Introductio: WhyPickUpBabyCrying? - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Consultant/Trainer/Author
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**Author's Note: Other than public figures or people identified in the media, all other persons in this book are either composites of individuals the author has worked with and/or have been given different names and had their personal identifying information altered to protect and respect their confidentiality.  

Periodically the Ferber method or as it may be incorrectly labeled- the CYO or "Cry It Out" method gets reviewed (or criticized) for its effectiveness and potential positive or negative consequences on infants.  The method is often mischaracterized as recommending parents let their infant children cry it out alone in their cribs until they fall asleep.  Ferber never said parents should simply leave their infants in their cribs and shut the bedroom door behind them.  His progressive waiting approach allows parents to gradually limit the time they spend in their child's room while providing regular comfort and reassurance — as well as reassuring themselves that the children are okay (babycare.com, 2010).  One mother told the therapist that she tried the CYO method with her older daughter.  The mother felt her daughter was harmed as she still suffers anxiety as a young adult from being left alone crying in her bedroom.  She abandoned the CYO method and subsequently responded more readily to her younger daughter when she cried.  She said her younger daughter became a significantly more secure adult who could more readily manage anxiety and stress. The following is for the therapist or other professional to utilize for the discussion on picking up crying babies and longer term effects of that behavior.  This commentary does not dismiss the logistical requirements of getting a baby to sleep through the night and parental needs for their own sleep.

Why do you pick up a baby who is crying?  

The baby is in distress over discomfort, hunger, being startled, and so forth.  Babies are completely helpless and dependent on their parents or caregivers for their every need and for remedy for their every distress.  Babies in distress who are not attended to, slide into despair.  You can hear the difference in their cry.  Often you can hear anger in their cry.

Why do you pick up a baby who is crying?  

Because babies not only are not able to self-care, they do not know how to self-soothe!  You pick up the baby to soothe him or her so that he or she doesn't go into despair, which ignites a whole set of other emotional and psychological issues potentially.

Why do you pick up a baby who is crying?  

Because as the caregiver soothes the baby, three important things happen.  First, the baby is soothed and his or her distress recedes rather than intensifies into despair.  The baby crying can be distressful to his or her caregivers.  As the caregiver responds, the baby gradually accrues repeated fundamental messages of worth.  The caregiving and soothing shows him/her that his or her distress matters to someone.  Specifically, that he or she matters to the intimate caregiver- usually the parent or parents.  The caregiver cares and will respond by meeting his or her needs and nurturing.  The baby experiences that someone both is available and will attend to him/her.  Second, the baby learns from the model and experience.  

I first began working with children in a volunteer community program our group of college students had initiated.  One of the kids fell and got a bump.  Hurt, she began crying.  I instinctively picked her up, put her on my hip, and began swaying gently from side to side.  I remember wondering, "Where'd THAT come from!?"  Of course, that came from my pre-cognitive memory of being held and rocked by my mother.  Many years later, I was rocking our sleepy 8-month-old baby girl tucked in the crock of my arm and gently patting her on the back with the other hand.  I thought she was asleep.  With her arm tucked under my arm holding me as I held her, suddenly I felt her little hand patting me on the back!  This is the baby who became the girl… the teen… and the young woman 20+ years later who is still nurturing others as she has embarked on a career working with young people, as well as nurturing and soothing her close intimate relationships.  The second consequence of soothing a baby is that he or she experiences the model of soothing and learns how to soothe others.  Babies who are soothed become the children and adults who then apply this model throughout life to soothe the important individuals in their lives.

The third and equally (arguably most) important consequence is that the baby learns how to self-soothe.  The baby eventually learns to rock him/herself gently the way the caregiver has rocked him/her.  He or she eventually learns to caress him/herself around his or her face and body, the way the caregiver has caressed him/her.  He or she eventually learns to murmur in the same tone (but in baby language) the gentle nurturing sounds that he or she has heard from the caregiver.  Babies learn how to self-soothe by being soothed by loving caretakers.  

Babies that are soothed learn and are modeled behaviors that they eventually use to soothe others as they grow older.

Babies that learn how to self-soothe become children, teenagers, and adults who know how to self-soothe and know how to soothe others.

Babies that DO NOT learn how to self-soothe become children, teenagers, and adults who DO NOT know how to self-soothe or soothe others.  Problematic consequences for individuals throughout life are likely.  This is another way to conceptualize or describe insecure attachment, which in turn predicts future relationship problems.

Children who do not know how to self-soothe will stay distressed, anxious, and fearful.  They will act out to gain the fourth cousin twice removed of nurturing- that is, negative attention.  They take the negative attention because that is all they feel they can get.  They act with anger because others have not been available or attentive, and in preparation for the anger their behavior will elicit.  Ironically, adults need to celebrate their acting out, because their acting out is a cry for help.  Unfortunately, adults such as parents or teachers or therapists are often drawn to trying to manage the negative behavior, and fail to recognize the call for soothing.  Attempts to shape or re-structure behavior, that is, discipline leave the dynamic devoid of soothing.  The cry has not been duly attended to which frustrates, scares, and angers the child.  The cry for help although the baby or child may not know it, is also a cry of hope.  Babies that stop crying have lost hope.  This can result in the failure to thrive syndrome.  The child silently depressed in the corner of the classroom or isolated in his or her bedroom who does not act out, may be the one who is most in distress.  He or she may have gone beyond distress.  Having lost hope, he or she may slide deeply into depression.  Teens and adults who do not know how to self-soothe will also behave and make choices that draw negative attention because they cannot get soothing.  They may do so with classmates, teammates, at a job, and in a couple and suffer the consequences.

Teenagers and adults who do not know how to self-soothe, may use alcohol, drugs, sex, food, self-injury, and any number of other dysfunctional behaviors in order to self-soothe.  If they lose hope, they may also fall into patterns of short-term gratuitous or hedonistic behaviors that can be self-destructive.  Long-term goals or dreams become irrelevant with repeated life experiences and acquired views of hopelessness and helplessness.

Teenagers and adults who do not know how to self-soothe, will get into a relationship with another person, and demand that that person always perfectly soothe them when they are in need.  And, if for some reason, that person fails to soothe them when their distress spirals immediately into anger and despair, they will lash out and punish him/her for the betrayal.  This can be manifested in characterological problems such as borderline personality disorder or tendencies.  This type of behavior can become endemic in problematic couples relationships.  Or, such individuals may deal with challenges in therapy ineffectively or inappropriately with significant negative transference with the therapist.  The therapist would need to be vigilant that they may be likely to evoke problematic counter-transference.

Parents who do not know how to self-soothe may overcompensate soothing behaviors for their children as they seek to prevent their children suffering the despair they experienced- often despite their children not feeling despair.  The consequence of this may be narcissistic and entitled (spoiled) children who proceed with problems into the second (their own intimacy relationships) and the third generations (their children).

Why do you pick up a baby who is crying?
Because this is how they learn that in the big wide world, there is someone who cares… who is available and attentive that he or she is in distress.  

Why do you pick up a baby who is crying?  

Because this is the fundamental behavior of all those wonderful attachment theories!

Why do some people advocate letting them "cry it out?"  On a more humorous note, I recall research that came out a few years ago, that the tone and pitch of a baby's cry is designed to bug the heck out of us!  Duh!  Being profoundly annoyed makes adults want to get the baby to stop crying of course.  Some people advocate letting babies "cry it out" because they are focusing on a practical problem and primarily or exclusively focusing on eliminating the behavior.  Crying babies is a legitimate problem to be handled in any number of ways.  But it needs to be handled so that babies can have secure attachment.

Why do you pick up a baby who is crying?  

Because a cry of discomfort also is a cry of need.  If adults don't respond to the cry, the "cry it out" advocates are correct because the baby will stop crying.  The baby will stop crying because beyond the cry being a cry of discomfort, it also becomes a cry of hope.  When babies, children, teens, and adults lose hope, they don't cry out anymore.  Crying out, acting out, and other behaviors are the cries to personal and professional caregivers that need to be responded to.  

Aside from some of the specific references to couple therapy, this is how I explain this issue to parents, teachers, and other human services professionals.  Essentially, they get it.  At the core, it's about attachment.  And, "it" goes far beyond a baby crying.

ADDRESS:
433 Estudillo Ave., #305
San Leandro, CA 94577-4915
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
CONTACT INFORMATION:
phone: (510) 614-5641
fax: (510) 889-6553
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