Life Magazine November/December 1998
The Natural Child
Parenting And Educating That Respects
A Baby Cries
by Jan Hunt
Imagine for a moment that you have been abducted by space ship to a distant
planet, and you are surrounded by giant strangers whose language you do not
speak. Two of those strangers take you under their care. You are entirely
dependent on them for the satisfaction of all your needs – hunger, thirst,
comfort, and especially reassurance – that you are safe in this strange place.
Then imagine that something is very wrong – you are in pain, or terribly
thirsty, or in need of emotional support. But your two attendants ignore your
cries of distress, and you are unable to get them to help you or to understand
your needs. Now you have another problem, more serious than the first: you feel
completely helpless and alone in an alien world.
In all innocence, a baby assumes that we, as her parents, are
correct, that whatever we do is what we ought to be doing. If we do
nothing, the baby can only conclude that she is unloved because she is
unlovable. It is not within her capabilities to conclude that we are only
busy, distracted, worried, misled by “experts”, or simply inexperienced as
parents. No matter how deeply we love our baby, it is mostly the outward
manifestations of that love that the baby can understand.
No one likes to have their communication ignored. and if it is, this
brings on feelings of helplessness and anger that inevitably damage the
relationship. Such a response seems to be one that is universally
experienced by adults, and there is no reason to conclude that it is any
different for babies and children. Few people would ignore an adult while he
repeatedly said, “Can you help me? I'm not feeling right”. Ignoring such a
request would be considered most unkind. But a baby cannot make such a
statement; she can only cry and cry until someone responds – or until she
gives up in despair.
Immediate response to a baby’s cry went unquestioned for thousands of
years until recent times. In our culture, we assume that crying is normal
and unavoidable for babies. Yet in natural societies where babies are
carried close to the care-giver much of the day and night for the first
several months, such crying is rare. In contrast to what many in our society
would expect, babies cared for in this way show self-sufficiency sooner than
do babies not receiving such care.
In fact, research on early childhood experiences consistently shows that
children who have enjoyed the most loving care in infancy become the most
secure and loving adults, while those babies who have been forced into
submissive behavior build up feelings of resentment and anger that may well
be expressed later in harmful ways.
In spite of this research, most arguments for ignoring crying are based
on fears of “spoiling” the baby. A typical baby-care brochure advises the
parent to “let the baby handle it for a while.” Though infancy can be a
challenging time for the parents, a baby is simply too young and
inexperienced to handle the cause of the crying, whatever it may be. She
cannot feed herself, change herself, or comfort herself in the way that
nature intended. Clearly, it is the parents’ responsibility to meet their
baby’s needs for nurturing, security, and love, not the baby’s
responsibility to meet her parents’ need for peace and solitude.
The pamphlet implies that if the parents give their baby an opportunity
to become self-reliant, they are helping her to mature. But an infant is
simply not capable of such maturity. True maturity reflects a strong
foundation of emotional security that can only come about from the love and
support of those closest to her during the earliest years.
An immature person can only respond to stress in an immature way. A baby
denied her birthright of comforting from her parents may respond by turning
to ineffective self-stimulation (head-banging, rhythmic rocking,
thumb-sucking, etc.) and emotional withdrawal from others. If her needs are
routinely ignored, she may decide that loneliness and despair are preferable
to risking further disappointment and rejection. Unfortunately, this
decision, once made, can become a permanent outlook, leading to an
emotionally impoverished life.
Many child-care professionals feel that parental encouragement of
self-satisfiers and over-substitution of material objects – teddy bears
substituting for parents, strollers for arms, cribs for shared sleep,
pacifiers for nursing, toys for parents’ attention, music boxes for voices,
formula for breast-milk, wind-up swings for laps – have led to an age of
materialistic acquisition, personal loneliness and lack of emotional
Ignoring a baby’s crying is like using earplugs to stop the distressing
noise of a smoke detector. The sound of a smoke detector is meant to alert
us to a serious matter that requires a response. And so is the cry of a
baby. As Jean Liedloff wrote in The Continuum Concept, “a baby’s cry
is precisely as serious as it sounds”.
Stressful though it may be, infant crying should be seen not as a power
struggle between parent and child, but as a gift of nature to ensure that
all babies can grow to adulthood with a generous capacity for love and