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Why Babies Cry To Communicate, Not Manipulate

Have you ever noticed how conditioned we are to try to silence our babies?

Sitting uncomfortably alongside our primal instinct to soothe and comfort our infants is the social expectation that babies should be seen and not heard. Age old questions such as "are they a good baby?" are almost always targeted towards unrealistic expectations of crying and sleeping.

Take a brief moment to consider when you last cried. What was the cause? What did you need? How did you feel? I'd take a gamble that most of you, as adults, recalled an emotional moment. When it comes to babies, our first thought is often the physical reasons a baby may cry - hunger, wet/dirty nappy, tired, teething, unwell however, just as with adults, there are also many emotional reasons for babies crying. Over stimulation, under stimulation, the desire to be close, feeling scared, overwhelmed, insecure, stressed or wanting to play to list just some.

Crying is an official behavioural state and is a means of communication which isn't always negative. Crying can also be a positive release of tension and emotion

Emotional tears have special health benefits. Biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, whereas emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying. After studying the composition of tears, Dr. Frey found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.”

“We should begin to accept crying as simply way we humans can cleanse our hearts of negative feelings and stress”

Vimala McClure

Science tells us that when babies cry alone and unattended, they experience panic and anxiety. When trying to understand if excessive crying is harmful for babies, think about the fact that their bodies and brains are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones and when developing brain tissue is exposed to these hormones for prolonged periods, these nerves won’t form connections to other nerves and will degenerate. Occasional surges of cortisol throughout the day can be beneficial, but continuously elevated stress hormone levels in infancy from a stressful environment are associated with permanent "negative" effects on brain development.

Dr. Bruce Perry’s research at Baylor University may explain this finding. He found when chronic stress over-stimulates an infant’s brain stem (the part of the brain that controls adrenaline release), and the portions of the brain that thrive on physical and emotional input are neglected (such as when a baby is repeatedly left to cry alone), the child will grow up with an over-active adrenaline system. Such a child may display increased aggression, impulsivity, and violence later in life because the brain stem floods the body with adrenaline and other stress hormones at inappropriate and frequent times.

There is also a hormonal release for parents. An infants cry triggers prolactin, a hormone integral for bonding and lactation, this creates an urge to pick up baby and see to their needs. Prolactin promotes care-giving behaviours and crying and bonding are tightly linked.

Researchers Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth performed studies on why babies cry back in the 1970’s that should have been the end to the idea that you can 'spoil a baby' by responding to their cries.

Group 1 mothers gave a prompt and nurturing response to their infant’s cries. Group 2 mothers were more restrained in their response. They found that children in Group 1 whose mothers had given an early and more nurturing response were less likely to use crying as a means of communication at one year of age. These children seemed more securely attached to their mothers and had developed better communicative skills, becoming less whiny and manipulative.

Studies have shown that infants who receive frequent physical affection have lower overall cortisol levels, while psychological attachment studies reveal higher levels in insecurely attached children. A mother is biologically programmed to give a nurturing response to her newborn’s cries and not to restrain herself.

"A parent will often race to stop their babies cry for more than just empathetic reasons.

A baby’s cry is pitched perfectly to get their caregivers attention without making them want to avoid the sounds altogether. As mammals, crying is a tool for survival, and our babies do not know that there is not a tiger in the room next door or that you are trying to implement a feeding schedule – they only know what they need. Food, security, warmth, love.

You have two basic options – respond or ignore. Should you respond, a baby's cries may cease, should you ignore, they may get louder until they are heard!" Dr Sears suggests that If a parent responds promptly and sensitively, the baby will feel less frantic the next time he needs something. The baby learns to “cry better,” in a less disturbing way since he knows parent will come.

An idea has been placed in society that babies may cry to manipulate us, that we should train the babies to understand that we will not always meet their needs. Experts in infant development such as Dr Margot Sunderland help us to understand that infants do not have the higher rational brain function to manipulate their parents and the negative aspects of not responding to a babies cries. “Leaving your baby to ‘settle herself’ can have long-term adverse consequences for her body and brain. To control an adult, a baby needs the power of clear thought, and for that he needs the brain chemical glutamate to be working I his frontal lobes. But the glutamate system is not properly established in a baby’s brain, so that means he is not capable of thinking much about anything, let alone how to manipulate his parents”

In our IAIM Baby Massage Classes, crying is ALWAYS welcome. We do not massage a crying baby rather parents are encouraged to see to their babies needs throughout the class. Additionally we learn about our baby's unique verbal and non-verbal cues to understand what they are trying to tell us often before they feel the need to communicate through crying. By welcoming crying, providing a respectful environment for parents and listening to babies – we work towards our mission and founder Vimala McClures's vision.

'The purpose of the International Association of Infant Massage is to promote nurturing touch and communication through training, education and research; so parents, caregivers and children are loved, valued and respected throughout the world community.'


Butler, S R, et al. Maternal Behavior as a Regulator of Polyamine Biosynthesis in Brain and Heart of Developing Rat Pups. Science 1978, 199:445-447.

K. Lyons-Ruth, "Attachment relationships among children with aggressive behavior problems: the role of disorganized early attachment patterns," J Consult Clin Psychol 64, no. 1 (Feb 1996): 64–73.

D. Liu et al., "Maternal care, hippocampal glucocorticoid receptors, and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal responses to stress," Science (Canada) 277, no. 5332 (Sep 1997): 1659–62.

Margot Sunderland 'What Every Parent Needs to Know' 2016

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Bell, S. M., Blehar, M. C., & Main, M. (1971, April). Physical contact: A study of infant responsiveness and its relation to maternal handling. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Minneapolis, MN.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Bell, S. M., & Stayton, D. (1971). Individual differences in Strange Situation behavior of one-year-olds. In H. R. Schaffer (Ed,), The origins of human social relations (pp. 17-57). London: Academic Press.

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