If Your Baby Cries, You’re Doing It Wrong

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be an indictment of the practice of Attachment Parenting or any other theory or method of caregiving. I believe there is a kernel of truth and value in most practices and I believe that every parent is doing the very best they can in each moment, whether they consciously assign a label to their “style” or not.

My travels around the Internet brought me into contact with the following graphic this past week and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.


The graphic was shared via an Attachment Parenting group and cites research that is often cited by the companies that sell so-called “babywearing” wraps and products. My dismay with this graphic has nothing to do with a parenting style, “babywearing” in general, the research study in question (which is quite interesting), or anything but the hot-button issue of happiness. I take exception to the notion that a crying baby is an “unhappy” baby. The study in question didn’t actually measure the “happiness” of the babies, as “happiness” is not something that can necessarily be scientifically measured, but instead looked specifically at crying and carrying.

Why do babies cry? Myriad reasons. Crying is how babies express a wide variety of thoughts and concerns, from, “I’m exhausted!” to, “I’m scared!” to, “I’d love something to eat!” to, “I can’t see you or hear you and I think I’m alone and I don’t like it,” to, “I wish to be left alone!” When you get to know an individual baby, it doesn’t take long to begin to recognize their different cries and cues. All babies cry. Babies who are carried cry. Babies who are worn on their parents’ person cry. Babies who are laid on the floor cry. Happy babies cry. Humans cry.

The graphic above offends me because it suggests that babies who cry less are necessarily “happier” than other babies. This is a huge stumbling block for many weary parents who are jumping through hoops to ensure their children’s “happiness”, as if it is within their control. Frankly, it’s a bit presumptuous to believe that the true, meaningful happiness of another person is within your control. It’s not. Not even when that person is your baby, your young child, your teenager, or your grown offspring.

Crying and happiness are two separate topics that are frequently worlds apart. From a scientific perspective, crying can be viewed as a biological function unique to humans and imperative to infants. Happiness, on the other hand, is a rather abstract, individualized, highly subjective hippy dippy notion.

I want to be clear:

  1. I’m a huge fan of happiness.
  2. I stand in defense of comfort.
  3. I don’t believe in distracting children from their distress.
  4. Sometimes crying makes me uncomfortable!

I have spent a lot of years with a lot of babies, toddlers, young children, and human beings both happy and unhappy by nature. Having studied development, I have come to understand that temperament is something every person on earth is born with. Some temperaments may result in individuals crying with greater frequency or intensity than some other temperaments. I have spent time with babies who would absolutely love to be held and carried all day and all night. I have spent time with other babies who would prefer not to be held much of the time. There is not one strategy, style, or technique that works with every baby every time. (And any individual, philosophy, or business that suggests otherwise has not, in fact, I am 100% certain, spent time with every single baby on earth. They probably don’t know your baby.)

Here’s what I really want to say: Your baby will cry. You will feel like you need to make this stop. Sometimes it will be appropriate and within your control to do so. Sometimes it won’t be. In either case, it doesn’t mean that your baby is unhappy. As deeply philosophical as your baby may be, it is safe to say that it will be a few more years before they spend a great deal of time reflecting on their own “happiness” or lack thereof. When the time comes that they do, it’s unlikely that their reflection will linger long on the percentage of time you spent carrying them. You could carry your baby all day every day and never learn to listen to them or to know them as the person they are quite apart from you. Don’t make that mistake.

Love them and tell them so. Hold them and let them go.

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2 thoughts on “If Your Baby Cries, You’re Doing It Wrong

  1. AlwaysJuly says:

    This seems like overthinking to me just to make a point, to be honest. A crying baby can certainly be a happy baby *overall*; I believe my daughter cries as a part of expressing her feelings and I don’t distract her from that — though I do comfort her — even though she’s generally a happy baby.

    But a baby who is crying certainly isn’t happy *in the moment* any more than we as adults are happy when we’re crying (the rare case of happy tears aside). There may be nothing you can do to help them, depending on the cause of the tears, but comforting them — the act of trying to make them happy again, really — still teaches them something meaningful.

    Regardless, I believe it is the job of a parent to try to keep their babies happy — by which I mean kept comfortable, nurtured, fed, responded to with warmth and affection and respect — even though all babies will have different personalities and some may cry more than others. Is that really not a perspective that those who believe in RIE share? I’ve found some great information and perspectives through RIE so far, though it’s fairly new to me, but if that’s not a shared belief, than this is not a philosophy that I think I will recommend to others or pursue going forward.

  2. JG says:

    Anyone who knows me would certainly agree that I overthink πŸ™‚ I was born that way!

    I agree that every single time we offer comfort to a baby, it teaches them something meaningful. I could not agree more. I disagree with “trying to make them happy again” because I don’t believe that’s extrinsic. We may have a philosophical difference of opinion on happiness (I believe that even in babies, it comes from within). Sometimes comforting a baby or young child means acknowledging that they’re NOT happy and that’s okay. It’s not within our power to “make” anyone else happy, in my opinion, whether they are a baby, a child, or an adult. I totally agree with offering comfort, love, affection, validation, and warmth.

    I don’t know what people who “believe in RIE” believe about happiness — it seems it would be fairly individualized πŸ™‚ My opinions are just that and not reflective of RIE philosophy or practice. I hope that’s clear. If not, let me make that clear now out of respect for the amazing Magda Gerber and her legacy. I *certainly* don’t speak for RIE, just for me.

    Thank you for your feedback — I appreciate you sharing your perspective and I completely agree with all of the responsibilities that you list for parents πŸ™‚

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