Needs or "whims"? How to react to the baby's cry

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Philippe Gloaguen
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the child is crying. What's now?

There are those who run immediately, those who minimize, those who tend to ignore. But is there a right way to respond to the baby's cry? Of course, a lot depends on the situation, on the context: if the little one cries for an inalienable need or for a not really fundamental desire, if mum and dad are calm and rested or particularly tired and stressed, if there are rules to be respected and so on.

"From time to time the answers may be different. Provided, however, that we start from an assumption: that with that cry, the child is communicating something to us and that we should make him understand that we are listening to him. ”Word of Maria Zaccagnino, psychologist and psychotherapist, co-director of the EMDR Center for Eating Disorders in our city and expert in attachment theory.

Why is the baby crying

Often the cry of a child sends us into crisis. Yet in itself it is not something negative, but a healthy and natural signal. "And the first, essential communication tool available to the child, and its meaning changes over time "underlines Lavinia Barone, full professor of psychology at the, where she directs the Laboratory for attachment and support to parenthood.

For example, in the first days after birth, it is above all to trigger it physiological stimuli or physical discomfort, like hunger, cold, pain. As the days go by, psychological needs are added to these reasons, such as that of feel close to parents, especially the mother. In this sense it is an attachment behavior, which has the aim of guaranteeing the physical proximity of the figures of reference and protection.

Up to 6-8 weeks of life, therefore, crying is above all a reflection of basic needs. "However, from two months on, things begin to change, because the child becomes more active in contact with mum and dad," says Barone. In fact, this is when babies begin to understand that they can modulate small sounds, and therefore intentionally cry, to get attention. Crying then becomes a tool for allow mother and baby to get to know each other better and to learn to regulate each other's emotions and interactions.

As the baby grows, the causes that lead to crying become more and more articulated. "Around eight months, for example, it can be the anxiety of separation from the parent or the fear of strangers" specifies Zaccagnino. "Around a year and a half, the frustration, when he is unable to do what he would like or does not see certain of his desires satisfied. And as the capacity for judgment and perception of the external world grows, the reasons for crying also multiply and depend, for example, on interactions with other children, or on emotions such as anger and sadness ".

What to do when the baby cries

Sometimes it is easy to understand why a baby cries: maybe he is hungry, and the mother knows that it will be enough to attach him to the breast or bottle to calm him. Or he fell and got hurt, or he got scared, and he needs to be rescued and reassured.


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Other times it's not that simple: are you crying because you are hungry, cold or stomach ache? Or, if he's a little older, why is he sad, angry, or disappointed? If, for example, there are a few minutes before dinner and he cries desperately because he wants a biscuit at all costs, is he doing it because he really is irresistibly hungry or because he has a little greedy craving? How can we respond to these very different requests?

"There is one, simple, general rule: the really important thing is accept the cry for what it is, that is, the manifestation of a request for communication"says Zaccagnino.

"In this sense, crying should never be ignored or minimized, but it should always be welcomed. It is important to make the child understand, with words, but also with gestures, or with an affectionate look, that here we are, we are present and we understand that he is experiencing a discomfort, even if at first we fail to understand what discomfort it is. This already, in many cases, helps to calm the situation ".

The rule applies whatever the discomfort manifested, whether or not it is fundamental in our eyes. "If the little one cries because he fell (but nothing was done) or because his grandmother left, it would be better to avoid phrases such as not crying: there is no reason, or there is nothing to cry. Better recognize that there is a discomfort and accept it: Were you scared because you fell? Are you sad because grandmother left? I understand that. ”All of this teaches the child that he can freely express his needs and emotions, because there is someone willing to listen to them and to welcome them.

But be careful: this it does not mean that we must do exactly what the child asks. "The essential point of the matter is to convey to the child the feeling that we are legitimizing his emotional states. After that we will respond in different ways according to the age, the situation, the rules we want to give "explains Zaccagnino clearly." If a one-month-old baby cries because he is hungry, we will have to try to satisfy his request. If a three-year-old cries because he wants a cracker five minutes before dinner and we think it's not right to give it to him, we will tell him softly that we understand his request, but that for various reasons - which we will try to explain anyway - we cannot satisfy it " Crying or not crying.

Other times, however, it will be let him know that we are there, but we cannot rush immediately, which little by little can also help him learn to manage his needs on his own. "Another example: if a three-year-old boy wakes up in the night and cries because he doesn't want to be alone, we don't have to rush right away, as we would have done when he was a few months old. We can call him, make him understand gently that we heard him, that we are present and wait a moment to see if he can calm down on his own "suggests Zaccagnino.

Which, to be explicit, does not mean justifying the Estivill method, or all those methods that involve letting the baby cry for gradual and scheduled times, until he does what we want, like sleeping through the night without disturbing. However, it means that not everything is black and white, that one does not necessarily have to choose between deliberately ignoring the child and always rushing at the slightest request, but that the situations must be evaluated case by case, moment by moment.

"The children are each different from the other, as are the parents: each family must find the their own way of interacting, which is sensitive and respectful of the child, but also of the rules they intend to give"Barone underlines." The combination of the many variables involved can mean that in order to reach a certain result, for example letting the child sleep alone, different strategies have to be implemented according to the child. Some, more sensitive, will need some care and a little more patience, others will gladly accept, very soon, to be left alone ".

What happens if we let the babies cry

But what happens if you don't respond to the baby's cry? What if, in other words, he is left to cry more or less intentionally for long periods? Could there be negative long-term consequences? Again, a lot depends on the situations: if it is something that "runs away" from time to time, obviously there is no problem.

"We all know: we are human and parenting is difficult, therefore it can happen to everyone to react badly to a cry, ignoring it or giving an altered response "says Zaccagnino." It is certainly not some situation of this type, which inevitably happens, to compromise the child's balance ". The problem is there. it is whether these inadequate responses are continuous and repeated.

"If the baby's crying is systematically ignored, he will stop crying at some point, not because he has actually found an effective way to comfort himself, but because he has learned that no one will respond to his request"explains Barone." Well, we know that this is a behavior at risk for its future development ".

"After all - continues the psychologist - a systematically ignored cry is generally an indication of one general situation of neglect and it is this that can be risky. A life condition in which the child's needs are repeatedly ignored or neglected is a source of great stress for him, comparable to what can be experienced due to traumatic events such as an important bereavement in the family. And there are now many studies that relate one prolonged stress of the child in his first years of life to an increased risk of developing physical and psychological diseases, such as allergies or autoimmune diseases, depression, eating disorders, even as an adult ".

Updated on 13.11.2022

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