The Crying Baby Problem

Looking back
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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 first spoke about this when I gave a talk on “In Defense of Pampering” at the New York Spa Alliance a few days after my first son was born.

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.

John Watson

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.

Happy Mothers Day!
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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.

Ojos Grandes
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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.


by Jeremy McCarthy

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7 Responses to The Crying Baby Problem

  1. S. February 5, 2013 at 8:02 pm #


    Great summary.

    It’s heart-wrenching sometimes to hear a baby cry – especially when you know that going to the baby won’t help him or her. That they cry even more when the parent is around. Then it’s just a wait-it-out. Our pediatrician says, listen to your heart. Each parent knows how much crying they can handle.

    I’m starting to love the RIE method lately of talking to your baby all the time and explaining why you’re doing certain things, and asking the baby to participate in having his diaper changed, clothes put on, food given to him, etc. Combining the RIE method and my own general thoughts on crying lately, I’ve been asking my baby, “What do you want? Do you want a hug? Do you want to go look out the window (to distract yourself)? Do you want to keep crying a little?” It makes me feel like I’m trying more to have baby lead the way rather than just me deciding what to do.

    Thanks for the thought workout on this topic.

  2. Jeremy McCarthy February 5, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    Thanks S. I also have learned a lot by reading about RIE. But I enjoy playing with the kids too much to let them play by themselves. But I do engage them as much as possible in their care (as well as whatever I’m doing around the house.) I love those questions you ask. I usually try to be empathic by saying something like, “I know it’s no fun when you can’t have what you want.” or “I get sad too when Mommy is not here.” I’m going to try and ask more questions! Thanks!

  3. Judy Krings February 6, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    Having had a son who cried incessantly for the first 5 years and all doctors could say was, “Well, it is probably some digestive thing, but then maybe you are an anxious mother” (doesn’t a psychologist love to hear this!), I can identify with your message here.

    I learned the hard way not to feel total guilt. One neighbor who heard him told me one day, “How do you keep from wanting to kill him!?!” No kidding. I did the best I could. By kindergarten, he was better, but what a haul.

    I agree context is everything. Love enough but not over do it. I DID to learn to wait for the pause. Not easy! It taught me to have huge empathy for parents whose kid also had sleep disturbance or GI problems. Not to judge but to teach them to go gently with themselves if they were doing the best they could.

    Sean is 33 now. We laugh about his sleeping. He remembers not feeling well. We frame it as mutual tenacity. I am sure science now could tell exactly what was wrong, but 5 hospitalizations didn’t. Patience and love. A good match.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy February 6, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    Thanks Judy! The parenting advice I gave to my brother (who has a son just a little bit younger than ours) is this: “whether things are good or bad . . . they are going to change soon.”

    When things are good you have to really savor and enjoy them because it won’t always be that way. And when things are bad you just have to hold on and ride it out because it probably won’t last forever.

    As parents, we take on a lot of stress worrying about our kids’ wellbeing and upbringing (while trying to get some sleep along the way.) I try to hold the thought in my mind that no matter what I do as a parent, my boys are going to grow up, learn how to sleep through the night, learn how to go the bathroom and dress themselves, learn how to speak, and much much more. I don’t have to feel responsible for making all these things happen . . . I can just try and enjoy the ride.

  5. Judy Krings February 6, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    Spot on advice, Jeremy. Even though some folks Yes, I was sad to be missing a happy babyhood, but I was thrilled to have a child sick or not sick. I was grateful it wasn’t some major disease, so gratitude always sprung to the top of my neurons firing, “Hang on!”

    Thank God his doctor became a very close friend and major referral source to my clinical psych practice. His 3 kids became Sean’s baby sitters. Crying or not crying, they all loved him. So much good happened.

    And to tell the truth, Sean’s failure to thrive helped so many parents see that even a shrink has to deal with adversity. I had to cancel many therapy appointments for Sean, and the patients were so kind and empathetic. It’s how you show up. Life is challenging, but you are so right, Jeremy. Life goes on and smiles surface.

  6. Steve February 10, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    What an interesting post. I’m not a father so I don’t have much direct experience with crying babies. However, I have heard the suggestion to not respond to every instance of crying. I suppose when to respond would have to be up to the parent’s discretion.

    The “waiting for a pause” approach is something I haven’t heard before. It would be interesting to read about how that differs from the other approach of not responding once in a while. Maybe the next time I’m next to a crying baby, I can give it a try.

  7. KC @ genxfinance February 13, 2013 at 1:38 am #

    Can you ignore them when they are giving you the puppy-dog eyes? Nope. But somehow, I also agree with not responding to them once in a while when they cry. Or, I can give it a minute of two before soothing them.

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