“I was on the phone this morning and the person at the other end heard my baby crying. When I told her I was cuddling him, she said, “well you’ve created a rod for your own back now,” says Jody, mother of an eight week old.
When your competence as a mother comes under scrutiny and you feel judged, t’s easy for the doubts to creep in that you just might be ‘giving in’ to your baby or that she really is a cunning wee rascal plotting to wrap you around her proverbial little finger. It then becomes difficult to resist advice to ignore your baby’s cries in order to teach her to cry less or sleep more – or whatever your critic’s definition of a ‘good baby’ happens to be.
Really, there is no sense at all in entering a power struggle with your baby. Your aby’s cry has been designed for her survival and you are programmed to react:
during the last trimester of pregnancy you begin producing a ‘mummy margarita’ of hormones that make you crazily protective and responsive to your baby. By the time your baby is born, your pituitary (a pea sized gland at the back of your brain), is double its normal size and it takes about 6 months for this to get back to normal again (of course, after you have a baby, there is a completely new ‘normal’ when it comes to your brain, your body and your life!) So, you are churning out hormones designed by nature to make you take care of your baby – and that’s why every cry will pierce your heart.
Also, when your baby cries, your body chemistry changes: the blood flow to your breasts doubles and you have a hormone- induced urge to respond. This is why advice to ‘leave her to cry’ or ‘you are making a rod for your back’ is easy for others to say –because they aren’t biologically connected to your baby. And this is why you feel so confused – you feel sensitive to criticism of your mothering skills and you feel torn between your urge to respond to your baby and advice that is at odds with what you are feeling deep within your soul.
Really, you are the expert about your baby regardless of where this advice is coming from. And please relax – you can’t spoil your baby. The part of her brain that can make conscious connections and create scams to manipulate you isn’t even online yet. When you attend to your baby promptly, you not only get better at ‘reading’ her crying language but come to learn her pre-cry signals and as you respond accordingly, you will be able to avert full-blown crying.
In the early months, your baby’s cry is automatic. If you leave her to cry, she is
likely to become even more upset as her crying picks up momentum. And after a little while she won’t even know why she was crying in the first place – she
will just be crying because she can’t stop, and so she will be much harder to
settle. If you are breastfeeding, it is particularly important to respond quickly to hunger cues: a baby who is left to work up to a full-blown cry will have a more disorganised suck and may have trouble latching on correctly, or she may only suck for a short time before she falls asleep with exhaustion.
Leaving your baby to ‘cry it out’ may have longer term consequences for mental health: there is emerging evidence that distress at being left to cry changes the
physiology of the brain and may predispose children to stress disorders such as
panic, anxiety and depression later in life. Paediatrician William Sears has
commented that ‘babies who appear to be ‘trained’ not to express their needs
may appear to be docile, compliant or ‘good’ babies. Yet these babies could be
depressed babies who are shutting down their needs. They become children who don’t speak up to get their needs met and eventually become the highest need adults.’
By not responding to your baby’s signals, the only things being’ spoilt’ are your ationship with your baby and your own self-confidence. As your baby fails to fit whatever regime you are trying to impose, you feel more and more inadequate and possibly angry or resentful towards your baby who is trying to communicate her needs in the only way available to her. And, as you struggle to teach your baby that you are in control, she may also learn perhaps the saddest lesson of all: that she is helpless, that she has no power to communicate – so what is the use of trying?
Give me a cuddle:
Cuddles make your baby smarter: Neuroscientists and clinicians have documented that loving interactions that are sensitive to a child’s needs influence the way the brain grows and can increase the number of connections between nerve cells.
Cuddles prime your baby’s brain for good mental health: Studies show that a baby’s brain that is protected from stress, is likely to develop more cortisol (a stress hormone) receptors so that later in life he will be able to respond to stress more quickly and appropriately later in life.
Cuddles stop the crying. Research shows that babies who are
attended to promptly during the first six months cry and whinge less in the
next six months and even later – responding now could be cheap insurance
against a demanding toddler!