Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Crying babies and toddlers and what to do about it

I've been thinking a lot about baby/toddler crying and how to handle it. There is no shortage of opinions and strategies for dealing with tears: from the "no cry" programs and Attachment Parenting's (AP) tear-phobia, to "Cry it Out" sleep training, "the Pause," and tantrum-response strategies. It can be hard to wade through it all.
A quick search of kind of illustrates my point. One of the basic tenants of AP is super-responsiveness to crying and so never even considering cry it out because, cortisol! and brain damage! and your kid's intelligence! 

Dr. Allan Schore of the UCLA School of Medicine has demonstrated that the stress hormone cortisol (which floods the brain during intense crying and other stressful events) actually destroys nerve connections in critical portions of an infant’s developing brain. 

{But at the same time, don't respond too quickly. Or too slowly! and also, it all totally depends and will change. And gosh, that clears things up.}

I've tried to sort this out for myself and this is what I've come up with

1) Infancy. 
The only way infants can communicate is by crying. It is important to respond to their cries, this is the basis of their communication skills (learning that their actions can get a response). However, I like the idea behind "the Pause," the notion that you should listen to the cry before responding. Learn the different cries (half-asleep cry, pained cry, etc.) and learn how to respond appropriately. As the mom who suffered through a baby's colic, I also like to emphasize that it is not your job or even a realistic expectation to always prevent or "fix" the tears (so they never cry like the baby's in Dr. Sear's mythical primitive cultures that he "studied"; or the super rocked, swaddled, shushed, sideways, and stunned quiet babies, a la the Happiest Baby on the Block). Sometimes responding just means peacefully holding them and waiting for the tears to run their course.

2) Older babies and toddlers. 
Once a kid is able to communicate in non-crying ways, it is important to be very responsive to these more advanced forms of communication. It is also appropriate at this time to be less fanatical about responding to crying; in other words, to sometimes ignore it (i.e., tantrums and other undesirable behavior/communication strategies.) This is the age when you might try to sleep train or to practice some of the Verbal Behavior Approach strategies for encouraging your child to make requests through sign language or words (usually between six and ten months babies can start gesturing for what they want; holding arms up to be held, pointing, etc).

Sometimes I wonder if the attachment parenting emphasis on responding to a crying child might be unintentionally causing a lot of problems. (as in, I've seen it first hand) Like what if some of the sensory processing or language delay stuff that isn't clinically significant or "on the spectrum" are just examples of learned/unproductive behaviors that flourished under parental fears of crying? Like night nursing every time a baby wakes up so that they want it but don't need it and will never ever sleep through the night on their own ever. In toddler terms this would look like when your kid freaks out when you try to get him dressed so you say, never mind! and (a) you reinforce that tantrums are a good "escape" strategy, and (b) your kid loses out on a chance to learn that getting dressed is not so bad. Or if your kid throws a fit because she wants some juice and you run and pour it instead of trying to get them to ask or sign for it calmly? You will (a) reinforce the tantrum as a way to get what you want and (b) miss out on a motivated opportunity to learn/practice words or signs to communicate. Anecdotally, the queen of Attachment Parenting and super-responsive parenting, Blossom, I mean Amy Farrah Fowler, I mean Mayim Bialik said in her book that her older child was very language delayed, but not on the spectrum, and her almost-four-year old was barely verbal. Just throwing that out there. 

3) Older Children.
At some point, it seems like you can back off of the conditioned response stuff and start having logical discussions about their behavior. And like your responsiveness to tears, this can be phased in. And just like there are some tears you should always respond to (hurt tears), there are some aspects of conditioning that you can always use. Even with grown ups. But at this point you will have bigger issues to deal with than how to ask for juice. Things like when is it OK to quit, who is it not a great person to hang out with (or god forbid, date), stuff like that. And this is the point when Alfie Kohn would say that rewards and punishments undermine intrinsic motivation and should have been avoiding from the beginning. Because chaos and destruction are the immediate aftermath of a token economy. But, eh. You can't please them all.


  1. Very interesting post. It can get stressful when children & babies cry but we, parents, must also learn to be patient & calm when tt happens :)

    1. Yes! that is for sure the hardest and most important part.