Every parent in the world is familiar with the crying baby problem. How should you respond when a baby cries? Should you rush to his or her aid, in a demonstration of love and nurturing? Or should you try to ignore it in an attempt to foster greater independence and self-soothing skills?
There is no easy answer to this problem, and each parent has to decide for him or herself what strategy to employ.
I used science and history to show that over time, we are learning that pampering is an important part of wellbeing. To make people feel well, we need to make them feel good.
Because I was a new parent, my talk was heavily influenced by all the parenting books I was reading. The crying baby problem was a perfect example to support my “pro-pampering” platform.
In 1928, psychologist John Watson published The Psychological Care of Infant and Child, with the notion that parental affection should be withheld from any behavior that one did not want to reinforce. In other words, attending to a crying baby would only reinforce needy, whiny behavior and the result would be a spoiled crybaby.
Watson’s approach would influence parenting heavily for the next several decades (perhaps even to this day.) But things shifted in the 1950s when another psychologist, John Bowlby, began to study maternal deprivation and attachment theory (inspired by his own boarding school childhood.)
The research now shows conclusively, (and this is what I argued in my pampering presentation) that parental affection and responsiveness is crucial for child wellbeing. Most parenting books today, which used to advise ignoring the crying baby, now emphasize the importance of bonding and responding.
But now I realize that the bond and respond solution that I shared in my talk still does not tell the whole story. Now that I have a few years of parenting under my belt, I’ve learned that this is yet another false dichotomy.
The real answer to the question of ignoring or responding to a crying baby is, “it depends,” i.e., “context matters.” The strategy that I’ve evolved with my two sons is simple: I use my judgment.
Sometimes my kids need extra attention and affection. Sometimes they need to work things out for themselves. And both they and I need to learn the different contextual landscapes where these different strategies should be employed.
Many parenting books will caution that you should only do what you are prepared to do all the time (e.g. picking your crying baby up, letting your child slip into bed with you, staying in your child’s room until they fall asleep.) The idea is that once you start these “indulgent” activities, your child will become more dependent on them and you won’t be able to stop.
I have found this not to be the case. When one of my sons is sick, for example, he becomes very needy, wanting to be held often, or wanting me to stay in his room with him while he sleeps. But once he is feeling better, he no longer needs (or expects) the extra attention. He learns that peoples’ needs change over time, and expectations should too.
In a recent article in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, psychologist Robert Epstein suggests that the important question to ask is, “what do we want the baby to learn?” Consistently ignoring the baby may teach that crying is not an effective strategy (and may reduce crying in certain situations.) But it also teaches helplessness, and that they cannot rely on even their closest loved ones for support.
Consistently responding to a crying baby, on the other hand, teaches trust and secure attachment. But it also teaches that crying and negativity is an effective strategy for getting what one needs.
Epstein suggests a slightly different approach. It’s called “waiting-for-a-pause” and involves responding to a crying baby, but timing your response to when the crying diminishes or subsides (even if only briefly.) In this model, the child learns to trust in the responsiveness of their parents, but they also learn that they get a better response when they are able to manage their own emotional reactions.
There’s no research to share here, just an anecdotal idea from me and another from a psychologist who specializes in behavior and who happens to have four kids of his own. Try them out and see if they work for you. Or tell me how you respond(ed) to your little ones in tears.
References and recommended reading:
Epstein, R. (2012). Crying babies. The Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212144712000026
by Jeremy McCarthy