Now and then, amidst all the “advice” thrust at new parents on everything from breastfeeding to planning ahead for college, there emerges a genuine pearl of wisdom.
For me as a new mom, this came from a woman who was (and still is) a seasoned parent, grandparent, teacher and author. She took one look at the newborn girl I had just introduced her to and simply said, “Pick her up when she cries.”
Despite the myriad of counsel received from friends, doctors and parenting books, I found myself both then and as the years went on, coming back to those six words.
Although unable to put my finger on it at the time, I sensed there was more substance behind those words. While I may not have been always able to stop the cries of my children, I was able to communicate on a much deeper level that their cries were heard and would indeed receive a compassionate response.
I truly believe that the ability to confidently venture off into the world as toddlers, young children and eventually teenagers, stems from the sense of trust and security that originates with having one's needs responded to throughout infancy.
Cries are the one and only tool infants have for conveying their needs or distress. Ignoring a baby’s cries, contrary to mistaken and unfortunately occasionally still held beliefs, does not “toughen them up.”
Rather, it removes that sense of trust and security in one’s world that is so essential during the first couple of years of life. Rather than “spoiling,” (milk spoils, not babies) responding to an infant’s cries empowers them. They are “heard,” hence the world is responsive and compassionate; perspectives that help babies evolve into toddlers and children who are resilient, self-assured and joyful.
Longtime resident of Newtown, Mary Jane Wheble is parent to two children, Paolo, 16 and Anna 13. Reflecting back on her daughter's infancy, Mary Jane had this to say:
“The worst advice I got – let Anna cry herself to sleep every night – it was the hardest thing we ever did, really painful, and it didn’t really work that well.”
Can parents always “fix” what is distressing their babies? No.
Might they need to walk away for a few minutes when it seems like the tears will never end? Of course. Sometimes however, it helps to just accept that once hunger, sickness, messy diapers or pain are ruled out, it doesn’t have to be about stopping the tears. It can simply be about “being there.”
Parents know their children best and trusting their own instincts over counsel from others can frequently prove beneficial as parent Barbara Nicholson attests.
“We ‘learn our babies’ through listening to their verbal cues, and being perceptive to their signals for hunger, touch and stimulation," she said. “When these needs are inconsistently attended to or worse, ignored, we jeopardize our baby’s ability to trust in their caregivers, creating insecurity in the normal attachment process. How I wish I had been taught this in my psychology classes in college! Instead we were learning about behaviorism, learning that responding to a negative stimulus would only increase the behavior, and ignoring was the best way to extinguish unpleasant actions.
"Fortunately I was exposed to the wise women of La Leche League who taught me that to have a successful breastfeeding experience, I must respond to my baby’s needs, feeding them when they are hungry, rather than when the clock said it was time to be fed. I know now that when the heart and mind are in conflict, listen to your heart!”
Infants process much more than adults frequently think they can. Many “learned” responses from infancy carry through into the later years. If a parent finds this time overwhelming it is imperative to which is widely available and fortunately these days, encouraged.
Seventeen years later I can still say this simple yet important guidance was the best advice I received as a new mom and is as relevant today when my kids "cry" as it was back then.