital. That would be too easy (and probably kind of boring).

A few months ago I wrote some thoughts about babies and crying and had decided that I had many more thoughts to include. I recently realized that when I have worked with babies and toddlers in a group care situation, I have to fight against a deep ingrained (belief? feeling? cultural norm?) that I have learned. This subtle belief that I have is that when babies/toddlers are crying, it’s my job to get them to stop (I don’t really believe that, but I think I FEEL that deep down, subconsciously). Or, perhaps to even prevent the crying from happening in the first place! If they continue to cry, I must not be doing my job well (subconscious feeling, I don’t truly believe this). Now here’s the switch (a truth for me) – when babies cry, it’s my job to figure out why and to support them in whatever way is necessary while they cry for as long as they need. I believe in observing them and then sensitively responding to them.

Think of it this way; imagine the director of a program is walking through your classroom with a tour of prospective parents. If the children in the room are actively engaged and relatively calm, as a teacher it feels very different than if the children are actively engaged in other ways that are not so calm, grabbing a toy from somebody, crying because a limit was set (typical, developmentally appropriate infant/toddler behaviors). There seems to be so much more “stuff” that has to be explained in the second scenario. You usually don’t hear something like this from the first scenario, “Parents, I know what you are observing now is something that might feel a little uncomfortable to you, the children are actively engaged and calm. That’s because the teachers in this room have set up a stimulating environment and are keenly observing the children to support them as they play.” Both scenarios happen and to me, both scenarios are healthy but scenario #1 is always easier to feel confident about. I think a lot of that has been learned within our culture.

So that is my recent personal journey about crying in general. What about CIO? I think, as we all know, there are many different ways to approach situations with children. What matters most is that each of us can make informed, thoughtful, intentional decisions based upon multiple factors within each family (the child’s temperament, family culture, the level of support families are receiving, etc). I believe in four key goals: 1) Striving to build a caring community of loving support with one another, 2) Sharing our thoughts and feelings with each other genuinely and authentically, 3) Being heard without judgment, and 4) Respectfully agreeing to disagree when necessary.

What is very important to me is empowering families to make each choice for their own child, realizing that they are the only true expert on their child. Nobody will ever know a baby as well as the mother and/or father know him/her. And in the end, when our children are grown and we look back on the personal choices we made, we will (hopefully) know that each choice was made in the spirit of good intention and genuine thoughtfulness.

Looking back at choices my husband and I made together, we realize now many things that we would have done differently because of experiences we have had as we have gotten older. However, we are confident that we did the best we knew how to do at that given moment in time with the very best intentions (adding into this equation – imperfect humanness). We did not do CIO with our two children (now 13 years and 8 years old), but if we were to do it over, we would definitely choose to use the CIO approach, as appropriate, while observing our children in the process.

I say all of this not from a place of knowing but from a place of “this is where I am right now”. The topic of crying really stirs up a lot of discussion in people.”

And now, it is your turn. What are your thoughts on babies and crying?





Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Megan December 18, 2011

Thank you for posting this. There have been many times in my career as a caregiver in a nursery & also a nanny in the infants home that I have felt that the crying was just something that the infant needed to do, and trying to stop it made it worse.. instead, just comforting them and letting them cry , or putting them down safely and walking away to regain composure worked WAY better. BUT.. like you said, it feels as if I’m doing something wrong or that people may be mad at me for doing that.. so I try not to ever let them cry. That is exhausting and sometimes not possible.The fact that the babies are not mine make it harder for me to decide what is right or what the parent’s would do.. I guess there really is no right answer.. just careful observation. thanks!

Melissa Cady December 18, 2011

Hello Lisa!
I too have been following the back and forth over CIO in the blogesphere. I commend you for touching on what is developmentally normal for babies in the early months of their lives. While I agree that this crying is normal, it is my opinion (based on research and anecdotal evidence) that this is exactly the wrong age to begin any sort of CIO training. Babies typically don’t respond well to training at this age (and it is usually not recommended even in CIO/training books). While I agree at this age sometimes they will *need* to cry to release some of the build up stress/stimulation of the day if this crying happens while held in a calming environment (dark, quiet room, near moms/dads heart) they begin to learn the self soothing they will need in the future.
As babies grow they slowly become more and more capable of learning to calm themselves to sleep. Each baby is different but if gentle, developmentally appropriate techniques are put into practice from the beginning and grow with the child CIO in the extreme sense wouldn’t be necessary. A family that has a consistent bedtime routine from a very young age and responds in a loving, but minimally invasive way upon awakenings will find less and less issue with sleep as a child grows. Understanding that mild protests and night waking are part of normal development would help parents feel prepared and not leave them looking for the next ‘new solution’ Additionally an understanding of what to expect in terms of daytime sleep, the often fractured naps of the early part of the first year and the very common changes surrounding separation anxiety allow parents to know what to expect. It also would give them hope that much of what they experience is a phase (assuming they have a consistent routine in place and continue to practice minimal intervention)
When you speak of your classroom experiences I relate completely. I often find myself more eager to quiet a child when a tour is walking through or when a parent enters the room. However, it must be mentioned that your experiences are in an ideal environment for infants and toddlers where they are receiving loving, connected care and boundaries set are out of love and understanding. This is not the case for every center.
In our current economic climate children are often in less than quality care, parents are over worked and very tired. When this is the situation it seems to me that we are better off advocating for responsive, loving parenting rather than any technique that suggests leaving a child alone to cry. A baby who spends days with a disconnected caregiver and then goes home to a family that lets her CIO has poor odds for building the kind of emotional intelligence needed in the coming decades.

Leslie December 20, 2011

I totally agree with what you are saying here! Very well put!

“In our current economic climate children are often in less than quality care, parents are over worked and very tired. When this is the situation it seems to me that we are better off advocating for responsive, loving parenting rather than any technique that suggests leaving a child alone to cry. A baby who spends days with a disconnected caregiver and then goes home to a family that lets her CIO has poor odds for building the kind of emotional intelligence needed in the coming decades.”

yes, exactly!

Marcie Mom December 19, 2011

Babies can cry and be irritated if they have eczema; that’s what happened to my baby, colic and very scratchy too. Hope other parents of eczema children can add in their thoughts on how they first identify it’s eczema, feel free to drop a message at my blog for parents with eczema kids.

And thanks for this wonderfully article!

Jessica December 19, 2011

Thank you for your thought provoking comments. I like to use the word curious when working with teachers and parents. Lillian Katz used the phrase of “the disposition of curiosity.” Being curious is like doing research, observation of what happened, how the child responded. Being present in the moment is helpful, dare I say critical.
I also teach parents and teachers to calm themselves BEFORE trying to calm a crying baby. I believe that emotions are contagious. I want the baby to “catch” the calm from the adult instead of the parent/teacher “catching” the baby’s emotion.
This is all to say that I hope that your posting will add to the conversation in a way that supports and encourages parents and teachers.
We are truly in this together.

Leslie December 20, 2011

That is just beautiful – I love the idea of the baby “catching” calm from the adult. I think that is so so true. Babies do seem to sense when we are calm, or when we are stressed and respond accordingly. Lovely thoughts.

Elanne Kresser December 19, 2011

Thanks for another great post Lisa. I am not inclined towards CIO with my baby, but I really find distasteful the dramatic polarization around parenting choices. What I know so far with a five month old is that it is the hardest, most beautiful thing I’ve ever done. And there are a gazillion ways to feel inadequate and as though I’ve done something wrong. My daughter has been a pretty good sleeper, but recently has been sick with a cold so I have spent many sleepless nights with her. In recent days I have felt so grumpy, tormented and sleep deprived that I can understand that parents might choose any number of approaches to supporting sleep in their baby and themselves.

My baby cries. She has from early on. Often it seems like she needs to have a big cry in my arms to release tension. When I read things that say that my baby’s crying means I’ve failed to meet her needs I automatically go to feeling like I’ve done it wrong, I’m missing something, failing to read her signals, etc. Thankfully my husband always talks me down from that ledge telling me what a great mom I am.

We were given a lovely book at our baby shower. It is called CALMS which is an acronym for a process to go through when your baby is crying. C is for Check in with your own feelings. A is for Allow a breath. L is for Listen to your baby’s cries. M is for Mirror what you hear back to your baby i.e. – you sound so upset and are crying so hard. S is for Soothe your baby. For me the first four letters are often soothing enough. When my daughter feels me settle down and senses that I’m really listening to her she often begins to settle herself. And the intention is not to stop the crying but to be with her in a present and supportive way. All of this is stuff that I’ve read in Magda’s books too. Having the acronym has been helpful when I’m really in the fire.

Leslie December 20, 2011

I love this CALMS technique! So helpful!

Aunt Annie's Childcare December 19, 2011

I think I find the venom with which some parents address other parents on this subject far more distressing than the cry of a baby. This tribalism that’s developed, with attachment parenting extremists and rabid adherents to other methods of parenting at each other’s throats, is just primitive and completely unnecessary.

It’s not a crime to let a baby cry and self-settle after you’ve fulfilled its bodily and emotional needs. It’s not a crime to offer your baby an opportunity to suckle when upset. Parenting extremists need to lighten up and stop attacking each other- parenting is hard enough without this ridiculous ‘method warfare’.

Leslie December 20, 2011

Interesting. I want to respond to this statement:

“What is very important to me is empowering families to make each choice for their own child, realizing that they are the only true expert on their child. Nobody will ever know a baby as well as the mother and/or father know him/her. And in the end, when our children are grown and we look back on the personal choices we made, we will (hopefully) know that each choice was made in the spirit of good intention and genuine thoughtfulness.”

The problem I see with this thinking is that many people have done very great harm, all with the best intentions and ‘genuine thoughtfulness’. Just look at the “No Greater Joy” movement – where parents are taught to whip their children as the most loving, kind thing for their children. And in fact, when they don’t – they are not loving their children, if they don’t whip them they are told that they hate their children. I think that’s where all of this gets all confused. I agree with the statement that each parent is doing the best they can with the information that they have – but that doesn’t mean they are not harming their child. The information they have may be faulty. The support they’re receiving may be unhealthy. There are a lot of factors.

Related to infant crying – there are a lot of baby training programs that induce fear in parents to follow their step by step procedures, to ignore their natural parental instincts and all in the name of love. It is a fact that babies put on these programs often have low birth weight and other serious problems.

And the information about infant brain development is phenomenal. Studies have found cortisol released in the brain in response to stress. I know first hand parents with older children who are now dealing with the effects of this – their children having problems with impulse control and other things – and the doctors are pointing it back to high degree of cortisol released in the brain in infancy due to extended periods of crying and parenting that was not responsive.

I think that’s where the intensity in this debate comes in. Because this is one of the most critical stages of development. The brain does 75% of it’s growth in the first two years. There are parenting “experts” out there telling people to leave their child alone to cry for lengthy periods of time. This is risky. While we don’t want to make people feel guilty or that they are a bad parent if their baby cries, I think we do need to get information out there that it can be dangerous to leave a baby alone to cry it out for an extended period of time.

There has to be some balance here. Yes, babies will cry. And we must see it as a form of communication, follow our hearts and our instincts and do what we can to help calm and soothe him. I love all the comments here already and agree with each one. Most expressed much better than mine – I’m typing in a hurry here!

Thank you for the thoughtful, helpful debate!

Parental responsiveness is cited as the number one protective factor for children in risk situations. So I think that’s what we need to be encouraging parents with – to be responsive. I

Genevieve December 21, 2011

Thank you Lisa for your post. I agree that parents generally need a lot more help and information to help them cope with their babies cries. My first baby would literally cry for hours on end, thankfully my husband was home a lot so we could take turns, but I also have many memories with both my babies of pacing with a crying baby, both of us crying and feeling at my wits end. I settled for the explanation of colic, but kept trying everything I could until he received a cranio osteopathic treatment, which totally relieved his stresses and I believe physical pain following a difficult labour and that was literally the end of extended (unexplained) crying *phew*. I have so much sympathy for parents at home with a crying baby.

Leslie, I love everything you’ve expressed here and fully agree with you. It’s an uncomfortable debate, but an important and productive one. This point to me is also the critical point “There has to be some balance here. Yes, babies will cry. And we must see it as a form of communication, follow our hearts and our instincts and do what we can to help calm and soothe him…” and “Parental responsiveness is cited as the number one protective factor for children in risk situations. ***So I think that’s what we need to be encouraging parents with – to be responsive.***”

Elanne, I also think that CALMS is very practical and helpful and like you mentioned, so often when the parent can return to a calm state, which is always highly challenging when our baby is upset, the baby also starts to settle as well.

Many people comment that parents wouldn’t chose to CIO if they could see another option that gave them release from the horrors of sleep deprivation. We all agree that relief is needed for exhausted anxious parents and continued sleep deprivation is unhealthy and unsustainable. I believe that CIO is a short term solution that is not without it’s ongoing adverse affects. I do, of course, support each parent’s personal choice and don’t lay blame or judgement on individual families whatever they chose, everyone’s truly doing their best with what they have. Yet, as Leslie states, many chose CIO against their better judgement, even though it’s heart breaking, because there is so much pressure from peers and professionals to take this path.

I’m chipping in with the important message that there are other options that most parents are still unaware of, which is one of the reasons that I do speak up on the CIO debate. As a parent educator, Aware Parenting Instructor and Heart to Heart Parenting Instructor (work of Robin Grille) I share some of these other options with families who seek my help. I help parents who are struggling create some changes that most often do lead to more settled sleep patterns for baby, hence parents without leaving a baby to cry on their own being among the options. There are generally many issues and imbalances within the family that contribute to high stress levels in baby and parents and because babies are highly attuned and sensitive, such factors make sleep more difficult and cause babies to be less settled. Even identifying these connections (joining the dots) generally starts to move things towards greater balance. A child’s behaviour at any age cannot be understood or responded to constructively without viewing it within the context of the whole family system. Children, especially babies, are often the emotional barometers of the family, their cries are heard and felt like an alarm system for a very good reason. Parents can better tune in when they receive the support that helps them feel less alone and overwhelmed, perhaps come out of panic mode and really tune in, observe and listen.

My approaches are too many and varied to share here and don’t fit into a formula as it’s worked out with each individual family based on many contributing factors. But I want to share that there are other options that lead to a more settled baby and parent, decreased stress and anxiety and an upward spiral of more settled sleep patterns as a result of the baby’s nervous system becoming less stressed. Inch by inch parent and baby, with the right support and information, can meet more of their unmet needs that lead to more peace and sleep for all and greater confidence for the parents.

Babies, just like adults, sleep better when they get their stresses out of their system and supporting the baby’s need to release stress through in-arms crying at times when the baby has the natural urge and need to release is one factor that makes all the difference, but there are many others as well.

Thank you Lisa again for keeping the debate alive and creating a space to voice our thoughts on the subject.

Leslie December 20, 2011

I wanted to add quickly, I wrote a post in response to the statement people use that they know their child better than anyone else. “I am the expert on my own child.” I had some thoughts on that:

Sarah March 17, 2012

Babies in primitive cultures just don’t cry as much as babies in Western cultures, period. This tells me something about our expectations of children as well as our personal space limitations. My children who cried the least were the ones I expected the least out of as far as sleeping through the night at an early age, independence, etc., etc., etc. When I chilled, they chilled. This isn’t rocket science.

That having been said, I also come from the belief that a baby with “colic” has a real and true need–not a personality disorder. This gets me in trouble with people, but a baby doesn’t cry for NO reason. If it’s not something you can pinpoint, maybe it’s your own stress level. My oldest, my guinea pig child, the one who is probably irreparably damaged, was the one I expected the most out of and was the least reasonable about as a parent when she was an infant. I was stressed nearly constantly about things that I found out later were really of no consequence, and in the process I missed some cues to a dairy sensitivity that I only figured out when she was a toddler. 🙁 Babies cry for a reason. That doesn’t mean we let them cry, though. We still need to do what we can. Sometimes that means co-sleeping. Sometimes that means eliminating a food from our diet. Whatever. The point is, if a culture without Google or medications has babies who don’t cry much, what are we doing wrong? Oh, and keep the babies from being overstimulated. As a friend said, an infant does not need to go to Target! 🙂

Lisa March 24, 2012


Thanks for sharing your point of view and experience. Mine happens to be a little different. I don’t think I indicated anywhere in my post that I believe a baby with “colic” has a personality disorder. The truth is, and the research shows, all babies cry, some more than others, and we don’t always know why, and if basic needs have been met and the baby is still crying, the best anyone can do is offer a listening ear, and comforting arms. Parents should not feel guilty if they can’t prevent or quiet all crying, nor should they worry that their baby will be harmed by crying, if they’ve done their best to be responsive to their baby’s needs. In fact, whether or not parents choose to co-sleep, make diet changes, or are more or less relaxed, some degree of unexplained crying always occurs, especially in the first three to four months of life, peaking at six weeks. This holds true even in nonindustrial societies where babies rarely cry, are constantly held close to the mother’s body, and have unrestricted access to the breast. That being said, I agree that almost all young babies in our society are overstimulated, and most babies benefit from a quieter, less stimulating environment, especially in the first weeks and months of life.

{ 11 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: