Monday 14 March 2011

Attachment Parenting Series: Belief in the language value of your baby's cry

Welcome to our fifth installment of the Attachment Parenting Series - Belief in the language value of your baby's cry! Don't forget to use the Mister Linky at the bottom to share your own information and experiences!

What is it?

Belief in the language value of your baby's cry reflects an awareness that babies cry in order to communicate. It rejects the belief that babies cry to manipulate their parents.

How can we encourage it?

A baby cries in order to make known a need. The cry is reflexive; the baby's very survival depends on it. As the parent promptly and calmly responds to these cries, the baby learns to trust that his needs will be met while the parent learns to trust in their ability to meet those needs. By viewing the baby’s cry not as a habit to be broken but as a means of communication, the parent is able to become an expert in reading the baby’s cues. The more sensitive a parent becomes to the baby's cues, the better the baby becomes at giving those cues. This is the beginning and very core of parent/child communication.

This sensitive response and effective communication allows the child to develop a secure attachment to the parent. As connection grows, the parent/child relationship becomes increasingly natural and instinctive. The resulting mutual trust and sensitivity is the basis of the parent/child relationship and the foundation upon which future discipline will rely. The better the parent knows the child and the more the child trusts his or her parent, the easier discipline will be as the child grows.

A mother is biologically designed to respond to her baby's cry. Upon hearing her baby’s cry, the blood flow to the mother’s breasts increases. The hormone oxytocin is released, causing the mother’s milk to let down. The hormone prolactin is released, creating an urge to pick up and nurse her baby. Further oxytocin and prolactin are released during breastfeeding, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and facilitating bonding between the mother and her baby. It upsets a mother to ignore her baby’s cry because it is supposed to upset her and spur her into action.

You cannot spoil a baby by responding to his cries. Babies are “spoiled” by being ignored. It is important that a parent understands the implications of failing to sensitively respond to their baby's cries. A baby does not have the cognitive ability to understand why his caregiver is not responding to his cries, nor does he have any concept of time or object permanence. This makes it highly distressing for him to be left to cry alone.

When his cry is ignored, the baby has two options: stop signaling or escalate the signal. Some babies will give up and become withdrawn, a short-term payoff for the parents who may find that their child discovers no reason to begin communicating with them at a later, more turbulent, point in life. Others will cry louder and more urgently, becoming whiny, clingy, demanding and manipulative as they grow. In either scenario, parent/child communication is inhibited. The baby loses trust in his cues and the parent loses another opportunity to learn to read those cues. The baby cannot develop effective communication skills or healthy methods of expressing emotions. Although parents are frequently advised to leave their babies to cry in order to develop independence, babies are simply not capable of such. True maturity and healthy independence requires a strong foundation of emotional security that can only come about from the love and support of his caregivers during his earliest years.

In addition to the psychological distress he experiences when his cries are ignored, the baby must endure significant physiological distress as well. Babies left to cry experience elevated heart rates, lowered oxygen levels in their blood, and elevated levels of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol over an extended period of time increases the individual’s susceptibility to illness and a variety of stress disorders, and can also lead to separation anxiety, panic attacks, and addictions. Physical changes to the brain occur from the excessive cortisol stimulation. Changes to the nervous system can cause the individual to become overly sensitive to future trauma. Chronic stress can lead to an over-active adrenaline system, resulting in increased aggression and impulsiveness. Children who experienced persistent episodes of prolonged crying as babies have higher rates of ADHD, lower IQ, and poor fine motor skills.

Babies whose cries are frequently ignored will have a difficult time developing healthy intellectual and social skills. They will often become insecure individuals, characterized by anxious, avoidant, and/or ambivalent interactions. Promptly and sensitively responding to a child’s distress, on the other hand, will make them more secure, compassionate, and better able to form healthy relationships as adults.

On a very fundamental level, failing to respond sensitively to a baby’s cries demonstrates a subconscious belief that babies are “less than”. When an adult we care about – a spouse, friend, family member, or even acquaintance – is upset, few of us would choose to ignore them rather than respond to their distress, nor would we want those closest to us to ignore our own cries. If we would not treat each other that way, we must ask ourselves why it would be acceptable to do so to our own babies.

A baby’s wants are his needs. However, as a child grows, he will develop more and more wants that must be refused. Responding to a child’s cries does not mean giving him everything he wants. That would be an unhealthy form of parenting. However, even here the child's cries should not be ignored. Parenting requires that we sensitively respond to our child's cries, whether to comfort him, acknowledge his feelings, teach him appropriate ways to express his emotions, or meet a need (hunger, discomfort, pain, and so on).

What if it doesn't happen?

Unlike the other AP tools we have discussed thus far, I am going to suggest that this isn't an option in attachment parenting - or in any parenting. Understanding the language value of your baby's cry is absolutely imperative.

However, that is not to say that parents who have fallen victim to the belief that babies cry to manipulate rather than communicate, and have reflected that belief in the way they parented their baby, should feel burdened with guilt over their previous choices. Some look back and regret the way they responded to their baby's cries; others look at their child and say that he seems just fine. In either case, it is more important to go forward with a sensitive response to the child's needs rather than either wallow in guilt or react with offense for how they chose to raise their baby.

The importance of an apology should never be underestimated. Parents are not and will never be perfect. We will make mistakes. We will have moments where we allow the frustrations of our current situation to overwhelm and get the better of us. We will accept faulty advice, become misled by those who claim to be parenting “experts”, parent under flawed philosophies, and develop our own unique blind spots and weaknesses. Immense healing can occur when we acknowledge our wrongs, apologize, and seek our child’s forgiveness.

Despite our best intentions, we may not always be able to respond promptly to our baby’s needs. Sometimes a baby will cry in protest to something that is necessary. However, even when we cannot immediately alleviate the cause of his distress, we can verbally acknowledge his feelings in an attempt to comfort and reassure him.

Sometimes, for their own mental health and for the safety of their baby, a parent may need to place the baby in a safe place and take a quiet break alone. This is always preferable to reaching the point of being so overwhelmed that the parent causes physical harm to the child. A strong support system is invaluable in these early years (and beyond) in order to provide the parents with encouragement and practical help.

Our experiences

I was fortunate to have discovered Attachment Parenting while pregnant with my first child. It afforded me the confidence and encouragement I needed to respond to my child’s cries in a society that was continually telling me I would spoil my baby if I did so. It was this tenet of AP in particular – the belief in the language value of my baby’s cry – that underscored all the rest of them. Because of this belief, I felt it was important to establish bonding immediately after birth. Because of this belief, I felt comfortable breastfeeding on cue. Because of this belief, I found it both desirable and practical to carry them throughout the day. Because of this belief, I kept them close to me at night.

Sometimes my babies would have to cry, either because I could not tend to them immediately or because the cause of their distress was non-negotiable (such as a car seat). In those moments, I would verbally acknowledge their feelings in an attempt to comfort and reassure them, talking and singing until such time as I could remove the source of their protest.

There were moments, however, when I would feel frustrated or overwhelmed. At those times, a few minutes alone in the bathroom – a chance to empty my bladder, brush my hair, splash some cool water on my face, and drink a glass of water – made all the difference in my ability to go back out and resume parenting with patience and kindness.


Belief in the language value of your baby's cry reflects an awareness that babies cry to communicate, not manipulate. As the parent promptly and calmly responds to the baby's cries, the baby learns to trust that his needs will be met while the parent learns to trust in their ability to meet those needs. This is the beginning of parent/child communication.

A mother is biologically designed to respond to her baby's cries. When a parent fails to sensitively respond to those cries, parent/child communication is inhibited. The baby experiences significant psychological and physiological distress, which can have lasting implications on the child's life. When the parent responds to the baby's cries without judgment, displeasure, or invalidation of his needs, yet showing no undue concern or anxiety, the child is able to grow into a secure and compassionate adult capable of forming healthy relationships.

While the parent cannot always stop the baby from crying, they can acknowledge the baby's cries and attempt to sooth, distract, or direct the expression of those emotions. If the parent is feeling overwhelmed by the baby's cries, leaving the baby to cry alone for a few minutes while the parent regroups is always preferable to staying and reaching the point of causing harm to the baby. A strong support system is invaluable in providing both encouragement and practical help.

You can spoil a child by giving him everything he wants, and you can spoil a child by ignoring him, but you cannot spoil a child by responding to his cries. Understanding the language value of a baby's cry is imperative in developing healthy parent/child communication and a strong, lasting attachment.

Recommended Reading:

Crying Information by Dr. Sears
Cry it out (CIO): 10 reasons why it is not for us by PhD in Parenting
The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost by Jean Liedloff
Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love by Robert Karen

Now it's your turn! Add your link using the Mister Linky below to share your thoughts, experiences, resources, or struggles as they relate to belief in the language value of your baby's cry. I look forward to reading them! See you next Monday for our sixth installment - Beware of baby trainers!


  1. Thanks for posting. I just started blogging and I am planning on doing an AP series, although probably not as detailed and eloquent as yours. Great job. My blog is (formerly

  2. Thank you for this! I've wanted to write a post on the subject for quite a while, and you say it well. I like the series!

  3. I'm not a mother yet, but I've begun to form my own philosophy through reading about different parenting styles; I've gravitated towards attachment parenting and grace-based parenting. Of course, I don't actually know which theories I'll employ until the time comes, but I've used similar principles with my preschool students and have been successful. I've enjoyed your series so far!

  4. I just found you blog while researching the effects of baby wearing on independence. I've worn both of my children and loved every minute of it. Lately some friends have me questioning its effects on my children's independence. Anyway, I'm a closet attachment parent. I often feel pressure from friends to not wear, to cry it out, and stop the co sleeping. Loving that your blog helps me feel not so alone in my parenting decisions!

  5. I'd say this is one of the biggest issues I have when I'm in public. I'll be in Wal Mart, and I can hear the soft wail of a newborn. I'll hear it go on, and on and on and I'm ready to push MY way past the parent and pick the baby up to see what's going on. I just can't even imagine if it was my own.

  6. I agree that valuing the communicative intent of a baby's cry is a non-negotiable when it comes to attachment parenting. That doesn't mean there will be no crying, and while I love Elizabeth Pantley's books (The No-Cry Sleep Solution series), I think the name is kind of misleading. Our goal as attachment parents (or just as parents in general) is not to prevent any and all crying, but to view crying as a normal, healthy and valuable way for a baby to communicate with us.

    I've linked up one of my oldest Parent Vortex posts - the first one I wrote, in fact!

    Thanks for another great post. :)

  7. Excellent post.