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    Thoughts On Crying (and Crying It Out)

    Today, Kathleen at A Moment to Think wrote a thoughtful post on babies, crying, communication, and the Cry It Out method today – aptly titled Hear Me Out. Her messages are important: that babies deserve to be heard. And, that sometimes (often) what we’re hearing from babies is crying - and that while that might make us uncomfortable (because negative emotions do tend to make a lot of people uncomfortable), crying isn’t always bad.


    I agree with all of these things. Additionally, I believe examining our reactions to baby’s and children’s cries is worthwhile. Are we truly listening to our children when they cry? Or just desperately trying to “fix it”, so they stop crying? And if it’s the latter, why? Isn’t it okay sometimes for a baby to cry, just like we, as adults sometimes cry?


    Crying in babies and children isn’t inherently bad. I also agree that children need to be heard. Children, like all people, need to be able to express their emotions in a supported environment (as Annie at PhD in Parenting eloquently expressed in her post, I’ll Hold You While You Cry) – whether they are tiny babies or toddlers having a tantrum or young children having difficulty expressing all the grown up emotions they are starting to feel within their still-small bodies and inexperienced brains. Crying isn’t bad, and doesn’t always need to be fixed, (and certainly doesn’t need to be punished).


    However, as much as I agree with children’s need to be heard and allowed to express all of their emotions, I strongly disagree with the example used in her post that the Cry It Out (CIO) sleep training method (in case you aren’t familiar, CIO is leaving a baby to cry deliberately, usually at increasingly lengthened intervals, often without physical contact, as a way to get baby to sleep at night without assistance) is a valid way of doing this.

    (Source: Flikr Artist: Brian Baunach)

    Crying is normal. Crying can be okay. But an infant crying alone, without a caregiver to comfort her, as is the key of the cry it out method of sleep training, is not normal, and is not okay. While there are many variations of the CIO method; the essence of the method is giving a parent the okay to ignore baby’s only option of communication – crying – in an effort and in anticipation of a “better night sleep” (whether that “betterness” is for the parent’s “sanity” or the baby’s “health” depends on the book you read/follow to apply the CIO method).


    To quote Kathleen: “I do not accept that a parent that gives a infant the opportunity, in a loving and compassionate way, to feel the full range of emotions is causing harm.” I absolutely agree; I don't accept that either.  Allowing a baby to cry - it iself - is not what is harmful. Babies need to cry. But all babies need to and deserve to be heard when they cry; to be honored and listened to.  And crying it out is at its essence about NOT hearing, and thus, about not being compassionate, not giving an infant the opportunity to feel the full range of emotions in an supported environment. CIO is essentially ignoring baby's full range of emotions by allowing - encouraging - a parent not to attend to baby. I do not see this method as compassionate nor allowing baby to express emotions in a safe way. So I don't think it belongs in a discussion about ways to honor and accept crying as emotional release.


    Cry it out has the potential to endanger a mother’s natural ability to respond to baby and empathize with baby’s expression. It teaches parents to ignore baby’s signals. If a baby is put to the cry it out method before a parent has the opportunity to determine the differing and continually changing minutia of baby’s expressions, the potential to miss important signals is increased – and this can be dangerous. Through repeated exposure to being ignored, baby can learn not to cry to express himself, which can translate into repressed feelings – the very thing Kathleen’s essay is saying we need avoid doing to our children; the very thing which I agree with her we need not to do.


    I know some babies have a greater tendency to cry as expression.  Some babies cry louder and longer and harder than others. I KNOW it can be hard; I know it firsthand. There are many ways of helping a baby through their expression, and helping them to sleep – and not all of them involve full-body contact; because not every child wants or needs the same thing – but leaving a baby alone isn’t helping them through their feelings.  When I say cry it out has the potential to be detrimental, understand I am not talking about a parent who has determined her infant needs space before sleeping (my son often preferred to be put down and patted to sleep instead of held). I am not talking about a parent determining that their infant prefers to sleep in a baby carrier instead of in arms (my daughter often calmed more quickly this way). I am not talking about a parent recognizing that their infant fusses for a few minutes without escalating, until settling into sleep. These things are not cry it out, and they aren’t examples of ignoring emotions. These are examples of parenting by listening to and understanding baby’s differing needs for space and expression. Learning about your baby’s individuality and preferences, and honoring those. Some babies do fuss before sleep. But a parent can’t be expected to adequately learn to understand these subtleties if they are encouraged or instructed to move right into repeated structured enforced separation cry times at bedtime - because they believe they “need” to let their babies cry in order to allow them freedom of expression (or because they think it’s the only way baby will ever sleep, or because they are told baby needs to exercise her lungs through extended bouts of crying).


    Putting a baby in a separate room, closing the door or putting in earplugs, setting a timer, in an effort to get baby to sleep is what I consider to be cry it out, and that is not the same thing as honoring a baby’s need to cry and express emotion and need for connection. Baby’s need for expression through crying cannot be met alone in a room without a trusted caregiver at least nearby, offering support, comfort, presence, or touch. Humans are naturally social, and babies need connection; it's instinctual and necessary for survival. Closing a door and tuning out baby is severing that connection.   


    I believe in supporting your baby in their crying from a place of empathy and openness and peacefulness. Whether baby needs full-body holding or just hand-holding, rocking, or walking, or soft talking, responding in a caring gentle way – just as we would like to be responded to – is never the wrong approach.  Connecting with your baby through presence and touch and responsiveness, letting them know you are there – no matter how they are acting – goes a long way in building trust and emotional security throughout life.


    For more information on crying, Cry It Out, connection, and attachment parenting, I recommend:


    Cry for Connection by Patty Wipfler 


    Crying for Comfort by Althea Solter


    Letting Baby Cry It Out – Yes? No! by Dr. Sears


    Cry it Out (CIO): 10 Reasons Why It Is Not For Us by Annie at Phd in Parenting


    I want to thank Kathleen for giving me a jumping off point from which to clarify my thoughts on crying it out and emotional release – I responded in her post comments as well; if you care to check it out. While we don’t always agree; she is outspoken, respectful, and thought-provoking in her posts, and comments and I encourage you to read her blog & comment if you feel so inclined!   



    Posted: Jan 05 2011, 18:48 by kelly | Comments (13) RSS comment feed |
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    Kathleen (amoment2think) Canada said:

    Kathleen (amoment2think)Kelly, this is a great post. You know, we agree on so much. I really think it comes down to perspective and experience.

    I totally agree with you that parents should not force themselves to ignore their child. But I disagree that in every case, CIO is doing that.  

    What I disagree with is this:
    "Baby’s need for expression through crying cannot be met alone in a room without a trusted caregiver at least nearby, offering support, comfort, presence, or touch." I disagree because it makes the assumption that all babies need the same thing. As I said in the comments to Annie's post, my daughter has taught me over and over again that sometimes she just wants her space. And that means leaving her alone in her room, knowing that we are nearby.

    I think it is irresponsible to tell parents they must not respond to their babies. But I disagree with the assumption that any baby left alone to cry is not having their needs met or is having their connection with their parent severed or the trust compromised.

    Anyway, I do think this is a great post. A lot of good discussion has been generated today. Thank you.

    # January 05 2011, 19:12

    kelly @kellynaturally United States said:

    kelly @kellynaturally@Kathleen - Thank you for reading & responding.
    I can understand your perspective with an older baby. But a young baby - under the age of one, they can't understand when you aren't present that you still exist - so I really don't think allowing a  baby alone time to cry to sleep in their room is responsive (where they can't get out of their crib or room). Again, an older baby or toddler with a floor bed - as ours have always had, instead of a crib - who can understand, "I'm going to be out here if you need me; it's okay to cry now & calm down in your room" - that's a different story than an immobile or immobilized (by a crib or room gate) baby.

    I really DO get that some kids need space - my daughter often responds better to separation during a tantrum whereas my son likes to be in physical contact. And I understand not all babies need the same things. But all babies deserve to be heard & respected. Which is where we agree. Also, agreed that there's been lots of good discussion. :)

    # January 05 2011, 19:29

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    # January 05 2011, 19:51

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting Canada said:

    Annie @ PhD in ParentingCan I repurpose a comment? :) I left this comment on Kathleen's blog.

    I’m afraid that if I go on at length to respond to this that the simplicity of my message will get lost, so I will try to keep it short.

    1) I don’t think all crying is bad.

    2) I think it is good to let babies express their emotions and I don’t think that the goal should always be to stop the crying.

    3) I think that when parents know that the child’s cries mean “I need you” and they instead choose to ignore the child’s cries, that that is cruel. The “I need you” can mean that they are hungry, thirsty, scared, lonely or something else altogether. It is the job of parents to try to understand and interpret that cry.

    4) When a child is able to communicate that they want to cry alone, then I think it is fine to let them do so (followed up by reconnecting and talking afterward). However, I think parents who assume a non-verbal infant wants to cry themselves to sleep at night are just trying to console themselves (“self soothe”) about their own parenting choice.

    # January 05 2011, 19:53

    kelly @kellynaturally United States said:

    kelly @kellynaturally@Annie - repurposing serves the purpose here, so absolutely.

    I appreciate you taking the time to read my post, and agree with your responses.

    With regards to number four, I definitely think the distinction between verbal & non-verbal (with verbal holding the broader meaning of sign-language or the ability to otherwise communicate more specific or complex ideas), AND - as I mentioned in my comment to Kathleen above - an immobile/immobilized infant (by being in a crib, or being too young to move of their own volition to come find a parent when they need one) versus a mobile one (via a floor bed and ungated room for example) is an important one.  

    When a child has the ability to say or otherwise dinifitively demonstrate that they want to be left alone, and are able to be done being alone of their own volition when they need or want companionship again, only then they are old enough to be left alone.

    Otherwise, I stand by my belief that leaving an infant alone to cry is potentially damaging and disconnecting and not a beneficial way to honor baby's cry.

    # January 05 2011, 22:16

    Amber Canada said:

    AmberI haven't read Kathleen's post (I'll go do that now), but I pretty much agree with Annie.

    My daughter, my firstborn, cried a LOT. I learned early on that it wasn't my job to stop the crying. But that same kid is now almost 6, and I can tell you that she does NOT want to be alone when she cries. Even if she's being prickly and pushing me away, she still really needs my presence. It's like she needs to know that no matter what she does, I will be there, and she's testing it.

    Had I left her alone to cry as an infant, I think I would have been missing her real message. I'm glad I didn't.

    Now, having said that, there is another situation, too. And that's when you're not able to respond to a baby's cries. There was at least one occasion where I did have to leave my crying baby in a safe place so that I could go away and breathe and calm down for a minute. But that's about preserving safety, not about a controlled method of crying.

    # January 05 2011, 23:46

    julie Canada said:

    julieMy 2 kids are as different as different can be. We let my son cry it out at 5 months old, and never looked back. He'll sleep (if we let him) 12 hours a night or more. He never wakes up in the night, he only wakes in the morning when we wake him. Once we say goodnight to him, we never hear another peep until morning. He's confident, outgoing, intelligent and good-natured.

    My daughter has cried from the moment she exited the womb. We tried to let her cry it out, but I never had the will to do it. She had reflux, and I always ran to see if she was okay. Even after she was medicated. That was my downfall. She's 3 now, and the ONLY way she ever learned to sleep on her own was by letting her cry it out.

    We started a bad habit by running in and comforting her. It was hard, because she was already so old and not just crying, but yelling and talking and screaming. But the SECOND she realized no one was coming, she went right to bed on her own. And while we have minor regressions, the lesson is learned.

    I say this not to advocate for this method, but simply to point out that there is no right answer. Each child is different, each parent is different, and each family has to do what's right for them.

    Thanks, Kelly, for a great post. I love how we can completely disagree, but continue to learn from each other.

    # January 06 2011, 10:39

    kelly United States said:

    kelly@Amber - "But that's about preserving safety, not about a controlled method of crying."

    Agreed. I left my daughter as a colicky inconsolable infant, safely in her crib to scream for several minutes so I could compose myself. I can't imagine a mother of a colicky baby who hasn't done this. A screaming child is painful to the senses and the emotions, and even with the patience of a saint, the sleep deprivation, hormones, and new motheritis, sometimes you just have to put the baby down for a breather.

    # January 06 2011, 10:57

    kelly @kellynaturally United States said:

    kelly @kellynaturally@Julie - I've discovered more deeply through this discussion here & at Kathleen's blog that every child really IS so different. I also think that people's reactions to things like CIO and its effectiveness or potential damage are drastically affected by how their child IS and how their child reacted to being left to cry. My daughter as a baby? If left to cry would continue to cry, and not calm down; her cries just escalated and her upset would take far longer to soothe with any delay than attended immediately. We just couldn't do cry it out particularly since she spent most of her first year in a state of crying (and me in a state of perpetual guilt for thinking I must have somehow caused her colic or failed her by not fixing her crying). With my son, the thought of sleep training never entered the picture because he was perfectly happy to be nursed then tucked in and drift off. Even now at 3 years & 6 years old, they have such different personalities, and while our parenting strategies & beliefs as a whole are similar, we do have to parent & react to them as individuals.

    Thanks for commenting, Julie.

    # January 06 2011, 11:07

    Kathleen (amoment2think) Canada said:

    Kathleen (amoment2think)Kelly, can I just say that your response to Julie is why I love having discussions with you and why I value your opinion. I love how you have strong opinions, voice them well, but still leave room to hear others out. I am so glad you wrote this post.

    # January 06 2011, 11:59

    julie Canada said:

    julie@Kathleen - I agree. Also, in regard to YOUR post on the subject, let me just say that my mother told me that when I was a baby, I absolutely had to cry for 10 minutes every night before I'd go to bed. It was how I released my tension, and if I didn't have the chance to do it, I wouldn't fall asleep.

    To this day, crying is my number one way to relieve tension. Kind of makes sense my kid might follow suit.

    # January 06 2011, 16:25

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting Canada said:

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting@Julie:

    I can understand your frustration at having a 3 year old who still wouldn't go to sleep on her own when your other child learned it so early on with the cry-it-out method.

    I just wanted to point out, however, that having a 3 year old who won't got to sleep on her own isn't necessarily a problem in of itself (unless the parents perceive it to be).

    We never did CIO with either of our children. We have always been there for them at bedtime and at night wakings when they have needed us. When  our son was 3, one of us would still lie with him every night as he fell asleep. If he woke at night, one of us would go and lay with him. He is now 6 and goes to sleep on his own (as long as we leave the door open) and sleeps through the night. We didn't have to let him cry. We did have to gradually work with him - first by sitting on a chair in his room, then by sitting right outside the room, etc. so that he got used to it, but we did that at a pace that he was comfortable with so that there was never anything forced.

    Our daughter is now 3 and one of us still lays with her at bedtime. We will go through the same process with her that we did with our son when we feel she is ready.

    I don't know enough about your situation to judge one way or another (nor would it really be my place to do so even if I did), so I'm not criticizing your choice. Rather, I just wanted to point out that a 3 year old who still needs parenting to sleep isn't an indication of a parental mistake or of a problem.

    # January 07 2011, 00:50

    Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama United States said:

    Charise @ I Thought I Knew MamaWhat a great post! I agree with all of your points, and I really like how clearly, efficiently, and fairly you laid out your views.

    # February 15 2011, 21:19

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