We as parents are hard-wired to respond to crying, especially when it is our baby who is doing the crying. I remember when my kids were young; every time I would hear them cry at night, I’d be up on my feet to go to them before I was even awake! I know how hard it is to wait to respond, but I have come to realize that by pausing to really listen, you are giving your child time to find ways to settle themselves to sleep, and back to sleep, on their own. You don’t have to wait for long, but by taking a moment to listen, you are allowing your child time to figure out what to do.
I know that this is a hot topic, and I am not suggesting that you leave a baby to cry in distress, but I do think there is a lot of confusion when it comes to letting a baby cry. And guilt. And worry. Is it ok to let my baby cry? If so, for how long? Is it going to damage them in any way? How can there be so much conflicting advice about this issue?
A lot depends on the age of your baby, and the kind of crying they are doing. A newborn’s cry almost always means they are overwhelmed and need help calming down. As a baby grows, their cries take on a more distinct meaning, and you can start to hear the difference between a tired cry, a pain cry, a hungry cry, and a distress cry.
Some babies cry very intensely right from the get-go, while others are slower to ramp up. Some fuss for a while before beginning to cry, while others roller coaster through fussing and crying and then fussing again. By taking the time to listen to your baby, you are getting to know their particular patterns, and what their crying might be saying.
It can be very hard to let your baby cry, especially if you feel that it is your job as a parent to make sure your baby is happy and content all the time. This kind of pressure can make it very hard to parent. The truth is, you can’t keep your baby happy all the time. By allowing your child the space to express all their feelings, you are telling them you are ok with all feelings, and you trust that they will eventually calm down.
This is much harder to do in the middle of the night. It can be frustrating to have your baby wailing and not be able to help them calm down. There are times when you do what you can to help your baby shift gears, and there are times when you want to give them time to fully release whatever tension and upset is going on.
Tired crying has a particular sound to it, and usually means your baby is getting ready to let go to sleep, or is resisting letting go to sleep. Some babies seem to really struggle with the transition from being awake to falling asleep, and really fight the process. Others need to let off some steam before they can let go. By giving your baby time to release those feelings you are making it easier for them to get to sleep.
Here are some suggestions regarding crying:
Keep in mind the age of your baby, and what they are capable of. A newborn who is swaddled has very little they can do to calm down themselves. Make sure your expectations are in alignment with the age and stage your baby is in.
Recognize crying and fussing as communication. Try to listen to what you think is being said. Breathe through your own reaction, and see if you can take a moment to really hear your baby before you respond.
Especially as your baby gets older, by giving them some time to work on settling themselves, you are letting them know you believe they can do it. Over-helping can get in the way of your child’s learning.
Try and accept that crying is going to happen, no matter what you do. Accepting and allowing your baby to express their upset feelings is as important as relishing their joy and laughter.
Know that crying is a way for your child to release tension, overwhelm, and frustration. And crying before letting go to sleep is common. Being tired (and especially overtired) often means there will be some tears as your child lets go.
And, crying in distress is different from tired crying. You know your baby (and yourself ) best, so know that you can always respond if you feel your baby is no longer crying in frustration and fatigue. The idea is to give your baby time (depending on their age, the amount of time you wait varies) to try and figure out what to do to settle themselves, but if your baby is too upset, then they are no longer learning what to do; they need your help to calm down.
This is just the tip of the iceberg on this subject. There’s nothing easy about hearing your baby cry, no matter how you listen to it. I know I struggled with this issue when my kids were young. Crying can trigger our own upset, which can make it tough to keep a clear head with it. But by trying to allow all feelings to be expressed, you are giving your child the gift of your attention and compassion, which hopefully, in turn, you can give to yourself. And know that I am here to support you if you’d like help deciphering your baby’s cries.
Disclaimer: Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parents' discretion.