The cry of a child is heartbreaking. His tears feel like ours. His sadness invades us and his discomfort breaks us. However, many still think that it is better to let children cry so that they become stronger. Following the imprint left by Spartan education, they are denied that consoling embrace that restores their security for fear of spoiling them.
The idea of letting babies “cry,” going against our natural instinct to hold them, dates back to the 1880s, when doctors were so scared of germs and the spread of infections that they recommended touching as little as possible the babies to protect them from possible contagion.
Later, in the 20th century, “men of science” continued to hold this position, although for different reasons. They believed that being too solicitous and kind to babies would spoil them and make them dependent. At that time, their main objective was for children to learn to be independent as soon as possible.
However, a study conducted at the University of California in 1994 found that parents who tended to respond to their babies’ needs before they became too distressed, preventing them from crying, were more likely to raise independent children than those that let them cry inconsolably.
Babies do not comfort themselves, they shut up because they resign themselves to not receiving help
A baby does not confort himself. When a baby is frightened and hugged by his mother or father, he nurtures calming expectations that reinforce his ability to comfort himself later. In fact, babies develop self-regulation through the relationship they establish with their parents.
If we let them cry, they will shut up at some point, not because they have developed self-control, but because they understand that they will not receive help and are afraid. As a result, they learn to shut down from distress. They stop growing emotionally, they stop feeling and they stop trusting, as confirmed by researchers from Charles Drew University.
Anguish and stress in young children creates the perfect conditions for synapses’ damage, the process of building neural networks that underlies learning. Numerous studies have proven that when children cry, their cortisol levels increase, a hormone that we could classify as a true “neuron killer”, although its cognitive consequences are not immediately appreciated but later in life.
Trust can also be undermined when babies are left crying too much. As Erik Erikson pointed out, the first year of life is a sensitive period for establishing a sense of trust in the world and in oneself. When a baby’s needs are met without first experiencing great distress, the child learns that the world is a safe place and that relationships are trustworthy, thus developing a positive image of himself as a person capable of satisfying his needs.
Instead, when parents dismiss or ignore their baby’s needs, that child will develop the idea that the world is a hostile place. He is likely to grow up with a sense of mistrust in relationships and will not trust himself either as he will not see himself as someone with the right skills to meet his needs. Such a child may end up developing an anxious attachment and may spend a lifetime trying to fill the resulting void within.
Hugs, the best food for the soul
Calming care, that which is exercised from the heart, is the best strategy from the beginning because once distress patterns are established, it is much more difficult to change them. For that reason, when you hear your child cry, pick him up and hold him until he calms down.
Your son should know that he can count on you when he cries because his favorite stuffed animal has been lost, because even if it is a trivial nonsense to you, it is a painful loss for him that he must overcome.
Hug him when he falls and gets hurt, so that he regains his self-confidence and tries again – and as many times as necessary – because he will learn to persevere.
Hug him when someone hurts his feelings, so his ability to love and his kindness don’t dry up.
When he wakes up in the middle of the night scared by a nightmare, to scare away the monsters and fears with love.
When he fails or feels tired, so he doesn’t give up and can move on.
When he gets frustrated, so he can start over with more patience.
And even when he cries because he can’t get away with it, for him to understand that he can’t always have it all, but it’s okay.
Hug and comfort your son while he is little, because one day he may cry and you can only comfort him from a distance. Or maybe he will feel bad and your arms will no longer be the solution, or will not be the ones he will turn to first.
One day those hugs may not be as necessary or comforting as the ones you gave him when he was little, but at least you’ll know that they’ve helped raise a confident, independent, and capable adult. Because hugs also serve to grow.
Comfort your little one. And hug him a lot. For as long as you can, for as long as life allows you.
Davis, A. & Kramer, R. (2021) Commentary: Does ‘cry it out’ really have no adverse effects on attachment? Reflections on Bilgin and Wolke. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry; 62(12): 1488-1490.
Thomas, R.M. et. Al. (2007) Acute Psychosocial Stress Reduces Cell Survival in Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis without Altering Proliferation. The Journal of Neuroscience. 27(11): 2734-2743.
Henry, J.P., & Wang, S. (1998) Effects of early stress on adult affiliative behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology; 23(8): 863-875.
Stein, J. A., & Newcomb, M. D. (1994) Children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviors and maternal health problems. Journal of Pediatric Psychology; 19(5): 571-593.