Crying Alone Vs Crying in Arms – How You Help Your Baby Just With Your Presence

Why You Shouldn't Do

There’s a lot of advice out there around handling a baby’s cries and it’s often conflicted.

Old-school theories state that babies who are held too much are spoiled and that babies need to learn how to self-soothe.

Is this true?

In order to really dive deep into this topics, we are going to have to look at how we develop strong mental health.

Mental Health Development

Throughout the years, research has shown us that mental health starts right at birth. We know that mental health is made up of emotional and thinking brain circuits that start developing immediately after birth. How these circuits develop depend on the environment the baby is exposed to and can shape their mental health well being for the rest of their lives.

These circuits that are responsible for mental health are largely formed from conception to age 3.
An infant brain makes 1 million connections per second, and many of the connections are based on their relationships and experiences, with most of these connection forming based on the relationship between a baby and their caregiver.

Every time a baby has an experience that causes an emotional response, it shapes those connections. Many of you may have heard the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together” – this is what is going on in baby’s brain with each emotional response. Circuits that are used most, form the strongest connection.

So as an example, when a baby cries, and the parent picks them up and cuddles them, connections are made in the baby’s brain that teach them that they are safe and well cared for. These connection shape the baby’s ability to trust and have meaningful relationships in the future.

When it comes to mental health, preventative care = positive relationships with caregiver. By responding to a baby’s needs, parents are helping their baby form connections in their brain that allow them to develop meaningful relationships and trust.

Graphic courtesy of Bebo Mia and Greer Kirshenbaum

Listed on the right are all the parts of the brain – they form implicit memories, or memories from infancy that we can’t recall. But are stored in the brain unconsciously. These unconscious memories, even though we don’t remember them, shape the way we form relationships and develop our mental health.

A positive experience between parent and baby lays down that foundation of trust, and results in a strong and balanced connections between the emotional brain and thinking brain.

Now let’s look at how stress impacts the brain.

Stress and The Adult Brain

To understand how stress impacts future mental health, we need to understand how it impacts the brain.

Let’s talk about how stress works in the adult brain.

graphic courtesy of Bebo Mia and Greer Kirshenbaum

In adults, the amygdala senses danger or stress, and sends a message to the hypothalamus, which then initiates the stress response, or “fight or flight response.”

The stress hormone cortisol is released, the heart rate goes up, and Adrenalin increases.

After the danger or stress passes, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus stops the amygdala’s signal, reducing cortisol and putting the body back into a rest and digest response.

Stress in an Infant Brain

Now, when it comes to babies, it works differently.

Babies have not developed their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex yet. So, just like in the adult brain, the amygdala responds to stress or danger by bringing the body into fight or flight. Cortisol then floods the body, heart rate rises…but when the danger or stress passes, because their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex aren’t fully developed, they aren’t able to stop they amygdala’s signal and bring the body down from fight or flight.

graphic courtesy of Bebo Mia and Greer Kirshenbaum

This means that babies are co-regulators – they need us parents to step in and help them come down from fight or flight. They need a caregiver to help them calm down, which allows them to learn how to calm themselves in a healthy way when they face stress when they are older.

By responding to their babies cries with nurturing touch and calming them, parents:

  • help the baby develop their hippocampus
  • increases oxytocin receptors in the baby’s brain
  • influences the structure of the amygdala, so babies are better able to respond to stress
  • improves communication between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex

By responding to baby’s needs, parents are teaching their baby’s brain how to handle and reduce stress.

What Does This Have To Do With Crying in Arms vs Crying Alone?

Remember how we talked about how babies can get suck in fight or flight and need help calming and regulating their stress levels?

Well, if your baby is crying alone with no one to comfort them, their cortisol levels continue to rise until they cry themselves to exhaustion.

BUT….if you hold your baby while they cry, and let them cry in arms, you are preventing their cortisol levels from getting too high!

Just your presence alone…just holding your baby…offering them comfort, even if they continue to cry, helps your baby immensely!

My youngest baby had horrible colic and reflux and screamed a lot as a baby. It’s a crappy feeling, having a baby that cries no matter what you try.

I remember feeling so helpless, and even rejected at times. By my own baby!

Often, I would sit with him on the couch and we would cry together as I held him.

But then I found out that just by holding him, I was helping him! I was keeping his cortisol levels lower and teaching his body how to handle stress.

Which makes sense, doesn’t it? Don’t people generally feel better if they are held and comforted when they cry?

Why do we expect it to be different for babies?

If your partner is upset and crying, do you ignore them because they need to “self-soothe”? Of course not!

Keep comforting your baby, take breaks as needed by handing them off to a trusted adult if you need to, and of course if you have any concerns about the amount crying your baby is doing, please talk to your baby’s pediatirican.

You are doing amazing!

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