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So What if African Babies Cry Less!

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Have you heard?  African babies cry significantly less than western babies.

When my girls were babies, I did almost all of the things that any African mother would do with her baby (and yes, I’m stereotyping). I had peaceful births. I slept with my babies. I wore my babies for hours a day and  never used a stroller. I breastfed on demand and always kept them close. I even took them to the toilet (called elimination communication), which is exactly what African woman, without access to diapers, would do. I kept things quiet in the home. I ate a healthy diet. I also don’t have a TV. I don’t smoke, drink or raise my voice (often)… But… I have to tell you… my babies have cried. Oh, have they cried.

I get sort of annoyed when I see that meme floating around Facebook about African babies crying less.

It’s not easy being born! Imagine how distraught you would be if you went from the peaceful floating bliss of the womb to suddenly having your head squashed through a tiny tunnel? Then, you have to get used to breathing, eating, gas, pooping, noise, light, big sister/big brother poking or prodding you. Imagine you couldn’t talk, you could barely move and you couldn’t see well. Man, if I had to go through all of that, I would be crying too!

And yet, when my older daughter was still fresh, I couldn’t stand to hear her cry and I would do ANYTHING to make her stop crying. But, now I see the crying in a whole different light.

I support emotional crying in babies, toddlers and children, (and adults).
Of course, babies cry when they need to be fed, cleaned, comfortable and cuddled. But, after all of that is done and they’re still teetering on the edge of a melt down…  should we try to stop the crying?

I believe that babies should not be shushed, bounced, jiggled, rocked, distracted or plugged up with a breast, bottle or pacifier, when all they want to do is cry. Ok,  I know that if you consider yourself an ‘attachment parent‘, I may have just sent your mama bear hairs bristling by saying what I just did, but listen… Of course, a baby’s cry should absolutely be responded to immediately, and a baby should never cry alone. A baby should never go hungry or be uncomfortable (if you can help it). But, what is a baby telling us by crying? What if the baby has already been fed? Already been changed? Already had enough distractions? Can we accept the cry for what it is  A cry that means an emotion needs to be released?

We live in a society of baby crying extremists
Most parents only believe there are two options when it comes to babies and crying.  One extreme view on the crying baby spectrum is of ‘cry it out’, in other words, leaving a baby alone to cry it out so they can ‘learn to sleep‘ (forgive me if I’m wrong, but sleeping is not a skill).  There are many studies out there to show the detriments of practicing cry it out, yet many people still do it.

The other extreme end of the crying baby spectrum, is that parents do ANYTHING to stop a baby from crying (I used to fit in this category). If a mother can’t  get a baby to stop crying, then she gets frantic, frustrated, angry and even resentful towards herself or our child and she feels like she’s failing as a parent because she can’t keep our baby ‘happy‘.

What if We Could Accept Crying?

Crying is nature’s built in healing mechanism that helps people to deal with the stress, anxiety and frustration. We don’t need to reject the crying. Did you know that scientific studies prove that toxins are released from the body through tears? Seriously, it’s like doing a big tear poo! Don’t YOU feel better after you’ve had a good cry (or a good poo)? Babies and children feel the same after a good cry in the presences of a loving caretaker. Unfortunately, for most of us adults, we were never allowed to cry as babies or young children. The tap was turned off long ago by well meaning adults who wree pretty persistent in making sure that we didn’t cry.  Society has conditioned us to believe that crying is bad.

Since most of us were taught not to cry, then it’s pretty natural that we don’t want our babies to cry.  And, if our babies do cry, despite our most endearing efforts, then we feel like we’re doing something wrong.

Most people today have EXCESSIVE crying aversion
How often to you hear or have you said these things:

You’re a big girl/boy now, you don’t need to cry.

What’s wrong?  Why are you crying?

Shhh Shhh Shhh, Stop Crying!

If you keep crying, you won’t get ______

Use your words, stop crying!

It’s natural for people to say these things because this is our society’s views on crying….

EVERY single baby book out there has at least some pages or even chapters dedicated on how to stop a baby from crying. When our babies don’t cry, we think they are being ‘good‘ and we feel like we’re awesome parents because our baby isn’t crying… When our babies cry, despite all of our efforts, some of us feel like we’re failing.


Recently, I read, ‘Tears and Tantrums by Aletha Solter (I highly recommend reading this book, it is extremely evidence based writing about all of the things I’m mentioning).  When I read this passage in her book, I nearly did a fist punch to the sky.  This is written by a !Kung woman (!Kung is a tribe in Africa) who had been breastfed very frequently as a baby, often several times an hour and at every whimper. While she hardly cried as a baby, the tears all came out a few years later, when it came time for her mother to wean her.

“When mother was pregnant with Kumsa, I was always crying. I wanted to nurse. Once, when we were living in the bush and away from other people, I was especially full of tears. I cried all the time. That was when my father said he was going to beat me to death; I was too full of tears and too full of crying. He had a big branch in his hand when he grabbed me, but he didn’t hit me; he was only trying to frighten me… “

(after the birth): I only wanted the milk she had in her breasts and when she nursed him, my eyes watched as the milk spilled out. I’d cry all night, cry and cry until the dawn broke. Some mornings I just stayed around and my tears fell and I cried and refused all food. That was because I saw him nursing.

Anthropological studies find that the weaning process of these heavily breastfed babies can be extremely traumatic. Even though many gentle parents would advocate using the breast whenever a baby starts to show signs of distress, I tend to disagree. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge breastfeeding advocate. At the time of writing this, I’m still tandem feeding my two kids, (almost 4 years old and 18 months). So, rest assure, I’m on the breastfeeding bandwagon for the long haul. But, how often do we over-use the boob (of bottle or pacifier or whatever) to stop a child from crying? There are many cultural practices that we would never adopt from African culture… so why should we compare our crying babies to the non-crying babies of Africa?

Get Real Kate, African Babies Really Do Cry Less
Ok, it’s true, African babies cry less. Also, it may be argued that traditionally, a crying baby would have endangered the ‘tribe‘… but I think today’s babies have way more stress and stimulation than that of our ancient ancestors, so it’s not really fair to compare. Plus, they were in survival mode, whereas we are more in ‘emotionally thriving’ mode. There are certainly things you can do to keep your baby more happy. While we want to support a baby when they feel the need to cry, we don’t want babies crying unnecessarily! Here are some things you can do to keep a baby more happy:

  • baby wearing, especially in public places
  • breastfeed on demand (but learn to differentiate when your baby might not be crying for hunger or thirst).
  • co-sleeping (read safe cosleeping guildelines here)
  • avoid overstimulation
  • Keep a clean diaper, or practice elimination communication
  • Keep them in motion, with your daily activities, get outside of the house, or even doing chores with them

And, what if you have ticked the checklist and your baby is still grumpy? That’s why you can suspect that they might need to let off some steam and let them have a hearty cry (in arms of course). It’s not easy to sit with a crying child. But, if you know that babies and children sometimes need to cry and even have a temper tantrum, then you’re much less likely to get frustrated and angry while you sit there and hold them (or sit near them if your child is older). What I’ve noticed too, is that, when I do let my children cry, when they need it, they usually release their tears at home and then they are much MUCH more happy and relaxed because of it. Not only are they more pleasant to be around after their release, but it also saves me the hassle of having a tantrum in public.

Signs that your child may need to release some tears

  • unexplained grumpiness or grizzling
  • any stressful event (this could be a long long list)
  • head banging, self rocking
  • aggression
  • constant night waking
  • restlessness on the breast or bottle
  • injury

Even supporting a child to cry after they have had an injury or have been sick, (unless you momentarily need some vital information), can be a good thing, as it helps them to heal from the trauma of pain and fear.

I’ve probably left things out.  And, I’m sure I’ve offended some people… but the underlaying message that I’m saying is that babies, children and adults of all ages should be allowed to cry if they feel the need to release emotions.

A friend of mine posted this quote today by Sigmund Freud, I found it extremely fitting.

Unexpressed emotions will never die.  They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways

Disclaimer: This post is merely meant to support normal emotional crying.  If your child has extreme emotions to deal with or is in extreme pain, please take them to see a professional.

 

 

About katesurfs

Kate is an American living in Australia with her husband and two young children. She holds a Masters of Educational Practice and is a high school science teacher by profession, but mostly she stays at home with her children. She is a yoga and meditation teacher, trained through the Art of Living Foundation, a surfer, a vegetarian, and healthy conscious. She is an Aware Parenting Instructor, as well as a Know Your Child Teacher.

7 Responses »

  1. This is wonderfully thought-provoking. I watched a youtube of a baby laughing today and the noise level was the same as if she were crying but it was delightful – that got me thinking too. I think crying is a good thing – from birth to adulthood – because it signals something and it always needs to be answered somehow. Love this post!

    Reply
  2. Kate, this is a fascinating topic and you’ve done a great job on laying out how you have arrived at your opinions. I love that you are living with intention and it is translating into how you raise the girls. Sharing these intentions with others no doubt will have a ripple affect. Well Done!

    Reply
  3. Interesting…I’ve always avoided crying at all costs.But then again, I haven’t had to let my son cry either because all those things helped ease any crying. He only cried if I let someone else hold him.

    But now that my son is a toddler, he’s started crying more. Mostly because he simply can’t have what he wants and he’s frustrated. In those cases I do let him cry though because it is an emotion and it’s how he’s expressing it.

    Reply
  4. I really do agree with you for the most part except as it goes to norm of keeping babies close. Yes babies need to cry on occasion and let out the stress. That is very different as you have described it, from those who let babies cry out to make them sleep. I think that is the issue the original author was making. You have put the opposite spin on it which also makes so much sense

    Reply
  5. I don’t think there is anything wrong with comforting a baby or toddler with the breast. It’s a tool that women were given to help calm, comfort, and bond with a baby. Why not use it? I think it’s absolutely absurd you are giving that advice. Breastfeeding is not just for hunger or thirst. There is non-nutritive sucking used for calming. Why do us western folks have to make things so difficult? This or that? What happened to doing what our motherly instincts tells us? Why do there have to be rules and judgemental friends and family. That’s the hardest part about being a new mom.

    Reply
  6. It’s okay don’t be upset by memes about african babies crying less, why let a little saying get to you anyway? Nonetheless they still cry right?
    I have my number 6 due in 3weeks so i am planning on this baby to be placid like my other kids but it’s not up to me 🙂
    And don’t forget, africans have a loud culture and use different remedies to us westerners. It’s ok just don’t let some silly saying eat you up k.

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