Monday, April 02, 2012

Why I let my baby cry.

Ava Joy, 4 months. 

She just wouldn't. stop. crying.

I walked her. I bounced her. I shushed her.

She cried.

I offered the breast. The pacifier. A bottle. My finger tip.

She wailed.

I changed her diaper. I changed her clothes. I gently washed her face and burped her.

She shrieked.

I begged. I pleaded. I wept.

She screamed.

For hours, this went on. My breasts engorged, ached, and flooded my shirt with milk she wouldn't drink. Tears streamed down my face while my heart raced and my blood pressure rose.

Why do you hate me? What am I doing wrong? I asked her over and over as her tiny, stiff, arched-back body grew heavier in my arms. She was 6 weeks old. This was how we spent a lot of our time.

I read a lot of great posts from many well-meaning moms about parenting high-needs babies.

I even read some things about how allowing a baby to "cry it out" will cause brain damage.* They say that allowing a baby to cry and failing to meet it's need (and thus stop the crying) will permanently damage your baby. Some well-meaning mommas have told me that allowing a baby to cry for any period of time will cause brain damage.

What I don't hear much of is anyone telling you that it's okay to let your baby cry.

Maybe some of these mommas have lived through an experience like the first 8 months of Abigail's life. I am guessing most of them haven't. So I want to tell you something important today:


If there is one thing I know, it's this: a woman's body is designed to respond to a crying baby. And when we respond and the baby continues to cry despite our best efforts, our bodies go into high-stress mode.

Add sleep deprivation, new-mommy jitters, feelings of failure because your baby just cries and cries despite everything you do, maybe some baby blues or (in my case with Abigail) some post-partum depression... well, that's a recipe for disaster... a disaster called Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma.

You see, no one sets out to hurt their baby. Not really. But with the right combination of stressors and the depletion of coping mechanisms, the frustration of a crying baby who won't. stop. crying. will lead a momma to do the unthinkable.

But believe it or not, that inconsolable, gut-wrenching, stiff-body screaming cry pattern can be normal. And sometimes, there is absolutely nothing you can do... except wait for baby to spontaneously stop crying.

Until they do, it's okay to let them cry. It's okay to set them in a safe place and walk away. Most parents I know have had to do this at least once... depending on the child and the mental well-being of the parents, it can happen frequently. I've personally had to set down and walk away from each of my crying infants at least twice.

Some things I have personally found helpful in these times are:

  • Get outdoors- fresh air and sunshine/moonshine can have a dramatic and nearly instantaneous effect on mood and stress. Don't feel safe leaving baby indoors while you go out? Take baby with you- their cries are far less intense outdoors than indoors.
  • Get moving- Getting a brief bit of exercise- a walk around the yard, a few laps on the stairs, a few minutes on the treadmill, or even 50 jumping jacks- will give a physical vent to your emotional heat.
  • Phone a friend- Even if they don't answer, hearing another grown-up's voice in the midst of a stressful mommy moment can restore your perspective. My mom and husband have received numerous voicemails where I just describe the situation and tell them how awful I feel. Somehow, that actually makes me feel better.
  • Set a timer- When a baby is crying, it can feel like forever. I set a timer and work on a task like folding laundry for 5 minutes. Some deep breaths and the slight distraction of the task at hand can help me re-energize to attempt to calm the baby again.
  • Cry- There are times when the only thing you have left are tears. That's okay. Obviously your baby is upset- you can cry, too! There is nothing wrong with that. But when you are calm, wipe your face, then gently wipe your babe's tears away, and move forward.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Informing parents that it's okay to walk away and asking them to sign a pledge not to shake their baby has been associated with a nearly 50% reduction in shaken baby syndrome.

Will you please take time to learn more about infant crying and prevention of Shaken Baby Syndrome/AHT? Even if you don't have a baby, you could be the support that parents need to help prevent a tragedy.

And if you do take a few moments to become educated, will you leave me a comment telling me something you have learned about infant crying, SBS/AHT, and prevention measures?

*Post forthcoming about this topic!


Missy at Its Almost Naptime said...

Daddies are usually not bothered at all by babies screaming their head off as long as they are in another roo. Leave the baby with daddy and go to the gym :)

John Showalter MD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Showalter MD said...

As a physician who has held a shaken baby in the trauma baby, please, please, please walk away when it is getting to be too much.

Lauren said...

Thank you for writing this. We're not talking about neglect here! There may be some inherent stressors in being in the world (hey, a baby's learning curve on living is awfully steep) that can only be cried out, just like with adults. Not only will it lower the mother's stress to (responsibly) walk away, but it might let that baby blow off the steam s/he needs to so they can go to sleep, recharge, and keep growing. I worked for a few years on studies relating to PND and inconsolable crying was a huge risk factor. It tends to lead to feelings of parental ineffectuality (as you've noted) which can damage the parent-child bond in the future. Once they're at that crazy-cry point and you know their needs are met, find a way to make this work for BOTH parties. As you've pointed out, the risk of brain damage from walking away is infintessimal compared to the risk from losing your temper.
In the unlikely event of a sudden change in cabin pressure, apply your oxygen mask before assisting others.

dontshake said...

Thank you for sharing such an important message. Inconsolable crying is the #1 trigger for shaken baby syndrome, and you beautifully illustrated how parents and caregivers could reach their tolerance for dealing with the frustration of a baby who just won't respond to soothing attempts.

You are absolutely right in stating that this inconsolable crying pattern can be normal. It's called the Period of PURPLE Crying and is normally present from 2 weeks of age through about 4-5 months with the peak of crying during the 2nd month. It's important to check the basic needs and attempt to soothe the crying as you did with Ava. But when the crying becomes too frustrating it's OK to put the baby down in a safe place, like a crib, and take time to calm yourself down. Handling a baby while feeling angry or frustrating is dangerous.

We always like to add that if you do feel there is something that is causing the crying, please take him or her to your doctor to get checked.

Thanks again for your sharing your personal story and for beautifully demonstrating what many parents feel. We appreciate you linking to our site and

Brian Lopez
National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome

mamasewsbest said...

I'd also like to add, that you should ignore people's advice when they tell you wean your baby earlier and they should be off the bottle or pacifier. I mean, don't force it one them b/c you think it's cute, but TRANSITION. I mean if that works for you. If your child is upset b/c they want a bottle and you can't handle the crying...I'd rather there be a baby with a bottle 'til they are 5 than a child hurt b/c everyone else is telling you what to do.

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