Making Meaning of Crying in Young Infants

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Most new mothers are going back to work by the time their child is 3-6 months old, these days.  And while we’re getting back into shape to be sure our favorite pencil skirts can be worn, and trading in our sensible shoes for cute pumps and flats, redoing our highlights and figuring out a pumping schedule, we’ve also got to prepare our babies for their return to the workforce…err, their first foray into daycare!

We asked a group of infant daycare teachers their best advice for new parents of babies who will be going into group care and the resounding theme was “Let them cry!”

That is not to say that crying does not serve an important role.  It does.  It’s a mode of communication.  It’s how our babies tell us what’s wrong, what they need, and what they want.  But it’s also how they express frustration.  And if we don’t allow them to get comfortable with some discomfort, we’re doing our babies a tremendous disservice.

“Teach them to wait!” says Anna, a teacher in the Boston area.  “Babies who get what they want and need the second they cry for it will not adjust well to day care!”  In group care settings, as many as 7 babies will be cared for in a two teacher classroom, and so it follows there could be some waiting turns for feedings, diapering and cuddles.  “I mean, we want to help them as soon as possible, but it’s also important that babies know it’s not the end of the world if one whimper means they’ll be rescued.”

New mothers often experience overwhelming feelings of guilt or sorrow when their babies cry.  “I hate to hear it!” says Jenny, of her 5 month old son, Harrison.  “He just gives me this sad face, the lip comes out and I have to pick him up.” 

These feelings are understandable, and yet with an infant who has matured beyond his newborn stage, there are a few things to consider–whether or not your child will join the group care environment, in fact!

Child development is a continuum of milestones that children reach at varying times, although we do tend to focus a lot on expected ages for each new accomplishment.  As a child moves from one stage to another, there is a necessary period of frustration that serves as an impetus.  For example, when before a child learns to creep, he may suddenly become increasingly upset during tummy time.  It is that frustration that motivates a child to move.  Similar periods of frustration happen before a child learns to walk, speak in sentences, and read.

One important milestone a young infant reaches is the ability to soothe themselves.  In order to learn to do this, they must be permitted to remain upset for a period of time to do so.  Depending on varying levels of sensitivity, and early personality factors, some children adjust more quickly and learn this skill faster.  A critical factor, however, is how their caregiver responds.  Here are some things you can do, if you notice that your child is crying out of a need to learn self-soothing:

  1. Distraction.  If you can distract your baby with a toy or other activity, such as a round of peek a boo, they are ready to learn to self-soothe.  Hunger can not be distracted!
  2. Smiles and reassurance.  Even if your little one is bellowing, a smile from you, “It’s okay!  Mama is right here!  I’ll play with you after I’m done with the dishes.” 
  3. Stay in your child’s field of view.  Even before they can conceptualize that you exist while out of view, a child needs to lay the groundwork to understand that you are actually separate from her. 

Be patient with yourself and with your baby.  Learning to let your child cry is a challenge, and the first time you will really need to practice “letting go.”  Baby steps are needed for both parties, and it will be worth it in the end.