Crying Kids Need Comforting

It’s become a cliche to say that babies do not come with a manual. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome who loves clearly defined rules and black and white instructions, even I can appreciate that no two babies are the same and need to be treated with sensitivity to their individual needs. Yet if we all know this to be true, why are there so many books and theories about how we ‘should’ be raising our babies?

To illustrate this point, when my daughter cries, I pick her up. I do this because when Izzie wants something, she cries. That is, when I have missed the subtle signs she makes to communicate that she wants something, she cries. It’s a ‘come on dad, why aren’t you listening to me’ sort of thing. If I’ve ignored the signs too long, it’s more of a ‘for crying out loud I’ve been asking for ages, are you blind and deaf or just stupid’ scream. Unfortunately I don’t speak baby, so crying and screaming are part and parcel of a new parent’s life.

What Izzie wants comprises a rather small list: feeding, changing, burping, holding. She’s too young to crave world peace and cigarettes. So when my daughter cries, I pick her up, because she wants or needs me to do something. It seems pretty simple to me.

But this is a major bone of contention between competing parenting theories. Child-centred philosophies such as Attachment Parenting advocate this nurturing, touchy-feely ethos, while this is anathema to parent-led approaches like the Ferber Method. The former believes that a baby needs to feel loved to create emotional wellbeing, so you should comfort her when she cries to show her she’s safe; the latter that the kid needs to find a way to comfort herself because the world’s a hard place and it’s about time she learned this, so you should leave her to ‘cry it out’. I’ve got to say, I’m definitely swayed towards the first, even though child-centred approaches are far harder on the parents.

I am, however, surprised by just how many people subscribe to the parent-led theories. This is the idea that the child needs to adapt to fit into the world it finds itself in, rather than the parent adapting to the child. So if Izzie cries, we’re told to leave her to self-soothe; by picking her up we’re making a rod for our own backs; she’s playing us for fools; she’s learning how to manipulate us; we have to be cruel to be kind; and we’re creating a needy, dependent child who won’t be able to cope with the pressures of modern life.

Can I remind everyone she’s six weeks old?

In the 1950s a scientist/sadist named Harlow carried out some truly horrific experiments on a bunch of rhesus monkeys to see what kinds of parenting they responded to. Separating them from their mothers at birth, he put them in cages with two surrogate mothers. One, made of chicken wire, had a nipple that provided milk; the other, covered in soft cloth, provided nothing. The prevailing theory at the time was that the bond between mother and child was based on food. The monkeys, in short, would prefer the chicken wire monstrosity.

Not so. The monkeys spent their days clinging to the soft and cuddly mummy, only going to the chicken wire to feed. They craved the comfort and cuddles of their parent, and not only did this soothe them, it was vital for their social and emotional development. Indeed, those monkeys placed in cages containing only the wire-nipple mother grew up disturbed, unable to socialise, horribly ill-suited to communal monkey life.

The detached parenting style claims that cuddling your baby when she cries makes her dependent, emotionally weak, but Harlow found the opposite with his monkeys. When he put scary objects in the cages with the babies without cuddly mothers, they cowered in the corner; those with cuddly mothers were far braver, going up to the objects to investigate because they felt safer knowing they had support. Proof positive that nurturing children makes them better adapted to life in general.

Well, at least in rhesus monkeys. But the theory is sound, I think. If the child knows they are protected, they feel more secure. Knowing she has a safety net means that, as she grows up, Izzie will be more confident in taking risks. Coddling her actually makes her more independent!

At least, to a certain extent. We don’t want to become helicopter parents that hover over their children so they don’t learn to do anything for themselves, but at this stage, with a newborn, I can’t see anything wrong with cuddling my child.

We don’t follow any particular parenting theory, instead creating our own. Perhaps we are masochists, making a rod for our own backs, but the Gillan-Lizzie-Izzie Method is working for us so far. Our philosophy is that crying kids need comforting. And until we see a reason to change it, that is how it’ll stay.

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3 thoughts on “Crying Kids Need Comforting

  1. Posts like this really bug me, in part because it’s clear that people like you have never actually read Ferber and are lumping all sleep training folks in with the most extreme “don’t pick up your newborn, you’ll spoil her” approach. We sleep trained our son when he was old enough to self-soothe because it was very clear to us that he needed it—he would no longer go to sleep while being held or nursed and would just cry in exhaustion instead. Giving him the chance to learn that he could fall asleep alone made everyone much happier.

    I picked him up at every cry when he was six weeks old. Now that he’s nearly a year, I only intervene when I know he needs me. He cries in frustration when a toy is out of reach; if I immediately solved the problem for him, he’d never learn to crawl. Do I just let him sit there and scream? No. Do I give him the chance to try something new, with verbal encouragement? Yes.

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  2. I’m sorry that it might have come across that I was criticising people who use the Ferber Method. As I have repeatedly stated in my blog, it’s up to each individual to choose what’s right for them and their kids and I would never presume to judge another parent’s choices for their family. The post was a response to people telling me that we are making a rod for our own backs or spoiling our daughter if we comfort her when she’s crying, as they have done since she was a mere three days old. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Ferber Method, but, and we are in agreement on this, when the baby is ready for it, not at six weeks old. Most sites I checked out in researching the post advocated waiting until the child is at least 4-6 months.

    In the post I wanted to point out the difference between child-led and parent-led theories and provide an example of each, and Attachment Parenting and the Ferber Method are probably the most well-known examples of each, especially since the latter was prominently featured in the movie ‘Meet the Fokkers’. I could equally have used the No Cry Sleep Solution and Babywise respectively, but didn’t think they were as well-known.

    But point taken: I did lump it in with the ‘extreme’ examples so could be said to have misrepresented the Ferber Method, which does not advocate leaving the baby to cry for more than a couple of minutes at first. In my defence, writing a post every two days on four hours sleep a night means I’m flying by the seat of my pants and trying to learn as much as I can about parenting and my baby, so if I sometimes get it wrong I can only hold up my hand and admit it. This blog was meant to be a light-hearted way for me to fulfil my obsessive compulsion to write and make people chuckle, and was never meant to offend anyone, so if I have ‘bugged’ you, I am truly sorry.

    And who knows, perhaps when Izzie is six months old we will be firm advocates of the Ferber Method. As I said in my post, our philosophy right now is crying kids need comforting, and it’ll stay that way until we see a need to change it. And if we see a need, believe me, we will.

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  3. I personally completely agree with you and my children are 4 and a half and 2 and a half, with number 3 on the way. I am constantly told to let my kids just “cry it out” but I don’t get it at all, especially the bed time routine! As fully grown adults we like companionship in bed. We sometimes go to bed exhausted and other times lie awake for hours. So why do we expect children to simply fall asleep quickly and without fuss? My daughter (4.5 years) is exactly like me and her brain works over time at night time and so it takes hours to get her to switch off and sleep. In addition to this, if we go to bed sad, upset and crying, it is often an unsettled night’s sleep and we wake feeling emotionally drained, so why would our children who fall asleep crying be any different?

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