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.