Controlled crying - cry out or pick up?

Written by Suzie Hayman, Family Lives Trustee

If you accept the evidence about attachment,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. You are programmed to find that noise to alert you into action to try and stop it, and bring comfort to the source of the clamour.  

Controlled crying baby pic

When it continues, you may feel rapidly more and more distressed yourself. 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.  

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 

Food allergies and a sensitivity to some formula or a gastrointestinal upset could be an issue. If your baby cries a lot, have a chat with your health visitor. 

Be patient and calm

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. 

Hold them to soothe the crying

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.

Building a strong foundation

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. If you are going to do this, safety is an issue and it is important to understand this. If you are heavy sleepers then we would strongly advise against having the baby in your bed. It is advisable to have a cot in the bedroom instead. 

If you have room for the child to have their own nursery. It is important you speak to your health visitor about when is the right time for them to go into their own room. When 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. Mum may be the one spending the majority of the day with a new baby, after the first two weeks. But partners and siblings and grandparents could be around as well. When the other parent is around, it’s really important that they have as much opportunity to do so as possible. Not just holding on the lap, rolling on the floor or sofa and exchanging raspberries and other sounds. But sharing the care including feeding, reading stories, singing with the baby and more. 

Think about what’s around them

Some babies cry 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 stressed or to blame yourself if your baby is crying. The reality is that some babies cry a lot, and all babies cry to some extent. 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.  

Get a rhythm going

There are plenty of products around that play on a baby’s need to be rocked such as bouncy seats, bouncy cradles that hang in doorways. This is to emulate the feeling they used to get in the womb. 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. 

Relax 

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. 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. 

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. Our section on singing with your baby has guided videos for all the popular nursery rhymes. 

Control the crying with a feed

Food soothes, whether from breast or bottle. 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 the other parent 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. 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. 

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 teach them to be sympathetic and empathetic to others. We need to sympathise with their fears, empathise with their needs before we can expect them to turn it outwards. 

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. 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.

This page was updated on March 2021.

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