Crying and high-need infants

An interview with Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

Interview done by Bebés Alta Demanda (an organization in Spain)
Spanish version


What is therapeutic crying?

Aletha Solter: Therapeutic crying is the kind of crying we do when our nervous system is overloaded with accumulated stress or a traumatic event. Crying is an important stress-release mechanism that helps us relax and restore our bodyís physiological balance. Studies have shown that our blood pressure, body temperature, and pulse rate are lower after a good cry. Our brain waves are also more synchronized. These measures indicate a physiological state of deep relaxation.

What are the reasons why a baby cries?

A.S.: There are two basic reasons why babies cry. The first is to communicate an immediate need. In newborn infants, the primary needs are for milk and physical contact. As babies grow, there are additional needs to consider, such as the need for new stimulation.

The second reason why babies cry is to release stress and heal from trauma. When a baby continues to cry (while being held) after all of his immediate needs are met, it is possible that he is crying to release stress. I recommend always holding babies when they cry. No baby should ever be left alone to cry.

The basic sources of stress during infancy are:

Researchers have found that babies cry more following these various stresses. For example, babies who are not held very much cry more than those who are held frequently. I recommend holding your baby as much as possible during the day and sleeping with your baby at night.

What about "high-need" infants?

"A.S.: "High-need" infants are usually those who have experienced some form of early trauma. Some examples include emotional trauma during the motherís pregnancy, a difficult birth, a death in the family, a move to a new home, terrorism or war, a natural disaster, physical or sexual abuse, a long separation from the mother, and surgery or hospitalization.

These babies have a lot of crying to do. When they donít get a chance to cry freely in someoneís arms, they keep trying to cry repeatedly throughout the day and night. We then describe them as "high need." When they finally have the opportunity to cry freely in someoneís arms, their temperament usually changes. They become less demanding, less whiny, and they sleep better.

Another cause for high-need babies is a high innate sensitivity level. Some babies are genetically more sensitive than others. Highly sensitive babies are more deeply affected by stress and overstimulation. They are easily overwhelmed, so they cry more than babies who are less sensitive. If you have a sensitive baby who also had a difficult birth, your baby will probably cry a lot.

Shouldn't we try to comfort a crying baby?

A. S.: We should comfort a crying baby by holding him and trying to meet his needs. But all parents know that there are times when nothing works to stop the crying. They have recently fed their baby and they cannot figure out what more he needs. Many parents continue to look frantically for remedies to stop the crying, such as jiggling, rocking, making sounds, giving a pacifier (dummy), or repeatedly offering the breast. However, these efforts usually only stop the crying temporarily.

The best way to help our babies at those times is by holding them calmly in our arms and letting them know that itís okay to cry. I call this the "crying-in-arms" approach. Babies need to know that we love them at all times, not only when they are happy. They need to know that we are willing to listen to them. Itís important to understand that crying itself is sometimes a need. At those times, the most helpful response is to simply hold and love our babies. Thatís the kind of comforting that I recommend.

Your critics say that it's cruel to let a baby cry

A. S.: Most of my critics have not read my books. This is obvious from the nature of their remarks. These people base their opinion on a short article or on what other people have written on the Internet. They do not really understand the "crying-in-arms" approach, which is very different from the approach that advocates letting babies cry alone (called the "cry-it-out" approach or "controlled crying").

People who criticize the "crying-in-arms" approach were probably not supported emotionally when they were babies or children. Perhaps they were left to cry alone. Perhaps they were told to stop crying, or perhaps they were even punished for crying. When a baby cries, these people feel very uncomfortable. They try to stop the crying in order to protect themselves from their own repressed, painful feelings. They believe that ALL crying is bad, even when a baby is being held and loved.

On the other hand, people who have had the good fortune to cry freely in the arms of someone who loves them know intuitively that this is what babies sometimes need. These people understand that listening to a childís deep emotions is one of the greatest gifts that parents can give their children.

They are also critical of your opposition to breastfeeding on demand.

A. S.: I am totally supportive of breastfeeding, and I do NOT recommend feeding babies according to a rigid schedule. Babies should be fed whenever they are hungry. This means that mothers must pay close attention to their babiesí signals. However, itís important to realize that not all crying indicates hunger.

When my first child was born, I attended La Leche League meetings and found them very helpful and supportive. I enjoyed the support from other breastfeeding mothers. They helped me establish a successful breastfeeding relationship with my son, and I breastfed each of my children for two-and-a-half years.

However, I discovered that I had some disagreements with some of the leaders in La Leche League. When my son was one year old I attended a La Leche League meeting for mothers of older babies. The leader proudly told us that she still nursed her three-year-old child every two hours, both day and night. This sounded to me like the feeding schedule of a newborn infant, and it didnít seem right. Why would a three-year-old child still wake up every two hours to nurse at night?

Nevertheless, I dutifully followed the advice of La Leche League, and I nursed my baby every evening to put him to sleep. Like the La Leche League motherís son, my own son woke up repeatedly throughout the night. By the time he was two years old, I nursed him to sleep every night, and he was still waking up 4 to 8 times every night wanting to nurse (even though he slept with me in my bed).

One evening, I decided to stop using my breasts as a pacifier. Instead, I held him in my arms without offering to nurse him, and I allowed him to cry and rage. He cried very hard for an hour in my arms before falling asleep. That night he slept through the night! From then on, I never used breastfeeding again to put him to sleep. I held him in my arms every evening, or lay down next to him until he fell asleep. Sometimes he needed to cry before falling asleep, and I stayed with him while he cried. He continued to sleep well, and he was also much happier during the day. I continued to breastfeed him during the daytime until he weaned himself at two-and-a-half years of age.

When my daughter was born, five years after my son, I was very careful to interpret her cues correctly. She never used nursing to repress her crying. I did not feed her with the goal of putting her to sleep as she grew older because I did not want to repress her need to cry in the evening. Instead, I nursed her earlier in the evening, then brushed her teeth, and then held her in my arms until she fell asleep. She often needed to cry in my arms before falling asleep. My daughter slept very well and never developed a habit of waking up at night. Like my son, she weaned herself at about two-and-a-half years of age.

The success of the "crying-in-arms" approach lies in correctly interpreting babiesí cues. From my personal experience, as well as my experience advising hundreds of breastfeeding mothers, I have learned that babies can become addicted to nursing when their cues are misinterpreted. When mothers repeatedly use their breast as a pacifier, the babies will learn to suck at their motherís breast even when they are not hungry. But when mothers pay close attention to their babiesí cues, they can learn to tell the difference between a hunger cry and a stress-release cry. Babies do not need to be fed every time they cry, just as we donít need to eat or drink every time we are feeling sad or angry. Sometimes itís better for us to talk or cry.

The problem with using the breast as a pacifier is that babies develop a habit of putting something in their mouth every time they are upset. Later on, this could develop into a habit of overeating or smoking. I call these habits "control patterns." These are the things we do to repress our emotions.

Children need to know that their parents are available to listen. It is therefore important to develop a supportive listening relationship with your baby in addition to a breastfeeding relationship. If you listen to your babyís stress-release crying without trying to stop it, you will be rewarded later with a teenager who will feel safe enough to tell you, "I need to cry. Will you hold me?" I know this, because I experienced it with my own children.

As adults, what should be our approach to crying?

A. S.: We would all benefit from crying when we need to. Instead of trying to stop ourselves from crying during a sad film, for example, it is much healthier for us to allow our tears to flow. When I have had a hard day, my husband puts him arm around me and allows me to have a good cry. I do the same for him. Thatís what children need from their parents. My hope is that doctors of the future will recommend: "Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, get plenty of exercise, and have a good cry at least once a week!"

Some children cannot be comforted with anything. What would you recommend their parents do?

A. S.: When a baby or child cries frequently, or for a long time, or in an unusual manner, it is important to obtain medical advice, because crying can be an indication of a serious medical condition, even in the absence of a fever.

However, if the doctor finds nothing wrong, then the most helpful response may be to accept the childís need to cry and allow the crying to continue, while holding the child lovingly (the "crying-in-arms" approach, as described above).

How can we reduce a familyís stress level with a high-need baby who cries frequently?

A. S.: Parents who have a high-need baby need as much help at they can get. Information about stress-release crying can help them understand why their baby might need to cry. This information can help to alleviate their feelings of incompetence or powerlessness. These parents can learn to support their babyís crying without trying to repress it. The result will be a baby who is more relaxed, less demanding, and who sleeps better.

Parents of high-need babies also need help from others. Caring for a high-need baby is a hard job. These parents, who are constantly giving attention to their baby, also need someone to pay attention to them. Perhaps they just need to talk. Maybe they need a shoulder to cry on.

Crying babies are a potent trigger for child abuse. In a survey of abusive parents, 80% said that their childís crying triggered the parentís anger. Thatís why it is so important to support parents of crying infants.

As a support group for parents of crying babies, what advice would you give us in order for our group to work? What help can we offer these parents for them to feel at ease in their role?

A. S.: Support groups can be extremely helpful because they give parents the opportunity to meet other parents who are struggling with similar problems. Support groups are most effective when people can listen to each other without judging or giving advice. When the participants feel safe enough to cry, these groups can become truly therapeutic.

Here are some of the things that will help parents of crying infants:

About Aletha Solter:

Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute. Her five books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.

For more information about babies and crying, see Aletha Solter's book, The Aware Baby.

The Aware Baby

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This page was last updated on November 28, 2020. Copyright © 2008 to 2020 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter, with the exception of printing copies for personal use and for free distribution to parents.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When babies display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek competent medical advice and treatment. Some of the suggestions in this article may be inappropriate for babies suffering from certain emotional, behavioral, or physical problems. Aletha Solter and The Aware Parenting Institute shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.