Why African babies REALLY don’t cry… and why Western ones might need to!

Why African babies REALLY don’t cry… and why Western ones might need to!

*******This is a response to a previous article by a Kenyan author. I appreciate that Africa is a vast and diverse continent and that it is not appropriate to generalise. By using the term ‘African babies’ I am referencing and responding to Claire Niala’s description of parenting practices in Kenya.*******

I read the original article ‘Why African Babies Don’t Cry’ some years ago and loved it. I even told folks about this article as a Breastfeeding Counsellor and had it linked on my website for some time. Yes! I thought, all babies need is for us to respond to them.

And they do undoubtedly need that. There is still a very predominant cultural throwback to the Victorian era when it comes to parenting, which does not encourage responding to babies’ needs for fear of making them too dependent. This has thankfully been debunked by developments in recent neuroscience, however the paradigm shift will take some time. So I’m glad that someone is fighting the corner for babies. And, what I’ve discovered more recently is that quite likely, our babies DO need to cry sometimes.

Now just to be clear, let me define exactly what I mean by this. Ideally, just like ‘African babies’, babies from anywhere else would get fed and held and their toileting needs responded to before they even need to cry. However, ONLY when these needs are all met it may be totally justified and even beneficial if they still cry. *** Edited to add – some babies may be crying due to undiagnosed medical conditions and these of course need to be addressed. ***

Crying is a natural, healing process. Crying is a modality for rebalancing our brains and emotions. We cry to feel better! Crying does not equal distress, it is the recovery from distress that has already happened. We now know that tears contain stress hormones that are being washed out of your body. And the brain reorganises itself to make sense of what has happened to cause the upset feelings. All of us know that when we’ve been able to have a really good cry, particularly with a calm, warm listener, we tend to feel great afterwards. This is no different for babies.

So if crying is such a beneficial process, why is it that ‘African babies’ don’t cry?

Look… I’ve never even been to the African continent, but I would hazard a guess that many babies there are raised in far less stressful environments than here. People have a slower pace of life, are more connected to the land and each other, have less electromagnetic radiation, generally birth at home and breastfeed, babies are always held and there are enough adults and older children around to support the work of parenting. Perhaps this is why ‘African babies’ don’t cry? Here many babies suffer the impact of medicalised birth, separation from their mother, stressed and isolated parents, the potentially disembodying effects of routines, artificial feeding, dummies and other coping mechanisms needed to accommodate babies into this fast-paced, overstimulating structure.

I suspect we glamorise ‘African’ or tribal or indigenous societies when it comes to parenting. Yes, there is a lot more normal birth, breastfeeding, carrying and cosleeping, yet we need to remember that within many countries in Africa, you see a great deal of war and violence. I have discussed this with Robin Grille, author of Parenting for a Peaceful World, who describes the effect of strict authoritarian parenting in his book. I questioned how this could be the case when there are often such gentle birthing customs and responsiveness to babies in many African countries. Robin said that the birth is the first point of impact and this is why Africans can be so exuberant, joyful, expressive. The violence reflects the impact of patriarchal systems and authoritarian parenting. Perhaps African toddlers don’t cry because they are afraid to?

Something I have been wondering about is whether it is advisable to adopt parenting practices that work well in different cultures and apply them in the West. For example breastfeeding toddlers on cue is clearly a fundamentally nourishing practice. Yet in a society where babies and young children carry a lot of stress and fear, older babies and toddlers can use breastfeeding to push down their emotions. Breastfeeding is so entirely comforting and relaxing that mothers and babies know it is the answer to every struggle, bump and fright. Yet what if by rushing to offer the breast, we are preventing our babies from the opportunity to release emotion and make use of the body’s natural recovery process?

I have myself used the breast to plug a hurt cry, my son choking back his tears while he glugged desperately and I see other mothers doing this all the time. Now that I’m aware of the powerfully restorative effects of crying and other emotional expression, I would be more inclined to let him have a good cry about whatever hurt him, even withholding the breast in that moment if that allowed him to cry a bit more and then offering that milky comfort when he had really finished releasing. It’s not about making him cry, but being tuned in enough to notice whether he actually needs a feed this time or whether he actually needs to offload. Just to be clear I am not suggesting to withhold breastfeeding when a baby is hungry, just that it’s important we don’t go too far the other way and end up teaching our babies to suppress their feelings.

We as a culture need to reframe our relationship with crying. It is something we tend to seek to avoid at all costs. We jiggle babies anxiously or offer a breast, tell children to stop crying or distract them. No wonder as adults we even apologise when we are unable to hold back tears. Why shut down this inbuilt therapeutic capacity? It has taken me many months as an adult to reinstate my body’s ability to release through crying, raging, laughter and trembling. I have now found that tears flow and laughter rolls through me on an almost daily basis and I can shed feelings as they bubble up. Historically, I would dread being struck by an irrepressible cascade of emotion, usually at embarrassingly inappropriate times.

It is understandable that we don’t want to hear our babies cry when our early experiences were likely of being told to stop crying, or being left to cry alone, which can be a frightening and neurologically harmful experience. Crying with an adult’s warm attention is a very different matter. The baby’s limbic system (the emotional and social centre of the brain) is picking up on your presence and safety and this acts as a resources for their brain. When you are attuned in this way, babies have their gaze met, see that you love them by the way your pupils dilate with the release of oxytocin and they feel ‘felt.’ The emotional expression brings them into connection with you and they get to release the hurt that caused the upset, no longer burdened with carrying it around. What a gift we can give our babies by not shutting down this innate capability to rebalance. What was crying like for you as a child? How is it now? How do you feel when your baby cries?

18 Comments

  1. i have never ever even one time felt better when i cried. my head hurt after and my eyes and my nose gets all red and swollen and i can’t focus or concentrate after i cried. so now i do not.(except of course grief, no one gets around that one…)

    Reply
    • Sorry to hear you don’t experience that relief babz.

      Reply
    • You’re not alone. I never feel better after a big cry either. I end up with a headache and pain in the eyes and just all around feeling down for a significant period after. Sometimes it has to happen (like you said – grief) but it’s certainly not something I would ever hope to have if someone had a means of helping me feel better without it! However, I never tell my child to stop crying and let her cry once she’s started because then it’s coming out. I just do what I can to help avoid that situation through talking, cuddling, nursing (if she wants it), etc.

      I admit I dislike the Western idea that nursing a crying baby is bad (it is very Western). If you’re forcing a nurse then it’s bad, but I’ve never met a parent that didn’t know the difference. Most parents I know say the child relishes the nurse when upset and eagerly nurses to help regulate that upset. This makes sense to me as nursing has evolved for more than just nutrition and can serve more than that purpose. I also question the use of research on crying for grief to extend to all bouts of crying (and yes, most of the “restorative” benefits I’ve read in the research are based on grief crying). If a child is frustrated, much better to avoid the frustration than to have them experience that level of distress, yes? Or if nursing helps restore them faster than on their own, why not use it if you don’t have to force it? Just some questions!

      Reply
      • Hi Tracy, That’s interesting to hear your experience of crying. I’m wondering whether it could be your resistance of crying that causes the headaches and eye pain and continued feeling low?
        I don’t think we can avoid frustration in our children, it’s a very natural part of life and it’s ok! This approach really isn’t about forcing anything, more about allowing space for the natural process of releasing. As a culture I think we tend to turn away from intense emotion and we seek to minimise it. Probably because our own emotions were not held with empathy when we were little. It’s understandable that we want to prevent our kids from feeling the way we did. I agree that breastfeeding can be a beautiful part of re-regulating and connecting AND I would love to see babies and tots given the space to also express their feelings and be heard in that.

        Reply
      • Just wanted to chime in as another person who does not feel better after crying. What does feel nice is the comforting received from those around me, but this would feel just as good if I wasn’t crying yet was just visibly in distress.

        To me crying indicates an increased severity and intensity in the leave of pain and torment felt. I think that it alerts those around us to the urgency and depth of support needed in that moment. Of course if you personally believe that crying is a good thing for yourself (the only person you can decided this for) as it offers you relief then so be it but you may find that you will have to repetitively explain this to those around you as it is instinctual to try to stop someone crying in the same way it is to calm down an demonstratively angry person.

        I find the work of Althea Solter to be both highly disturbing but yet simply (and depressingly) reflective of the long term psychological scars or results of the increasingly unnatural modern Western mothering/fathering, nuclear familial child rearing and early prolonged exposure to “professional” non relative care.

        Rather than seeing this rising epidemic of excessive crying in young children here in the West as a clear sign that we need to find (and actively fight for) new ways to address the issues in our society that have caused this phenomenon; Solter theorises (to desperate and vulnerable new mothers) that this clearly unnatural practice (disregarding the natural motherly instinct to comfort at the breast) is not only normal but beneficial, is maddening to say the least!!

        It is also highly problematic to superimpose adult experiences (relief felt after crying) onto infants and toddlers who can not confirm or dispute these hypotheses. Similarly, your theory of African babies who are too scared of their authoritarian parents to cry are not the same as the dyads and families described in Claire Niala piece so I struggle to find the relevance. I often think of baby and non verbal toddler forms of communication (body language/babbles/crying etc) to be a universal foreign language that we (here in the West) haven’t learned (or in some cases even discovered!) yet. Having had several experiences of lost in translation as an adult, I imagine that infants are “speaking” to us in ways that they believe are perfectly clear and easy to understand but we are just guessing the correct response which to no surprise is often wrong and thus naturally results in continued crying.

        Young children cry for many many reasons, Tracy has actually outlined many of them in a few blog posts on her site that I would highly suggest you read. I would argue that the most common reason for crying is discomfort (in babies this is due to the innate expectation to eliminate waste away from their bodies being routinely ignored as they are forced to soil themselves) and other tangible pains combined with the stress these traumas put on their developing nervous systems. The appropriate response to this is tending to this need (by pottying the baby or treating the ill) and reducing/eliminating the correlating distress at the breast. Another approach has been to teach sign language from babyhood. If a baby/toddler was to cry for a reason unknown to the mother (i.e. for none of the reasons I, Tracy or you have discussed) I would strongly urge that mother to seek additional help (medical/psychological etc) to investigate further.

        Finally, I would like to add that you can not force a child to breastfeed, this is inherently impossible as it is a child (not mother) directed and controlled action. A child who is not forcibly or corrosively weaned or experiences self initiated and thus not premature weaning; will be able to fully express themselves (normal healthy weaning age is between 4 to 7 years of age) in times of sadness and will no longer require breastfeeding to soothe them.

        Reply
        • Hi Michelle,
          Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed response. I find myself agreeing with a lot that you write. Yes! Society needs to evolve to put far less stress on Western families. Yes! babies are communicating all the time and we’ve lost touch with our instinctual reading of these cues! Yes! Babies communicate about elimination and 99% of Western parents are completely unaware of this. Yes! Children towards the end of a normal term breastfeeding relationship might only be feeding a couple times a day and it would not necessarily be their go-to for comfort by that point. And yes! You raise an excellent point about some babies crying for undiagnosed medical reasons, something I will edit into this blog.
          And I disagree that emotional expression is something we instinctively want to avoid. It is something we have been very much conditioned to shut down starting with early rocking and shussing of babies and continuing throughout our lives with “stop crying” or “there, there, don’t cry”. We choke back our societal tears as if crying were some forbidden weakness. If you look at the fascinating work of Peter Levine, he discusses how humans are the only mammal NOT to release trauma through shaking, trembling, making noise. Crying is a huge release for us, as supported by the study cited here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/10/tear-facts_n_4570879.html and the work of Daniel Siegel, who describes the brain reorganising to make sense of and integrate the hurtful event. Sadness and anger are taboo, intolerable emotions in our society because of the way we try to shut these emotions down in babies and young children. We punish toddlers for their anger, so when it gets elicited as an adult in ourselves or others, it feels frightening. Other cultures are much more comfortable with folks discharging emotion.
          For lack of an existing study comparing the long term emotional health of children that are lovingly supported to release emotion with those who are shushed/distracted/appeased, I can only go on the anecdotal evidence of how adopting this approach has worked for our family and the Hand in Hand community. You might find it interesting to look at some of the hundreds of anecdotes on the Hand in Hand site. http://www.handinhandparenting.org/blog/ You can start to see how emotional expression held in this way leads to clear thinking, connection and ease for both adults and children.
          I appreciate that you can not force a child to breastfeed; latching is a very active process on their part. However you can condition a baby to tamp down their feelings using breastfeeding. This is different to using it for comfort, as all children should. What I’m specifically describing is when mothers offer the breast as soon as their child begins to cry without allowing any space for the release before feeding. I did this frequently myself and observe mums doing it all the time.
          With love and appreciation for your comment.

          Reply
          • I just find it hard to argue with our mammalian biology. When a baby cries, the sound will often initiate a let down of milk from their mother’s breasts and activate the maternal instinct to go to her infant and offer a feed. As crying is one of the last ques a baby gives, it is their last resort so to speak it terms of communication; I believe that nature intended for us to breastfeed our rapid cortisol (stress hormone) reducing milk to our young in times of distress without delay.

            As your blog post is entitled “Why African babies REALLY don’t cry… and why Western ones might need to!” I would have to repeat my point from my earlier comment that it is troublesome at best and nonsensical/damaging at worst to assume that babies are “conditioned to tamp down their emotions using breastfeeding” as they can not confirm this to us as a verbal child could.

            This hypothesis is not even a consensus between adults as can be seen by some of the comments here. I would actually argue that holding a baby while he or she is crying for a reason known (or even unknown) is more traumatic for an infant who has evolved to expect that his or her mother will respond to their alert signals with an offer of the breast (and or the potty, skin to skin contact etc), which they would naturally refuse if it was not what was needed.

            It is not just the latch that is “a very active process” of the baby, they are also responsible for the suck/shallow/breathe aspect of breastfeeding so even if the breast was offered the child could never be forced to accept it and therefore denied the space they required to “cry for the release before feeding”.

            I think that the REAL reason that African babies don’t cry is due to the fact that they aren’t routinely traumatised with so called “modern birth practices and ‘scientific’ parenting methods” that go against both the mother and baby’s most basic human instincts. You can read more about this in the work of Dr. Darcia Narvaez.

            In reference to the Hand in Hand blog you linked, I would bet that all of the children written about had suffered from one or a combination of the following: routine delayed maternal response to distress (breastfeeding); premature weaning; and or being encouraged to soil themselves for years only then all of a sudden to be pressured, manipulated and or bribed to stop doing something they had been conditioned to do since birth (potty training).

            I find it had to believe that a mother or her child would chose to go through this pain, in order to have many (many) chances to experience the “relief of expressing their emotions”. I would suggest that we help to avoid this often lifelong trauma through parental education of normal evolved child rearing and the wisdom that we can only do better when we know better.

            Again mothers do not need to question whether they should feed their infant or hold them so that can “fully express or release their emotions” as before a child self weans the mother should feel confident that the child still requires to breastfeed in times of distress. As I said earlier once they have weaned (of their own free will) then a mother can explore if her child would prefer to be soothed while crying or if they would just like to be held while they “express their emotions” because they will be able to articulate this clearly.

            There is also mounting research into mother-led or abrupt premature weaning causing maternal depression, as physiologically speaking the lactating female body interprets the swift end of breastfeeding as their baby dying. Whilst I haven’t found any studies to support this, I would imagine that repeated delayed breastfeeding (i.e. holding an infant while they cry and ignoring the instinctual urge to feed them as you describe above) would have a similar, albeit slightly less intense negative psychological effects on the mother, as premature weaning.

            I guess it all comes down to personal beliefs in the end, as studies can be found to support any and everything. I would just like mothers to know that just because it is common for Western babies to cry does not mean it is normal or natural or beneficial. Also we need to question anything that goes against our maternal instincts.

          • I think you are really misunderstanding what I’m describing Michelle. It’s not about ignoring a child’s signals, of course you’d meet any other needs first. And sometimes babies still need to cry. I am NOT describing withholding the breast as a regular practice. Just in some moments it might be the responsive thing to do. I’m really happy to discuss more if you are interested.

    • Yup, I’m with you Babz. Crying does absolutely nothing for me, just a headache afterwards and a sense of unease.

      Reply
  2. Well written article! I struggled with this when my babies were small. I nursed well into toddlerhood and when I needed to abruptly wean my oldest due to a medical issue, I realized I had no tools to help my toddler express his feelings. And he didn’t know how to just allow his feelings without turning to nurse. I realized then that space to cry in my arms was important and something that we all have a need for. It took me many years of learning how to safely express my feelings and find comfort in being held while I moved through my own feelings.

    I’ve spent a lot of time studying attachment, brain science, indigenous cultures, sociology, and more to understand what is biologically necessary for our babies. And I think you make a great point that our babies have a lot that they’re trying to integrate with our pace of life, our birthing practices, frequent separations, lack of support of our community. And there needs to be some space for our babies to express that in connection with us.

    Thank you for writing this. Well done!

    Reply
    • Ah thanks Rebecca, beautiful to hear your experience of relearning your emotional fluency. Yes and there is nothing to say that allowing space for babies’ emotional expression has to contradict their biological expectations. x

      Reply
  3. Thought I would comment here as my replies appear increasingly squashed above :S. Also, I hoped I would see any typos *before* pressing submit this time ;).

    Whilst it is certainly possible, I don’t think I am misunderstanding your point of view but just simply disagreeing with it… And that is okay! I think this is such an important aspect of child-rearing to debate as our conclusions which often lead to future recommendations, can have profoundly negative affects on mothers and their babies when they are later disproved.

    In the post and comments you said that you had previously offered the breast to your child in response to him crying however now after learning about the so claimed ‘benefits’ to crying in arms you would now (sometimes?) delay (or stop?) doing so. My question is how do you know when to just sit there whilst your baby is in distress and when to immediately act or respond? Also how long does a so claimed emotional release take? Or in other words at what point do you follow what I believe to be primal mothering instincts to sooth and comfort your young?

    I hope this doesn’t read as snark as I am genuinely interested.

    Reply
    • Hi Michelle,
      Great question! This approach is very much founded on those primal mothering instincts. When she has a connected relationship with her child and with some insight into how children’s emotions work, a tuned in mother can be very aware of what it is her child is needing in that moment. And it’s also about listening in for her own needs. Sometimes a child might wake in the night to cry and she’s exhausted and doesn’t have space to hold it for them. So of course in that moment the wise thing to do would be to feed the baby so everyone can just go back to sleep (of course there will be times where they wake just to feed and withholding in that instance would not be responsive). I am describing the delicate tuning in of a mother who is connected to her child and also with the added support to work through her own issues so that she can be thinking well in these decisions.
      In terms of wondering if you were misunderstanding, it sounded as though you might be thinking I was suggesting all mothers should always withhold breastfeeding, to first let the baby cry and this is not at all where I am coming from. You also mentioned that you felt this approach would only work with children who had been coerced in some way. Interestingly you and I are very much coming from the same page in terms of parenting approach. You can read more about me on this site. My babies were homebirthed/freebirthed, lotus birthed, breastfed for like 7.5 years, EC’d, slung, still co-sleeping, home ed, all of it. AND at the same time I don’t believe any of these practices matter fundamentally if the connection and emotional safety are there.

      Reply
      • I’m going with Soft Corners! Even though I’ve never had kids, I can rlleay empathize with what it must be like to have a little one in such distress! Dear heavens!!!

        Reply
  4. Thank you for answering my question, although it raised a few more… You described a scenario in which you wouldn’t let a baby cry but can you describe one in which you would? Do you think that it is unhealthy that African babies don’t cry? Also you said that you yourself used to offer your baby an opportunity to breastfeed in times of distress; something I would argue was due to our innate mothering instincts but you state is a reaction to primal wounding; I would define an instinct as something we are internally driven to do without outside instruction, validation or proof, would you define a primal wound reaction the same way? How did you know that your child needed to cry whilst being held, was it an idea that came to you or something you learned about that made sense to you? Do you think that African mothers are not following their natural innate instincts?

    Whilst I think we may well share an overall philosophy of natural biological mothering, the devil is truly in the details as I strongly disagree with this particular theory of infant crying.

    I think we (Westerners) tend to look at child rearing practices individually in a vacuum, which is highly problematic when we try to incorporate them into our modern fast paced hyper-Capitalist culture. You mentioned that mothers need to listen in to their own needs when evaluating if they should respond to their crying child and I think that we are now starting to get to the real issue.

    Most mainstream scientists and psychologists misinterpret or in some cases just invent hypotheses to fit with their own personal views of baby behavior and appropriate care based on adult (mother/father/greater society) needs. I firmly believe that whilst we (in the West) continue to focus our energies on discovering solutions for diagnoses we’ve created in our young, we aren’t focusing or fighting to change and or end the systemic mechanisms that rule our culture and make natural mothering so difficult in the first place.

    Reply
  5. I came to your article via the initial Why African Babies Don’t Cry, which was referenced in a Janet Lansbury article which was broadly making the same point as you, Roma.The ensuing discussion in these comments has also been an interesting read. I had always offered the breast straight away to my son and had read an article about breastfeeding in Mongolia – typically until the age of 6 or 7 – that mentioned offering the breast to distract from toddler squabbles. My son is now 2 and a half and I am finding breastfeeding less enjoyable as I am pregnant again. I do not offer or refuse, unless he shows me he is not able to be gentle in that moment. He is now used to this and will insist if he wants the breast and not just a hug. Sometimes, a hug is enough, but he will always take the breast if it is offered. So part of the “we teach them to take the breast unthinkingly” argument rings true to my experience with him. But he is fairly verbal and has no qualms about insisting on the breast. When he is really upset, scared, shuddering with sobs, for example, of course he wants the reassurance of the breast. But he may well also cry because he wants to turn the page in a book but there are no more pages. The two situations do not warrant the same reaction, from either of us. What feels right has changed a lot as he has developed.

    Reply
  6. I’ve never read anything about this before but I’m a UK based mum to a 6 month old and this is exactly how I am with my daughter. She’s probably cried less in her 6 months than most of the babies I know have cried in an average week. And she only cries when I can’t get to her like if we’re stuck in traffic.

    She’s still waking every 2 hours in the night and I feed her every single time (we co sleep and she’s now able to ‘self serve’) and almost everyone I know tells me what I’m doing is wrong but I don’t care. I’m proud of the fact that my daughter rarely cries and I’m there to comfort her.

    Reply
    • Wonderful that she has such a devoted, responsive mother xx

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.