Baby Sleep and Crying (by expert Alison Knights)

Why do babies cry? If you’re having problems with baby sleep and need advice with you baby not sleeping, read on for help from Ali Knights.

Crying is nature’s way of saying, ‘I need you, I cannot manage how I feel on my own as I have not yet got the brain development to mange my distress, I need your help to make me feel calm again’. It is the most basic communication between baby and parent.

The science of babies tells us that under the age of three months babies are unable developmentally to soothe themselves without help. If not responded to within 30 seconds, a baby’s cries will increase because their own level of distress becomes an internal source of danger and discomfort.

What they need to feel safe and secure is a responsive adult who can help sooth them and return to an inner sense of calm. Understanding and responding to babies communications develops in them, a sense that the world is safe and predictable, and that they can trust in their own feelings. It is by having this early reliable response that children grow up ultimately to feel secure and be able to wait in the full knowledge that they will be attended to. Self-reliance is born out of being responded to over the first few years of life.


If babies experience sensitive, responsive care giving then they internalise the capacity to wait. If left to cry they learn that their feelings are not to be taken seriously and from around three months up to about 18 months old they learn to be quieter and not show how they feel. This is the start of the process of bottling up how they feel and learning not to show distress even though they are.

This does not mean that as a parent you have to or will get it right and there may be times when your baby is just plain inconsolable. What matters is that you respond and stay with your infant till they are calm. In that way they are not left feeling on their own with how bad they feel, even if you haven’t managed to find a way to soothe them easily. Babies thrive on good enough parenting not perfect parenting, so give yourself a break, take a deep breath and figure out as best you can what you think your infant is needing you to do.

Crying is also a way of releasing the stress of the day and so can be important in regulating your baby’s physiology. However, being left to cry without a soothing presence only serves to increase distress and physiological stress. So hard though it may be, your presence for your baby (and later your toddler when they are having a tantrum), is very important in helping them feel safe and secure and helping them regain a calm state.

This can be easier said than done, and you too need your sleep and someone to help you be calm. An overtired parent or a worried and anxious parent will not be in a state of mind to help soothe their infant. The old saying goes that children are brought up by a community and not just one or even two parents! Therefore, a key priority in all this is that you have good support and someone to help you take turns if your baby is fractious. Know also that excessive crying is time limited and is often a sign that your infant is going through another developmental spurt in which their brain is undergoing rapid development. It is at such times that it is important to reduce the level of stimulation during the day as it may just be causing overload on their sensitive neurological system.

It is also important to know that babies are not designed to be good sleepers. That is something which develops as their brain develops. It is not a sign of parental failure to have a baby that does not sleep through.

A recent study (Teti et al. Maternal emotional availability at bedtime predicts infant sleep quality.. Journal of Family Psychology, 2010; 24 (3): 307 DOI: 10.1037/a0019306) found  that the most important factor in getting infants to sleep is the quality of emotional availability of the parent.

As a Child Psychologist and Parent-Infant Specialist this research makes intuitive and scientific sense to me. For an infant, sleeping is a process that involves separation from mum or dad. As with all separations, babies need to feel safe and secure, so it is the quality of the emotional attachment that helps babies sleep, and not routines which involve leaving babies to ‘cry it out’. There are other, more intuitive, ways to tackle getting your infant to sleep through, and at the same time you will be supporting your infant’s emotional development and sense of security.

Understanding your baby’s unique temperament and communication cues and responding in tune with them is more likely to get you and baby a calmer and stress free night’s sleep. ‘Cry it out’ techniques or routines based only on parents needs which don’t take into account what your baby is telling you, increase levels of stress in your baby and very often in you too.

Parent Tip

The bedtime task of a parent is to help their baby or young child to calm down from an alert state to a sleepy state. For little babies they respond to physical closeness as this activates calming chemicals in their brain and regulates their immature body systems. For toddlers establishing a winding down routine at bedtime helps them to feel sleepy. In both cases this means that you need to be calm yourself as your emotional state helps regulate your baby and young child’s emotional state.

Your baby tells you what you need to know if you know what to look for. If your child has been sleeping well and now they won’t go to sleep or keep waking through the night, it means that their fear and separation distress system has been activated, that part of the brain that says there is something to be worried about. You need to ask yourself the following question:

“What has changed recently for my child or for myself, however small a change that may be?”

Babies and children take time to adjust to new things in their life and are affected by changes of routine, situation, people and stresses in the family. Babies and children are very tuned into your emotional state and how you are feeling is picked up by them. So, the sleeping difficulty may be your child’s reaction to sensing that you are stressed or preoccupied with a worry and not so emotionally available. Their fear or separation distress system is being activated and this stops their soothing system from working and they become more aroused and less able to sleep.

If you would you like to know more you can contact Alison Knights, the author for help to put this into practice or for Baby Sleep Advice via my profile on Greatvine

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