*******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?