Directly connected to the infant need of contact with the caregivers, which I have discussed in the previous article in my column, another fundamental need of the baby is being comforted when crying.
For little babies, crying is a powerful biological sign and, in fact, is the only way they have to communicate their needs. It can be anything: from the need to be fed or to sleep, to discomfort from a dirty nappy or an upset stomach, to the need to receive some physical comfort and reassurance. Babies are communicating and they expect their caregivers to respond. In fact, the caregiver role is to help the infant to regulate their emotional states, helping them to transform negative emotions in a positive state.
Why it is important for parents to respond when the infant cries
Even very little babies are able to adopt some self-regulatory strategies, behaviours aimed at handling negative emotions and reducing their level of stress, such as sucking or touching parts of the body (putting an hand or fingers in the mouth or touching their ears or hair).
However, in the majority of situations, they rely exclusively on their caregivers to help them with their emotional regulation (managing and controlling emotions and behaviours), as their brain is still very immature. In fact, the prefrontal cortex, which is a key area involved in emotion regulation, is one of the last parts of the brain to develop.
For this reason, they need someone else to help them regulating their internal states and emotions, in a process called hetero-regulation. Through the experience of the relationship with the caregiver in the first years of life, with time and brain maturity, children will eventually be able to internalize the ability to control their emotions and behaviour independently (i.e., self-regulation) and will be able to move from a predominant hetero-regulation to a predominant self-regulation. This ability will help them to understand their own emotions and those of others, manage stressful situations, and maintain balance and wellbeing even during adult life.
Therefore, if parents are available and respond sensitively to their babies’ requests and needs, babies will feel secure that they can freely express their negative emotions and seek proximity with the caregiver when distressed, and that the caregiver will respond and make them feel better.
In other words, this creates a virtuous cycle of trust, which represents the basis for a secure attachment. Secure attachment is associated with long-term positive outcomes for the infant in terms of general wellbeing and development.
Conversely, if parents don’t respond to their babies’ requests of help when distressed, they respond in inconsistent and unpredictable ways, or with atypical behaviours such as those perceived as frightening or confusing for the baby, babies may understand that their
caregivers are not available.
Depending on the specific behaviour of the caregiver, with time they could eventually start minimising the display of negative emotions and avoiding contact with the caregivers if they feel that they are rejecting them or are unavailable. Alternatively, they could exaggerate negative emotions (for example, crying and protesting a lot and not being soothed easily), to maximise the chance of response from an inconsistent caregiver, or they could display a mixture of these strategies. All of these behaviours represent the basis for the development of an insecure attachment, which is a risk factor for life-time negative outcomes in terms of wellbeing such as psychopathology.
The risks of not responding to a crying baby
Not responding repeatedly to a crying baby may have negative long-term effects. Research has in fact shown that excessive crying in the first stages of life doubles the risk of emotional and behavioural problems at age 5-6, such as behavioural problems, hyperactivity/inattention and mood disorders.
There are different factors potentially involved in this association, but a crucial one is certainly the parent-infant relationship, as it is considered a very important factor for infant development. In fact, a lack of parental response to the infant cry is associated with the infant's production of high levels of cortisol, which is the hormone released during stressful situations. When levels of cortisol are too high for prolonged periods of time, these can impact the developing brain and, therefore, can have long lasting negative effects on cognitive function and on general physical and mental health.
Of course, there will be times when it will not be possible to respond or soothe the crying baby. An example might be a baby who cries as she does not want to be in a car seat. As caregivers we can try to soothe the baby in different ways, but even if the crying persists we would not be able to remove the baby from the car seat, for obvious safety reasons. However, this situation should be an exception rather than the rule. Choosing to actively not respond to an infant crying not only can have long-term negative effects on their development, but also goes against an innate and evolutionary drive, which is to respond to the infant cues to promote their safety and wellbeing.
Not only babies are programmed to seek help from their caregivers, but caregivers are also programmed to respond to their babies by nature.
Prolonged exposure to the baby crying is stressful also for the caregiver. It triggers a stressful response in the body and, specifically the release of cortisol and of other hormones such as oxytocin as well as the activation of multiple brain circuits, such as the prefrontal cortex, the insula and the amygdala. These are involved in the processing of emotions and in specific cognitive processes, which all function to activate a response to the baby.
The importance of parental self-care and social support
All the evidence above serves to highlight the importance of parental response to the infant crying. However, it is also important to mention that responding sensitively and consistently to the baby is not always easy. In fact, the caregiving role can be very demanding for a new parent, particularly in difficult situations, such as during sleep deprivation, which often characterises the first period after childbirth.
It is therefore also important for parents to activate self-care behaviours to make sure they can be more able to then respond sensitively to their baby. To this end, for example, it is important for parents to maintain some time, even if this is only short, to do something relaxing and enjoyable for themselves. It can be anything from reading a book, going for a short walk in the park, having a cup of coffee/tea, a hot bath, speaking with a friend, to sleeping. This can be very hard sometimes as parenthood is a 24/7 job and taking time for yourself as parents is often not easy. However, self-care time is very important and, therefore, parents need to work towards this.
Furthermore, in this first period, support is vital for parents’ wellbeing. Indeed emotional and practical support is a strong protective factor for mental health during the perinatal period. Research has in fact shown that a lack of support represents a strong risk factor for depression both during pregnancy and postnatally. So, whenever possible, if you are a new parent, ask for help, both emotional and practical, in all possible ways and don’t be afraid to ask. This will protect both you and your baby.
Using the words of the child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg: ”when this mother's own cries are heard, she will hear her child's cries."