There is nothing wrong with crying. A good cry, whether for a child or an adult, is a relief. The positive outcome of crying is a release of pent-up emotions and stress. The negative outcome of not crying when crying is called for is that suppressed tears can lead to suppressed emotions. When we experience extreme emotion but cannot release tension through crying, our feelings may overwhelm us, leading to depression and even despair.
Biochemist, William H. Frey II, author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears, says, “It is difficult to feel very sad or hurt without crying, and we soon learn that it is easier not to cry if we do not allow ourselves to feel strongly in the first place. . . . Individuals who learn to hide their emotions from others may eventually hide them so well that they no longer know what or how they feel.”
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF TEARS
Crying is more than an emotional release–tears may actually be necessary to rid the body of certain chemicals. Frey studied the chemical composition of tears, distinguishing between irritant tears (the kind that result when you cut an onion, for example) and emotional tears. He found that emotional tears contain a significantly higher concentration of detoxifying proteins than do irritant tears, and that they also contain endorphins that reduce pain sensation, as well as a hormone typically released in response to stress.
“Crying it out,” then, may be more than a figurative expression; it may be what literally happens as the body rids itself of stress-induced chemicals. Holding back tears, on the other hand, may inhibit the body’s ability to handle stress. Frey says, “When we teach children to suppress their feelings and not to cry, we do them a great disservice by robbing them of one of nature’s adaptive responses to emotional stress.”
CRYING IS BABY’S FIRST LANGUAGE
While crying can be a healthy release for children and adults, it is even more important for babies because it is their only means of communicating—their only resource. As your baby’s range of communication becomes more sophisticated, she will cry less, but for now, crying is her way of reaching you.
Your baby cries when she wants something—that something might be food, a diaper change, a cuddle, or simply relief from some stress in her environment. Until she can communicate better, your baby’s wants and needs are the same. If she cries out for you, it is because she needs you.
RESPONDING TO OUR CHILDREN’S CRIES
Raised in a society that prizes independence and self-reliance, we may fear that responding to our babies when they cry will lead to spoiled, clingy children. Studies indicate that the opposite is true.
Researchers Steve Bell and Mary Ainsworth found that infants whose cries are promptly answered in the first six months of life cry less frequently and for shorter duration, for the next six months and beyond, than do babies who are not responded to as quickly. The same researchers found in a sample of American mothers that the mothers deliberately ignored their babies’ cries 46 percent of the time in the first three months.
WHY BABY MAY BE CRYING
The key to interpreting your child’s cries is good listening. The more you listen to your child, the better you will understand him. You can tell a lot by observing your baby’s behavior, and by being aware of the schedule she creates. Your baby cries for many different reasons. It may take practice at first, but the important thing is taking the time to figure out what your child has to say. Here are some of the most common reasons why babies cry:
- Hunger. Hunger cries are rhythmic, brief cries that get more and more intense until they quickly turn into full-blown cries of pain. Baby may root around, or suck her fingers.
- Overfeeding. If your baby spits-up a lot, try offering one breast at a time for feedings and alternate breasts from feeding to feeding.
- Tiredness or Overstimulation. A fussy cry is sporadic and sometimes half-hearted. The baby may rub her eyes and bat at her ears, or toy with her hair. She turns away from adults and resists soothing attempts. If your baby is over-stimulated, try taking her to a quieter room.
- Loneliness or Boredom. The coos and gurgles of a three-month-old can turn into protests and wails when she is left alone too long. The bored cry is “fake” sounding, with low, throaty noises followed by a crying sound and more moans.
- Heat. If your baby is overheated, he may whine and fuss, appear flushed, have a sweaty scalp, and act sluggish or breathe rapidly. Red dots—prickly heat—may appear on his face, neck, or shoulders. His skin should be warm to the touch, but not hot, under his coverings. If your baby is too hot, and you have no reason to suspect illness, remove some blankets or clothing, or give him a cool sponge bath.
- Cold. Your baby may startle or scream when undressed or placed on a changing table; she may shiver or appear bluish around the lips. Put a soft sheepskin or towel on the changing surface. Clean her with warm sponge baths under a blanket, putting off baths until she is older. Keep booties and a cap on her if she appears cold even in a blanket.
- Internal pain. A cry of pain is loud and long, followed by a long pause in which the baby seems to hold his or her breath. Then another alarming scream is sounded. The baby’s mouth is wide open, and his tongue is arched; his hands and feet are drawn up or circle in agitation. Your baby’s screams may be due to his immature digestive system, teething pain, or an ear infection. First, try soothing techniques like nursing, rocking, or taking him in the tub with you. If the crying lasts or you are concerned, call your healthcare practitioner.
- External pain. Piercing screams or sudden, intense cries for no apparent reason suggest that something in your child’s environment is causing her pain. Check for tight bands on her clothing, scratching from Velcro diaper cover closures, an open diaper pin, or irritating fabrics. Look at her fingers and toes to see if a strand of long hair or a loose thread is cutting off circulation.
WAYS TO SOOTHE A CRYING BABY
Even if you cannot figure out why your child is crying, you can still try to comfort her. Here are some time-honored infant soothers:
- Sucking. Babies have a strong need to suck. Often simply nursing your baby will calm her.
- Rocking. The soothing motion of a rocking chair can lull your baby–and you–into tranquility.
- Massage. To massage your baby, remove all his clothes and diaper, and then place him on his back on soft towels in a warm room or in the sun. Rub non-greasy oil on your hands. With gentle but firm strokes, using your whole hand, massage his shoulders, each arm, and each leg. Rub each foot and hand with your thumb and fingers. Turn your baby over onto his tummy and massage his back and buttocks.
- Holding. Usually, what your baby craves most is human contact. A study of newborns found that those who were carried over four hours a day, even when they were contented or asleep, cried almost 45 percent less than those who were not carried as much.
CRYING IN THE OLDER CHILD
Even though children can communicate in ways other than crying as they grow, they are still limited in their range of expression and may resort to crying. Children, like babies, need to cry occasionally. The best thing you can do for your crying toddler or older child is to listen to what she is telling you (or not telling you) and offer her reassurance.
Crying calls attention to pain and loss. Attending to the crying helps heal the hurt. By listening to our children’s distress with compassion, we encourage them to share their stresses and disappointments with us. By accepting their hurt and not succumbing to the urge to “fix” the cry or get them to stop, we are reassuring them that adults are not panicked by crying. The message emerges loud and clear that we welcome their feelings, that we can be sympathetic and supportive, and help them weather their difficulties.
With practice, children begin to notice their hurts earlier, and put them into words. In time, they may seek us out to share their pain before they feel overwhelmed. Here are some tips for responding to your toddler or older child’s cries:
- Remedy any physical hurt. As calmly as you can, remove a pinched finger from a door or take out a splinter, then hold and soothe your child until she stops crying. Do not dismiss a hurt. Give her time to recover from it.
- Listen carefully to your child. Hold her close and listen to what she has to say, both in her words and her body language. Listening means just that—not offering solutions, but simply allowing her to express her feelings.
- Do not pass judgment. Saying to a child, “That didn’t hurt,” or “You shouldn’t let that bother you,” does not help. Feelings exist; they are neither right nor wrong. They cannot be intellectualized away.
- Offer reassurance. You cannot make your child’s hurts disappear, but you can provide comfort. You do not need to say anything; your touch and loving eye contact will communicate more than words. If your child is fearful, reassure her that you will be there to keep her safe.
- Allow time for the expression of feelings. Often a child will start crying about a recent incident and then move on to cry about an earlier, more significant event. Do not rush your child; it may take time for her to work through her feelings.
Your goal is to provide comfort and a safe haven for your child to express her feelings and work through traumas. You do not want to minimize her hurts, but over-reacting will not help, either. Especially with a toddler who is prone to the bruises and tumbles that accompany newfound mobility, you can normalize your child’s reaction by keeping your own in check.
IT’S OK FOR YOU TO CRY, TOO
Finally, do not be afraid to cry yourself, especially in front of your children. You need not worry that your tears will frighten them—deliberate withholding of your feelings, which even toddlers can sense, will probably upset them more. Allow yourself to cry. Watching you, your children will learn how to take care of themselves when they are upset. They will learn that tears are normal. They will learn that it is all right—that it is ultimately human—to express your feelings in an atmosphere of love and support.
Peggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011 and founded Mothering.com in 1995. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of three.