Many times parents of infants are told not to spoil their child and let the child “cry it out.” We are talking about infants, not three year olds or teenagers. Infants crying can become a constant strain on parent’s nerves. It can make for sleeplessness, irritation, and sometimes aggression. I mean in the parents – not the child! Though it also can have that effect on the child too.
So, what is to be done? Let them “cry it out” or “spoil them.”
Before we answer this question, we need to take a look at the “whys”. Why is the child crying? Is it something that can be easily solved? There can be many reasons a child cries including:
- soiled or wet diaper
Those are the easy ones to solve. What about when we are unsure why the infant is crying? We can make a guess:
- parent has left the room
- too cold or too hot
Some of these can be easily solved too. By the way, the child is supposed to cry when the parent leaves the room! That is a good response as it shows they are aware and attached to their parents.
Sometimes it is a bit more complicated. The child is fed, changed, parent is there, they seem warm enough but not too warm, and yet they continue to cry. What then?
So now do we let the child “cry it out” or do we “spoil” them?
First of all, those are not the two options. But let’s take a look at what happens when we let a child “cry it out.”
When we let a child “cry it out” we are really telling them that their needs do not matter, they do not matter, and that they should be able to calm down on their own. However, a child needs to learn how to calm down on their own and the way to do this is to first calm down with the help of others. The child left to “cry it out” will eventually stop crying. But the reason is because they now feel abandoned. Their needs have not been met and they give up expressing their needs. It may help in the short term, but in the long term the child does not feel the love and support that is necessary.
A child cries to express that something is wrong. They do not have words, and they might not have any other way to communicate. So, they cry. I believe there is always a reason they cry and yet the adults do not always know the reason. To say “the child just wants attention” is actually silly. Isn’t that what we all want? Attention, love, to know we are cared for. That is what all humans want.
When we say “they just want attention” what are we really saying? Are we saying they want more attention than they deserve? Are we saying they want more attention than we are able to give them? Are we saying they should not be so selfish? When you say or think “they just want attention” I challenge you to think about what you mean.
What else happens when we let a child “cry it out”? Studies show “that the number of children using self-comfort objects, such as pacifiers, security blankets, or stuffed animals is much larger in the U.S. than in cultures in which infants and children neither sleep by themselves nor are encouraged to self-console (Miller & Commons, 2010)” (p. 64). Basically, when we let the child “cry it out” the child learns that they are alone, they cannot rely on others, that they must deal with things by themselves, and that they are ultimately not worth the time and effort. Self-soothing becomes soothing with pacifiers or other security objects instead of people as their security.
So, what do we do? We hold the child. We tell them it will be ok. And we love them to the best of our abilities. One study showed that “infants who were held much less cried 50% more overall” (Miller & Commons, 2013, p. 63). That is, held when they weren’t crying and when they were. The child’s response was less overall crying.
Not convinced? Think about how much stress there is in the world. Then think about this; “infants who are less often responded to or who are not responded to very quickly are likely to experience more stress” (Miller & Commons, 2013, p. 63). When children are soothed, their brain learns how to deal with situations better, how to cope better with stress, and develops neurological pathways over time that continue to grow and increase their tolerance for stress.
The term for this type of responsiveness is child-centered parenting. “Child-centered parenting involves learning to read the cues of the infant and responding appropriately to those cues. . . . A main result of such practices is a reduction in stressful situations for the infant” (Miller & Commons, 2013, p. 62).
Let them “cry it out” or “spoil them”. Those are not the options. The options really are to teach are children they are alone, or to help them to know they are worth it. So show them love, hold them close, sing to them and sleep with them if necessary.
Mary Stanwood (2019)
Miller, P. M. & Commons, M. L. (2013). Why not “crying it out” part 2: Can Certain infant care practices cause excessive stress? Clinical Lactation, 4-2. 62-65.