Why it’s OK to let your baby or child cry (sometimes).

If you follow attachment or gentle parenting principles, you should never willingly let your child cry, right?

Wrong.

If you follow attachment or gentle parenting principles, you should never willingly make your child cry, right?

Wrong.

You can very much be an attachment or gentle parent and both allow your child to cry and (shock horror) make them cry. In addition it’s very normal – and pretty common – to be either an attachment, or gentle, parent and have a child who cries, sometimes a lot.

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The Goal of Attachment or Gentle Parenting

The goal of attachment parenting is to foster the attachment between child and caregiver. An attachment parent allows the child to remain as attached as they need for as long as they need. Similarly an attachment parent also allows the child to detach and become independent as they so need, all the while still remaining a ‘secure base’ for the child to return to if and when they need to.

The goal of gentle parenting is to be mindful of the biological and psychological limitations of a child’s behaviour, to be respectful of the child and empathic towards them. Gentle parents understand the norms of child development and readjust their expectations at each stage. Gentle parents spend time to understand the reasons behind their child’s behaviour, foster connection and empathy and communicate in a child friendly way.

In essence, both are pretty similar in all but name.

Is it possible to allow a child to cry and still show respect, empathy and understanding? Of course it is. Is it possible to still foster connection and attachment with a crying child? Of course. What if it is you, as a parent, who causes the child to cry? I still very much believe that this is a normal and indeed necessary part of both attachment and gentle parenting.

The Difference Between Crying it Out and Crying in Arms

The easiest way to explain this is by asking you to imagine yourself very, very upset. Imagine that whatever causing the upset is so great to you that you just cannot stop crying. Imagine sobbing uncontrollably, unable to stop your tears and soothe yourself. Imagine those big heaving sobs that wrench your whole body upwards and shake you to your core.

Now, pick one of these two scenarios:

1. Your partner sees you crying and  asks if you are OK. You are too upset to respond. He or she tells you “it’s OK, you’re OK, you’re going to be fine”, puts an arm around you, gives you a big hug and walks out of the room closing the door. Or perhaps he or she doesn’t leave the room, but goes to sit on a chair nearby, not touching, talking to or looking at you. You continue to cry uncontrollably feeling so alone, isolated, confused. In pain.

2. Your partner sees you crying and  asks if you are OK. You are too upset to respond. He or she comes over to you and asks if you would like a hug. You nod. You feel their arms embrace you and you melt into them. They say “I’m right here for you, I’m not going anywhere”. Their arms tell you that they care enough and are strong enough to remain present through your tears. They don’t belittle you or try to tell you it’s OK. You still cry. The pain (whether emotional or physical) is so big and all-consuming you can’t stop. Knowing that somebody who loves you is strong enough to contain your tears makes you feel loved and although you cannot stop crying that knowledge helps. The oxytocin you release from the cuddle only adds to the feeling of comfort and reassurance.

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Which one did you pick?

Now, imagine your baby is crying because they are overstimulated and can’t wind down enough to go to sleep, or your toddler is crying because they don’t want to lay down in their bed, they want to run around instead (both big things in their own worlds). They cry. Big, heavy tears roll down their cheeks, they tense, their chest heaves up and down uncontrollably. Can you tell the difference between the two responses above?

When the Tears Don’t Stop

As parents we need to realise that our aim is NOT to always stop the crying. Our aim is to be present and empathic with our children during them. Our aim is to act as an external regulator at a time when the child is too immature to regulate their own emotions (AKA ‘self soothe’ or ‘self settle’). Our worth as a parent should not be measured by our ability to “stop the crying”. Our role as a parent is to be big enough, mature enough and calm enough ourselves to contain our child’s tears and still remain present to comfort them when they do eventually stop.

The time in the car when your baby screamed and you couldn’t stop when you were on the motorway, that time when your toddler was in pain at the hospital and you couldn’t stop their tears, that time when your baby was ill and vomiting copiously. These times happen for us all. ALL CHILDREN CRY, however they are parented. The difference is how you responded during their tears.

When we convince ourselves it’s OK for them to cry, but it really isn’t.

I don’t want this article to be taken the wrong way. I sometimes think that there is a new breed of parenting which nicely fits those who would like to be gentle or attachment parents, but don’t quite want to ‘give’ enough of themselves or their time. These parents read parenting ideologies that state that babies and children should be allowed respect, independence and authority over their own bodies at all times. Those articles that state that crying is an important means of expression for babies and children and to not allow them to cry is wrong. I think *they* are wrong. These ideologies can often result in ignoring the communication and reasons behind the tears, which true attachment or gentle parents wouldn’t do. For instance if a baby is hungry in the middle of the night they will cry – a lot. In this case it’s not OK to let the baby cry. The baby needs feeding. It is absolutely not respectful to hold them, contain their tears, and tell yourself that they just need to express their emotions. They need feeding, whether you want to cut out night feeds or not. Don’t let these ideologies fool you into believing you are allowing these tears out of respect of freedom of expression. There is no respect in ignoring a baby’s needs.

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When we make our children cry.

I’m not afraid to make my children cry. I do so regularly. My son wanted to stay up late on a school night, he has a strict 8pm bedtime and I wasn’t budging on it. He cried. Another son wanted to play computer games on a Wednesday, we have a screen time ban Monday-Friday, I enforced this ban. He cried. My daughter wanted to eat a whole family sized chocolate bar. I have strict limits on sweets. She cried. I took my daughter to the park to ride her new scooter, it got dark and cold and I told her it was time to go home. She cried.

I make my children cry. It is a necessary part of parenting. As a parent I need to enforce limits and boundaries. As a parent I need to keep my child and other children safe. My children are like any others, they test my limits and fun often overtakes their judgement of safety.

When they cry however, I try to remain as empathic as I can be. I tell them I understand how sad/mad/angry they must be feeling. I explain my decision and why we have to stick to it. I help them to understand things they can do instead. If they want me to I hug them. They calm down . They move on, perhaps having learnt something. That’s life. In fact to NOT make your child cry (for the right reasons) is perhaps more disrespectful to them. This is something I notice in a fair number of both attachment and gentle parents – the fear of making their child cry. This fear of causing their child to cry can mean a lack of discipline, which I feel is far worse.

When we can’t meet our child’s needs (or don’t understand them).

There are many reasons we don’t meet our children’s needs. This little ‘failure’ each day is actually an important part of their development and ultimately what will lead them to separating from us when the time comes. Being ‘good enough’ really is enough. If a baby cries and you have no idea why, a true gentle or attachment parent would do everything possible to soothe them and to understand their needs, and not take it personally if the baby doesn’t stop crying. If a mother is at the end of her tether and emotionally and physically wrung out with sleep exhaustion it’s OK for the father to hold the crying baby or toddler in the night. He is ‘good enough’, his compassion, containment and empathy may not be breasts (!), but he is there, fully present and that’s OK. In fact in my book it’s more than ‘good enough’ as it takes strength and patience to remain present during unstoppable tears.

As parents we shouldn’t be afraid of our child’s tears, no matter what ethos we follow. So long as we remain empathic , understanding of their needs and responsive, it’s OK for our children to cry!

Sarah

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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