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Crying babies – it’s too painful!

October 8th, 2014 | Blog


Welcome to my latest blog. The topic in this blog considers another complex issue. Crying in babies.

Crying is an area of intense emotion and I often see mothers who tell me they cannot bear to hear their babies cry. Nobody enjoys hearing a baby cry. Meanwhile, parents receive conflicting information on how to manage crying. “Never let the baby cry.” “Babies cry sometimes and they are fine.” These conflicts are particularly difficult for mothers who are also dealing with a newborn baby and their own competing emotions.

My aim is to avoid unnecessary crying in babies and to develop strategies which result in babies and then children who cry much less than average. Let me reassure you that we can decrease distress and crying in babies. If the strategies which I teach are applied from birth many of “my babies” barely cry at all.

There is a vast body of information available advising parents that they should never let their babies cry. Quite significant organisations report that crying in babies is emotionally damaging and mothers are guided that they should never let their babies cry as they settle to sleep. Unfortunately there is widespread confusion around the issue of infant crying. There are well known cases where profound and prolonged emotional deprivation has resulted in psychological damage. These extreme cases are confused with normal family experiences where there is short-term crying while achieving sleep. This latter situation is completely normal.

It is unrealistic and unreasonable to consider these two events as being the same thing. There is a vast difference between a child being raised with years of emotional neglect and deprivation and a healthy baby having a protest cry while achieving sleep in the safety of a loving home.

My aim is to achieve high quality sleep and to see family relationships thrive. This is exactly the reverse of long term emotional neglect.

Mothers are guided to rapidly attend to a child who is simply having a minor protest on their way to sleep. This “hyper-responsiveness” ultimately trains the child for crying skills. The last thing that I recommend or want to do is to see a baby trained for increased crying. If a baby is trained to achieve prolonged crying it can be damaging to child, mother and the family unit. Uncontrolled, prolonged crying is a major insult to the wellbeing of the child.

Where a child is not genuinely hungry, nor genuinely overtired and where they have learned cues of sleep which are largely parent independent, children cry very little. Some mothers whom I care for report that their babies simply do not cry. I think they mean that their babies cry very little and that if they do cry that there is a logic to it and they as mothers find it is easy to interpret.

I confidently predict that for families who choose to adopt the policies and strategies which I recommend, their child’s experience of crying and your experience of listening to crying, will be dramatically reduced.

Some parents are better than others at allowing their children a short period of ‘protest’ crying as they get to sleep (protest crying that decreases to almost nothing over a short period of time – two to four nights). Some parents find it much harder. It is my clear experience that my strategies decrease a baby’s crying dramatically but there will be a period of transition where the baby is learning sleep skills. Unless we start from birth there is a period of transition where there is some degree of protest. It is this transition which can be a barrier, sometimes even an insurmountable barrier for some mothers. Everyone desires the outcome of good sleep and family harmony. It’s managing the journey from stress to family harmony which causes concern.

What I do with my patients is determine which category each is in. Some fit into the “I can do that” category and others in the “I can’t do that” category. Both are fine and I provide strategies to parents in both categories. My strategy for those in the latter category pays more attention to the mother’s emotional well-being and her distress at hearing her child cry.  The final outcome will hopefully be the same i.e. high quality sleep and the avoidance of long term infant distress.

Progress towards great sleep with minimal or no crying is very predictable and contains three key steps:

  1. Protest. This is a logical event for the child and does not cause harm either physically or emotionally.
  2. Rapid improvement. 90% of children in my experience show major improvement in 2-4 nights.
  3. Negotiation. This is an important and almost vital piece of knowledge. After one or two nights of improved sleep, and after you begin to feel the seeds of optimism, the child will attempt to return to the previous sleep pattern i.e. waking overnight. The response is NO RESPONSE until sleep is achieved again and only then to check that the child is safe.

The large majority of failures in teaching sleep skills occur because of a failure to be prepared for or understand this last point. The parents have worked through several nights and achieved one or two good nights. When the child attempts to return to their previous sleep pattern the parents perceive this as failure and stop trying.

Basically, our lives can be made relatively simple with a new baby if we focus on achieving appropriate nutrition, increase sleep volumes until the child’s needs for sleep are being met and allow the baby to grow towards their genetic optimum.

In my experience that the overwhelming majority of irritability and restlessness in newborn babies is caused by a combination of hunger or tiredness or both.

Once fully fed, warmly dressed, loved and ready for sleep leave the baby alone and allow the baby to achieve sleep independently. Adopting a “parent-lite” approach will give superior outcomes for infant and family sleep.

All the very best to you and your baby or babies.

I invite you to provide feedback on this topic or on topics you would like me to discuss in future posts.

Dr Brian Symon

The Babysleep Doctor




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