Why we can (and should!) all chill out a little about crying
We’ve all felt that very real emotional pull when we hear our baby or child cry… it tugs on the heartstrings in a way that nothing else does. That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do!
Our child’s cry affects us, as parents, physiologically. It raises our blood pressure and urges a reaction; it’s designed to make us respond. But here’s the thing; there’s reacting and there’s responding, and those are two different modes with vastly different outcomes, as you’ll see. Before we look at how these two responses differ, let’s first take a look at the research around crying.
What does the research say?
Dispelling conflicting information about crying
One of the most important things to understand about crying is that while it’s impacting you physiologically, it’s not doing so to your child.
I see so much talk about aspiring to ‘no cry’ methods of parenting, alongside sensationalised commentary about crying equating to child abuse or the idea that it’s permanently damaging the architecture of our children’s brains. This simply isn’t true.
There is so much evidence to the contrary. Alongside all that evidence, we know through common sense that even prolonged periods of crying have no adverse effects – after all, consider babies with colic.
If crying was bad for the brain, we’d be needing to build a whole lot of special hospitals for all those children who spend the first six months or so of their lives in tears.
In some respects, these extreme opinions stand in opposition of the practices of an earlier era that advised we shut our children away in their cots, leaving them there until it was time to get up.
However, with the free reign that people have on the internet to dress up their opinions as fact, the pendulum of parenting may now have swung too far the other way. Aside from being patently untrue, these ideas are raising the bar to unrealistic levels for parents.
I’ve seen parents who are wearing their children every waking hour – not necessarily because they want to, but because they feel like they have to so that their baby won’t cry.
I’ve seen others who don’t feel that they can take a shower in case their baby cries while they are in the bathroom for a few minutes. Parents are killing themselves in their attempts to reach unattainable standards, and sacrificing their own self-care in the meantime. So how do we find a middle ground that works better for everybody?
Responding over reacting
We all want to be responsive parents – and it’s what our children need from us too.
Our love and responsiveness grow our children’s brains – not the absence of crying.
Following even the most stressful bout of crying, this study found that our children are physiologically back to their base-line of zero after 30 minutes of responsive love from us, whether that be time spent skin-to-skin, simply in close contact, or having a cuddle.
So how does responsiveness differ from reacting?
Remember how I said earlier that our children crying raises our blood pressure?
Well this, coupled with society’s extreme and erroneous messages about crying being damaging, means that we often panic and jump in to attempt to stop the crying immediately.
This is what I’m classing here as ‘reacting’.
However, often when we react too quickly, we actually make things worse. What if, say, your baby had a sore tummy, but in order to stop the crying, you started feeding them right away?
Or perhaps your baby emits a tired cry because they’re frustrated that it’s taking longer than usual today to get to sleep? You may react by picking them up immediately, walking them out of their bedroom, or perhaps trying to distract them.
This distinction isn’t intended to make you feel bad for trying to soothe your child and getting it wrong sometimes; that happens. It’s about understanding that slowing down can help you to respond better and change your approach as needed while you try to meet your baby or child’s needs.
Being a responsive parent doesn’t mean that your baby is unable to cry. Take a moment to stop and listen. Consider your child’s cries in the context of what’s going on in their day.
Perhaps it’s 3am and your baby has been asleep all night; they’re possibly hungry. If it’s a cry mid-nap, they might need a little help to settle back to sleep. Mid play-time, it might be that they hurt their finger on a toy.
Or if it’s getting close to naptime, or a meal, you may deduce that your child is hungry or tired a little earlier than usual (they’re not usually able to tell the time, after all!)
Crying is communication, not manipulation
Crying is natural and normal. Children – whether babies or toddlers – all express their emotions through tears.
Whether during sleep training, or just as they move through life in general, their tears can be caused by any number of things and are always appropriate (even if you don’t think your toddler having their sandwiches cut in squares when they wanted triangles warrants quite that reaction!)
Crying is simply your small human’s way of expressing their difficult emotions. Consider it this way; it’s entirely unrealistic that your child (or even you, as an adult) would feel content and happy 100% of the time.
Being allowed to cry, and not having that suppressed or shut down, is all part of fostering healthy responses to difficult emotions.
Our job, as parents, is simply to be there for them through these times and through their tears. It’s about letting them know that you will work through their difficult emotions together. Give them a cuddle; be there for the crying.
While tears themselves are not damaging, the prevailing narrative about crying is. It’s fuelling feelings of failure in parents who are actually doing a damn good job.
Your child doesn’t come with an instruction manual; you’ve got to figure out what they’re about.
Crying is part of that journey and what matters is slowing down enough to listen and to learn – to respond instead of react.
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I was convinced by my coffee group to never let my son cry. We got to 12 months, and he was grumpy, highly strung, and not fun to be around. I couldn’t put him down for 5 minutes without him crying, and me rushing to rescue him. I had to hold him for all naps, my friends called this contact napping, but it was hell. I was fighting with my husband who came home at 7pm each night to find I had achieved nothing all day, and my mood was getting worse and worse as I tried to convince myself this was the right choice, my son was so little, he needed me. At night my husband slept in the spare room, and my friends and I joked about how the bedroom wasn’t the only place for bedroom activities as a way to defend the bed sharing with these toddlers who woke more than they slept. But honestly mine was a loveless marriage. All to ensure that my toddler didn’t cry. It came to a head when my Mum stepped in and spoke some sense to me. I did some research, spoke to my toddlers doctor about crying, and he assured me cry it out was safe, and I had reached the age where this was my only option, I couldn’t carry on like this, and my toddler needed more sleep! The reality of the cry it out was only one block of 37 minutes crying and then he slept through the night! Naps were a bit harder, but worth it. I had convinced myself this crying would break our bond, ruin my child, but the reality was I was a happier mother, he was happier, and it would take more than some simple sleep training to break this bond! Thank you for speaking the truth!
Yes! I was so worried about leaving my baby to cry I was wearing her in a front pack 24/7 just to avoid any tears.
She was so exhausted, I was exhausted, honestly we were a hot mess.
I finally had my mum come over for the weekend and she put her to bed and made me go and get lunch by myself.
My daughter took a 2 hour nap in her cot!
We have been working on self settling ever since.
I wish I had relaxed a bit about the crying earlier on!