Cara: Crying, sniffing, wailing, weeping . . . what’s a cry anyway? What does it mean when our children begin their lives with a cry? What’s good and not so good about our children’s tears? We all have a need for some kind of sane answer, some sort of guideline to lean on when we hear our young people wailing. I brought our questions to Magda.
Q. Magda, so many parents want to know why babies cry and what they can do about it when they do cry. What would you tell them?
A. Magda: What I do tell parents really depends on the age of the baby and on many other circumstances, but I would include the following: All healthy babies cry. We would worry if they didn’t cry—no infant can be raised without crying. To follow the advice “Don’t 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 they become. Both parent and baby end up “crying together,” making a helpless couple. Watching any angry, crying baby with a bewildered mother or father, I often wonder who is more helpless.
Q. Cara: But why do infants cry?
A. Magda: The immature organism has to adapt to dramatic internal and external changes. Think of the adaptation it takes for a man to leave the earth and go to the moon. Then think of the changes an infant experiences and has to adapt to when the child leaves the womb and enters our world.
According to scientific studies, most crying occurs between four and eight weeks of age. This crying happens regardless of how the parents respond to the crying. Speculation is that the baby spends the first weeks in a state of drowsiness and gradually becomes aware of the environment impinging on him. We believe that newborn and very young infants cry when they feel discomfort from:
- Pain (could be gas, irritated skin, etc.)
- Feeling too cold or too warm
- Sudden changes in position (equilibrium off-balance)
- Transitional times (Sometimes a change from wakefulness to sleep and vice versa are vulnerable transitional times. Picking up a child has an alerting effect, so it is terribly hard for a sleepy, crying child jolted into the vertical position to once again try to sleep. Sometimes just letting the little one cry those extra parent-painful minutes before sleep can be crucial. Some children seem to really need to cry themselves to sleep.)
- Too much stimuli from environment (noise, light, activity) around the child. An often-repeated belief is that babies cry when bored. Actually, they cry when overstimulated.
Also, contrary to common belief, babies do not cry when wet. They do cry, however, when they have a diaper rash which is irritated by a wet diaper or when the wet diaper causes them to feel cold.
A very young baby may cry to discharge energy.
Though there is a great variety of crying right from birth (and I’m pleased that Dr. Leboyer, Birth Without Violence [(1975)], does not believe this has to be eliminated), as the baby grows the crying becomes more differentiated, more expressive crying. It becomes a form of communication.
Q. Cara: What seems to be the common reaction by parents to the child’s cry?
A. Magda: What different parents do seems to be greatly influenced by their beliefs (what they read or are told by “experts”) and by their own needs. The parent who likes to eat would feed the baby often; the parent who feels too cold or hot will cover or undress the baby; the compulsively clean parents will change diapers frequently. Responding to rapidly shifting trends, parents will pick up, jostle, carry around, and rock their babies. The way a parent responds to the baby “conditions” the baby to expect specific responses (feeding, covering, rocking). Instead of responding to real need, the parent responds to a created need . . . conditioned by the parent. The wider the parent’s repertoire, the more varied will be the baby’s responses.
Q. Cara: Magda, what does all this crying do to the parent?
A. Magda: All kinds of things. People react in different ways at different times, each in their own ways. It’s really interesting. And crying triggers off all kinds of reactions.
- Alarm the parent.
- Arouse feelings of being more needed than ever before. This feeling can be a very gratifying one, almost giving a powerful feeling of omnipotence, as if the parent were a magician who can change an unhappy child into a happy one.
- In contrast to this reaction is almost the complete opposite in the way of: great helplessness, bewilderment, frustration, and often anger. Crying can change a concerned parent into a battering parent. Or to use a milder example, just watch the way the pacifier is thrust into a baby’s mouth. The message is, “Shut up.”
Q. Cara: Do you have any advice for us, Magda?
A. Magda: Parents need to try and change their thinking. Do not want to stop the crying. Respect the child’s right to express feelings, or moods, whether crying or smiling. Try to find and eliminate discomfort. What will determine the baby’s feelings of trust are the security in the child’s daily life and the anticipation of a predictable rhythm. If the child’s life is very hectic and unpredictable, then the only secure base is the parent. However, the next important task for an infant is to achieve some autonomy or the capacity to feel secure even without the parent.
No, it is not only what you do when the baby cries, but what you do all the time the child does not cry. This makes the difference between sensitive and less sensitive parenting.
Q. Cara: But Magda, you still did not tell what you would do when a baby cries.
A. Magda: I would ask the baby why he cries.
Q. Cara: A three-month-old baby?
A. Magda: Yes. A child, no matter what age, will respond to your focused attention, your calm voice . . . these will eventually reassure the young person. The child will learn to give better cues, and you will learn to understand him better. This is how dialogue between infant and parent develops.
To quote Sidonie Gruenberg, author of The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born [(1970)], and co-author of The Many Lives of Modern Woman [(Gruenberg & Krech, 1952)]: “Just as the smiles and gurgles and small sounds of satisfaction are infant language, crying is too.”
Gruenberg, S. M., & Krech, H. S. (1952). The many lives of modern woman: A guide to happiness in her complex role. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Page numbers not found.
Gruenberg, S. M. (1970). The wonderful story of how you were born (S. Shimin, Ill.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Page numbers not found.
Leboyer, F. (1975). Birth without violence. New York, NY: Alfred Knopf.]