Why does my baby cry?
Babies cry for many reasons. Many parents believe that crying always signals distress. Unfortunately, we cannot guess or know exactly what an infant feels when he wakes up during the night. However, we do know that crying is a very powerful form of early communication. Infants may express many different feelings through crying, such as fatigue, hunger, thirst, inconvenience, pain, protest and anger. Distress is one possible option, but certainly not the only one.
How can my reaction to crying affect his sleep?
Parents play a key role in the development of infant sleep. Research shows that parents who tend to interpret crying upon awakening as a sign of distress requiring immediate attention are more likely to actively soothe their infants to sleep, and these infants are more likely to experience night-waking problems. We also know from well-established research that parents who are more actively involved in settling their infant to sleep are more likely to have infants who present with behavioral sleep problems than parents who are less active at bedtime and allow a child to self-soothe to sleep. Thus, most behavioral sleep interventions guide parents to help their babies learn to self-soothe at bedtime and overnight. These interventions are very effective in improving infant sleep when parents are able to implement them. Less can really be more at bedtime.
However, many parents of infants who have sleep problems are reluctant to implement behavioral sleep interventions that are based on limiting parental nighttime involvement. That is largely because of their fear that not responding immediately to their infant will cause emotional harm. Limiting involvement as it relates to sleep can be perceived as insensitive,
especially when it involves leaving their infant to cry.
The age of a baby also makes a difference in the result of a parent immediately responding to a baby’s cries during the night. Recent research showed that for babies less than 3 months old, when parents responded immediately during the night, their babies were better sleepers in later infancy. This is likely a result of the development of a strong bond between babies and parents in the first few months. In contrast, parents who gave their babies the opportunity to settle themselves back to sleep after 3 months of age resulted in better sleep later on.
But, is crying expected?
When parents are guided to implement behavioral sleep interventions that involve limiting their soothing behaviors at bedtime or overnight, we expect infants to react initially with crying because infants naturally react to a change in their environment and habits. In other words, crying in response to a change is totally normal. Thus, a baby crying during behavioral sleep interventions probably signals that the infant notices the change in his parents’ usual behavior. Crying in response to this change is a healthy, normal way of communicating protest or surprise and not necessarily sadness or distress.
More than that, behavioral sleep interventions guide the parents to visit their infants regularly and predictably in part to assure the infant about parental presence at home. Thus, it is unlikely that infants will develop separation anxiety or any other form of significant distress. Importantly, to date, there have been no published studies demonstrating any adverse effects of clinical sleep interventions based on limiting parental involvement, on the infant’s emotional wellbeing or on the infant-parent relationship. Actually, research shows that there is a reduction in maternal distress (such as depressive symptoms) following behavioral infant sleep interventions. This change in a mother’s mood may also exert a calming effect on the infant and on the family as a whole.
When considering why your baby is crying, especially if you are doing some type of sleep training, it is important to remember that there are many reasons that babies cry. A baby crying during the night, especially a baby who is well cared for, does not necessarily mean that she is feeling abandoned or is distressed. It is also important to keep in mind that making changes regarding your baby’s sleep or doing any method of sleep training is a personal, family choice. Make changes, or not, in a way that you feel most comfortable.