Controlled crying - cry out or pick up?

Written by Suzie Hayman, Family Lives Trustee

Controlled crying baby pic

If you accept the evidence about attachment, as I do, you see that letting a baby cry is not the best response. Of course, babies will cry and will often continue to do so way beyond human endurance. A baby’s cry is designed for one thing – to scrape like a nail across a hard surface and raise every hair on the back of your neck. You are programmed to find that noise just about the most distressing possible, to galvanise you into action to try and stop it, and bring comfort to the source of the clamour.  When it continues, you feel rapidly more and more distressed yourself. You feel guilty, incompetent, frantic, frustrated and eventually enraged. Your anger is at yourself, for being unable to come up with the magic that soothes your baby. It can easily and very naturally be directed at the baby for not accepting your attempts. That’s the point at which you may feel driven to moan, cry or shout at the baby, to shake it to please understand you are trying, to hit out. Or, to put it down so you can walk away and take a few deep breathes to regain your calm. And some experts will say you should leave a child in this state to ‘cry out’ because eventually the child will ‘self soothe’ – come to a point when they cry themselves to sleep, and that will teach them to cope by themselves at a later date.

In fact, the evidence suggests leaving a baby to cry simply floods them with stressful hormones. That doesn’t help them stop crying or go to sleep. They eventually wear themselves into exhaustion and drop off, of course. But the flooding with stressful hormones physically damages them after a time – it holds back or even prevents some of their development. A baby who learns not to cry by being left is learning that no matter what his distress, no-one will come. He learns he’s been abandoned and there’s no point in looking for relief. Self soothing is for later, built on a foundation of parental soothing now. 

Controlled crying - what can you do with a crying baby?

We often say babies who cry, all the time or regularly at certain times in the day, are colicky. This is actually more of a description than a diagnosis since we’re not certain why some babies suffer from colic and others do not. But it’s not unusual. Colic is defined as a baby who cries for at least three hours a day, at least three times a week. That apparently describes 1 in 5 babies in the western world.

Check their diet - is this causing the crying?

There are theories about diet, both the baby’s if fed on formula or the mother if the baby is breastfed. Some studies have suggested breastfeeding mothers avoiding cow’s milk and giving the baby some probiotic drops has an effect. Food allergies and a sensitivity to some formula or a gastrointestinal upset have all been blamed. The first thing you need to do if your baby cries a lot is discuss with your health visitor that you’ve checked she’s healthy and that everyone who handles her has their techniques for changing, feeding and burping right. Are you all happy to jiggle her around, to sing and talk to her to soothe her, and go on doing so as long as it takes?

Crying getting stressful - be patient

Whether you call it colic or not, if all the medical reasons have been ruled out, your baby is unlikely to go on crying like this for longer than three months. That may seem a lifetime at 2am when she’s been wailing since early evening, but it is a beacon to hold on to. Keep telling yourself This Too Shall Pass...

Hold them to soothe the crying

It’s an interesting fact that colic seems to be a condition only found in societies that have lost the habit of holding their babies. In societies where babies are routinely slung around the body of a parent or sibling or grandparent all the time, babies hardly ever cry and certainly not for long. It may be that the diet in such cultures is different and goes towards such a difference. It may be the close contact, or a combination of those and other factors.  Whatever, we do know that babies who are carried from birth until they are ready to strike out exploring the world cry less. We’ve got out of the habit in our society of carrying small babies, so maybe now is the time to get back to using a sling and get into the habit of ‘wearing’ your baby.

Love doesn't ‘spoil’ children. It doesn't make them demanding or selfish or arrogant. On the contrary, a child given plenty of love learns not only to accept it, and become secure and safe and confident in the knowledge of being accepted and acceptable, she also becomes good at giving love. When children develop secure attachments to their carers, their self esteem and confidence, their ability to feel and show sympathy, experience empathy and demonstrate affection, all grow. And all of those increase a child’s ability to learn and to develop.

Consider sleep arrangements

Some families, in the early months, have their baby to sleep with them. There are arguments for and against having your baby in your bed. Baby likes it, there is no doubt! But some babies are noisy or restless and you do have to balance up the comfort to the baby against whether it will stop you from getting the sleep you need, and how it impacts on you and your partner. If you are going to do this, safety is an issue. Lying the child between you might feel better, keeping her away from any risk of falling out of bed, but if either of you are heavy sleepers there is a risk of your rolling towards your partner and squashing the baby between you. Having her on the mothers side means you can wake up when needed and breastfeed, while keeping her safe. But you do have to be aware of that drop, and either have the mattress on the floor for the period when your baby will share your bed, or push the bed against the wall, or have a bed wide enough for you to build a rampart with pillows and bedding to keep her in.

If bed sharing is not your choice, have the cot in the room. A child’s nursery or bedroom is a lovely idea – it tends to be the advertisers short hand code for a loving DIY dad, getting ready to welcome his new child. But young babies need to hear you breath and you need to hear them. Certainly, SIDS or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome also known as cot death is less likely in a baby that sleeps in the same room as parents but in their own cot for the first six months. Some parents move their baby into his own room in a matter of weeks, or months or even longer. That has to be a decision you take, judging when is best for all of you. You may want to be flexible. When you think the time is right, you can either put your baby to bed in her own room, or in yours and then move the cot with a sleeping child in it to the other room. Some children take to it  immediately. Some may need some practise runs. But as with so many baby issues, it seems children who experience plenty of ‘carry time’ being held in arms or slung in a sling are the ones who seem to find it easier to learn how to sleep well, and sleep on their own. It’s another reason to spend the time and effort in the first months building up that closeness and trust. 

Share the care 

If it sounds as if I’m saying mum has to do all of this, let’s stop that idea right now. The chances are, thanks to the lack of paternity or shared care in the UK (although it’s be hoped that will change) that mum will be the one spending the majority of the day with a new baby, after the first two weeks. But partners and siblings and grandparents will be around as well. A baby needs to be in close contact and preferably carried by people they know. That means dads too. When dad is around, it’s really important that he has as much opportunity to do so as possible. Not just holding on his lap, not just rolling on the floor or sofa and exchanging raspberries and other sounds. Carrying. If the baby cries it’s not because he’s doing anything wrong, because ‘men can’t manage’. It’s either because this is a baby who’s crying at the moment, and will cry whoever picks him up. Or because dad hasn't yet got the knack and the bond – and the only way he’s going to get them is to practise. It won’t hurt the baby for him to continue. And it won’t harm the baby, nor spoil any special relationship with the mother, if she takes a break by handing the baby over to someone else to soothe and carry.

Think about what’s around them

One suggestion for why babies cry is that they emerge from nine months of comfort and are suddenly thrown into a world of cold draughts, strange sounds, and no movement. They’ve heard your heartbeat all that time, been suspended and rocked in a warm bath in the dark. Their brains need some time to get used to all that extra stimulation, and in the meantime they may cry as a protest, or cry as a way of releasing the tension such a shock produces. Some babies do this from the beginning, and others start after a few weeks. That may be because as they grow they become more aware of what’s around them, and stay awake longer so getting more tired. You can do much to make the conditions more like what they’ve been used to. Some babies respond to ‘swaddling’ – being wrapped up in a blanket or fleece. Dimming the lights, singing or humming or putting on music with a beat that is the same as your heartbeat, can help. Some mums report putting on the washing machine or vacuum cleaner has the same effect. But most of all, hold them and rock them.

Don’t take it personally if your child cries 

It’s so easy to feel got at, as if your baby is judging you and telling you you’ve failed. Or to blame yourself for not being skilful enough to know how to help. The reality is that some babies cry a lot, and all babies cry to some extent and at some times. It’s not your fault they do so, nor a lack of any effort or skill on your part if they don’t stop when you do everything you can think of to help. Sometimes, you just have to wait until the distress stops or the crying has the effect the baby is after – to release that tension.  Keep telling yourself “Sometimes, babies have to cry...”

Get a rhythm going

There are plenty of products around that play on a baby’s need to be rocked; bouncy seats, bouncy cradles that hang in doorways...none actually get the point, which is that babies want to be bounded and jounced and moved around in the same way and for the same reason as they did when in the womb. That is, with the safety and comfort and security of human contact. It’s probably why rocking chairs were once so popular, because instead of having to carry a heavy baby around you could sit back and rest them on your knee or hugged against your chest and give them that rhythm with very little effort on your part. But the rocking, while a deal easier than carrying a child, is still about close contact and connection, which bouncers are not. 


Babies can sense your emotions, which you can’t help but show through your body. If you’re happy your body is relaxed and loose. If you’re under tension, your body will be tight and tense. If you hold them while feeling miserable, they will respond by crying. If you’re on your own that may be the time to lay your baby down, make sure she is safe and walk away for a short time. But not to let her cry out – to let yourself calm down until you can go back. You don’t want a vicious circle to be established where she cries and you put her she cries, and you find it hard to hold her. Holding helps. Sometimes you may not believe it, but it does. The aim is to get back to it as soon as you can. One suggestion is to put on some music, with the joint aim of soothing the baby and yourself, but also making her cries less distressing to you. Wearing ear phones or buds can be a great help, until you or your baby has calmed down.

Babies like a song or two

Babies like noise – it mimics the shush of blood and thump of heartbeat they could hear whilst in the womb. It really doesn't matter if you think you sound like a foghorn; your baby is not going to be holding up scorecards. Sing, hum, burble away. Making rhythmic shushing noises works as well. Tell them stories, talk about your day or what you're going to do, even though it will be months before words have any meaning. As long as it’s got a rhythm and comes from you, your baby will love it.

Control the crying with a feed

Food soothes, whether from breast or bottle. It is worth noting that babies fed on schedule rather than on demand seem to suffer more from colic. Maybe that’s because babies fed on demand  are given what they want and need, when they want or need it. Breast is best, there is no doubt, from both a nutritional standpoint and an emotional one – there’s nothing quite as soothing for a child as to be fed while being skin to skin with mother. But the one advantage of bottle feeding, which cannot be denied, is that it does give dad an opportunity to share. It means you can agree to dividing up night-time feeds, so both of you get a chance to sleep. Of course, if you are breastfeeding you can discuss with your health visitor about expressing milk for just that purpose.

Some parents worry that attending to their every need and being so responsive to a small child will stop them developing the ability to manage for themselves. Will it make them too dependent on you and stifle their ability to strengthen those muscles and crawl and walk away from you? On the contrary, since carrying or wearing a baby is for while they are helpless and dependant on you it builds up what is important at the time – their trust and confidence in you. Once a child gets to the stage when it wants to begin to develop independence, you’ll know because he’ll let you know.

Controlled crying - won’t a baby get too used to being the centre of attention?

Babies, and toddlers and children after, do think they are the centre of the universe. It’s part of our job as parents to slowly disabuse them of that fantasy and teach them to be sympathetic and empathetic to others, and share the limelight. But we do this on the foundation of first giving them all the sympathy and empathy they will learn from us to apply to others. We need to sympathise with their fears, empathise with their needs before we can expect them to turn it outwards. So yes, they do have to be the centre of attention, at first. And yes, that does mean we have to do a balancing act between them and their needs, and our own needs and those of everyone else in or family. Partners need to be aware of each other and make efforts to still make it clear they love and care for, and attend to and cherish each other, and any other children they have. Friends and more distant family members may have to be told you love them and care for them but don’t have as much time for them at the moment as you'd like.

Babies will go to sleep when they are tired, if they are also well, well fed, comfortable and feel safe. Newborns tend to sleep around sixteen to eighteen hours a day – annoyingly, more during the day than at night. A child of any age is going to be scared of sleeping, and find it hard to drop off, if they’re alone and insecure. Whilst a baby, being rocked and held and soothed by your voice is what sends them off, not being left to cry until they sleep from exhaustion. They tend to stay asleep if they can sense they are connected and secure, which is why they may well wake up and cry if you put them down.

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