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.
This entry was posted in Babies, Preschoolers, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Emma-Jane says:

    I agree 100%. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he cries and screams more than if he’d had a bad accident. It hurts me when my son is crying and I just want to hold him, he pushes me away. The harder he cries, the less he will let me touch him at all. It breaks my heart to not be able to hold my usually very cuddly boy when he is in so much emotional pain. Physical pain is different. When he scrapes his knee, he’s ok with me holding him and kissing him better. What am I doing wrong?

    • Nothing, he’s probably angry (likely at you) and doesn’t want to hug. That’s OK, just stay present with him and let him know you’re there for him if/when he wants to hug you.

    • Beckster says:

      My 2 year old asks for Daddy every morning when she wakes. If I tell her he’s gone to work her mood changes instantly, she screams, cries, won’t let me touch or comfort her in any way and demands I leave the room. She’ll call me back after couple of minutes when she’s calm. I hate that she doesn’t want me to be there for her.

  2. Teresa says:

    I am such a fan. I read a few articles on some babies just need to cry out their emotions from the day. That idea never settled well with me. I always tried to put myself in baby’s situation. If I am hungry I don’t want to cuddle. I want food. This simple exercise has helped me become a better mother. Thanks super Sarah.

  3. gaye.fairbairn says:

    Thank you for this Sarah. This message about crying couldn’t have arrived in my mailbox at better time. As if you heard my despair for help on this matter. God bless. Gaye, mother to Alex&Kate, 3, 5 year old twins.

    Sent from Samsung tablet

  4. Roma says:

    Hi Sarah,
    I think we’re on the same page but I disagree with you on a few points. I believe there IS inherent value in crying, it is truly therapeutic. It relieves tension and helps us makes sense of things. Anyone who has had a good cry (or laugh) knows how much better they feel afterwards. Of course there’s always a chance parents can use this information to coerce their babies into night weaning, as you suggest, but most parents who are genuinely following this approach are deeply connected to their children and tuned into what they need in each moment. I agree with you that crying needs to be in calm, present, arms, not as a last resort type scenario, but actively encouraged whenever the child needs to offload. And why can dad only do this when mum is exhausted?
    I’m also discovering that setting limits in the way you described with your kids can actually bring us deeper INTO connection – we’re not just “making them cry”. I don’t believe children test limits; they generally know where the limits are going to be. But I do think they show us with their behaviour when they are feeling stressed and need help to regulate their brains. And by moving in warmly as you describe and setting a limit, you allow them to offload stress through crying or raging and when they feel better they usually come in for a hug.
    And sometimes what might be needed in the moment is actually having the flexibility to notice when you wouldn’t enforce a usual limit (say no screen time on weekdays), which does not come fro fear of making them cry, just sensitivity to how they need to be supported in that moment.

  5. jeanette says:

    I am a grandma now with a background in early childhood education. I am passionate about parenting and aim to run some local courses if I can find some time btw babysitting grandsons (18mths and 4) I really enjoy your posts. My observations of this generation of parents is that they are doing it tough – without the extended family around to give a bit of experience and support and often juggling double careers as well – or single parenting. They seem to lack a developmental framework for their decisions and parenting styles. Despite the wealth of helpful sites and blogs on the net it is not the same as a personal support network and a helping hand or word when needed. They seem to take themselves very seriously, lack confidence, are very concerned to have the “right image” with other parents they know, and this seems to cause a fair bit of anxiety which of course makes the parenting role even tougher and less rewarding. I would like to see them “lighten up” a little and enjoy the exciting process of watching a young person grow and evolve. Sometimes I wonder if the desire to be the “perfect parent” takes this away – so your post to give permission to let them cry is timely ( though bound to be misinterpreted by many I fear) and I would suggest that the concept of ” MAKING them cry” brings images of cruelty and teasing which I know is not your intention – better to say that sometimes it is inevitable that they will cry when you are being a good caring parent – this is what attachment/gentle parenting means – guiding, protecting and supporting your little one with profound insight, wisdom and love until they can do it for themselves. I am in Australia by the way and wonder if you are in the States? are there many differences do you think?

  6. Rachel says:

    I love this article. I have been worried about making my nine month old cry. We sleep on a big mattress on the floor, and sometimes at bedtime he crawls off. After 45 minutes of stories and nursing and he still won’t stay still, I’ve gently held him in the bed next to me because I know he’s tired and needs sleep. But he hates being restrained like that. He struggles , then wails, then nurses, then sleeps within ten minutes. Am I doing wrong? What should I do instead?

  7. Kate Orson says:

    It’s great to see someone in the attachment parenting world so clearly explaining how it’s okay for our children to cry, and that our job as parents is not to simply stop the crying.
    And I like how you clearly explain how we can listen to crying, as well as setting limits for the wellbeing of our children.
    However I do agree with these ‘new parenting ideologies’ that crying does serve an important healing function, and babies don’t just wake in the night because they are hungry. Figuring out the times when babies need to be listened to to express their feelings, is an important part of listening to their communication. Doing this doesn’t make us less of a loving parent towards are children as if we are somehow not gentle enough and did it for selfish reasons.
    I was quite happy for my baby to wake in the night as much as she liked as we co-slept and it didn’t disturb my sleep much when she did wake. But I came to realise she had different needs, and I had to listen a bit more closely rather than assuming she was hungry.
    Like the other commenter above, I felt that we became closer and more attached when I acknowledged she had a need to cry.

  8. insecuremother says:

    I always try “I know you are sad/cross because mummy won’t let you eat dirt/play with knives/play with electrics but it’s not safe and mummy loves you very much as doesn’t want you to hurt yourself”. How old before this is understood? My daughter is only 18 months.

  9. Bri says:

    The mother should never have to be that exhausted in the first place. Her partner should be there to assist in the child rearing equally. Aside from that good article.

  10. Alison says:

    I wonder how long is it OK for a toddler to cry? My son is 17 months and my mom says 15-30 minutes… But that seems excessive to me. I’m not talking about bedtime but rather during the day, say if he would be put in his playpen while I try to do something, and he cries because he wants out? I usually can’t let him cry more than just a few minutes but my mother thinks there’s nothing harmful about going longer. Just curious since I don’t want to be “giving in” to him too easily. Thank you!

  11. Sally says:

    How do you square this philosophy with night weaning for toddlers? I totally agree that a baby should be fed every time he wakes at night, but what about a 22 month old?

    In principle I would like to let my son night wean himself, but is there a point where breastfeeding all night long becomes more like the staying at the park late analogy (I would love to let him play at the park all day, but sometimes I need to leave)? Can I comfort him by hugging him and empathising with his feelings, or am I still “fooling myself” that I am being respectful?

    I’m hoping you’ll say I’m not fooling myself…because I’m exhausted.

    • Erin says:

      I’m with you! My daughter is only 13 months old but I’m exhausted too. I haven’t had the courage to do it yet but I feel that crying in arms could be a good solution if done right. I’m going to start gradually extending the amount of time she goes without a feed. For now though, I care more about bedtime. She can feed on and off for over an hour and still be upset so in that scenario, I’m going to give this a try. Let her have a cry while holding her and see what happens rather than shoving the boob in again when I know she’s not hungry. I’ll be cautious throughout the night as its hard to say for certain what they do and do not ‘need’ even at that age! Good luck

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