You’ll notice I talk about “crying in arms” (CIA) a lot. It’s important information for all parents! But it can also have a huge impact on sleep, behaviors, and demeanor. This comes from the Aware Parenting approach, the work of Aletha Solter, Ph.D
Isn’t all crying bad?
First, to answer the burning question… Crying itself is neither good nor bad—it’s a natural and healthy human response for all ages. It’s how we respond to babies’ crying that makes an immense difference.
Crying when held in arms and paid attention to helps to release stress. But crying alone adds stress because the separation from loved ones causes an increase in stress hormones.
Cry It Out (CIO) involves leaving babies alone, separating, and/or not responding to their cries. Even when a parent or caregiver is in the same room but baby remains crying in a crib, baby’s experience is separation; this is why even “gentle” versions of sleep training can be stress-inducing.
CIO is very different from the innate healing process I describe here. At its core, Aware Parenting is about meeting needs—by understanding what those needs truly are. Rest assured, crying in arms is not cry it out.
Why Crying In Arms?
Most common advice teaches parents that your job is to figure out why Baby is crying—and then stop the crying. I feel this partly comes from an assumption that crying is a problem, as well as because grownups tend to feel uncomfortable with crying. Do you resonate?
So when Baby cries, most parents see two options: separate from it (Ferber or ‘cry it out’) or do something make it stop (offer distractions, nurse for comfort, pacifier, bounce, “shh,” etc).
Aware Parenting offers a third way: ‘crying in arms.’
Here’s what you need to know about why babies cry. There are two over-arching reasons:
- To communicate basic needs, such as hunger and closeness (everyone knows this one!)
- To release stress (this is new to most people!). Babies cry beyond immediate needs because they need to get their feelings out. It’s their natural healing mechanism when done in arms. It’s how they process their experiences, such as overstimulation, a stressful birth, medical procedures, developmental frustrations, and more.
If your baby is crying and you don’t know why—you’re not failing!
Babies need to process their experiences just like we do. They’re born with a full set of human emotions, and they need opportunities to ‘let off steam’ with your loving, listening attention. After a good cry in arms, babies typically stop on their own and drift off to sleep or stay awake but peaceful.
So you see, crying isn’t necessarily a problem, as we’re led to believe. It’s a legit need and can also a solution when done in your loving, accepting arms!
How to know if your baby or toddler needs to ‘cry-release’
Here are some typical signals:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Cries even after needs have been met
- Fusses or cries before naps or at bedtime
- You find you must do (fill in the blank) to get your baby to sleep
- You find that baby will cry if you don’t do ___ (nurse, pacifier, bounce, walk, offer distraction, etc)
- Nurses all night
- Sucks thumb habitually
- Zones out when upset
- Needs security item
- Asks for nursing even if not hungry or when upset
- Separation anxiety seems more immense than you expected
- Toddler seems demanding
- Tense, busy, gets wound up before sleep instead of calming down
- Seemingly little things (like a broken cookie) trigger melt downs
- Stressful or traumatic birth or other early experiences
More here > about stress signals.
How to do Crying In Arms
You can start at any age (for newborns, more here >). CIA will establish a critical foundation for optimal emotional habits, sleep, and communication skills, so it’s beneficial to start early!
The following assumes that your baby or toddler is overall healthy and is continuing to cry after all immediate needs have been met. Please never leave your baby alone crying.
STEP 1: The first work is yours!
How do you feel when your baby cries? What’s your initial impulse? Are you doing anything that if you didn’t, Baby might cry? Noticing these things in yourself will help you help your baby.
STEP 2: Hold your baby in a way that allows eye contact and listen.
Simply be present with your baby as his beautiful feelings arise, and allow him to express them. Don’t feel you need to bounce, walk, rock, “shh,” or nurse if he’s not hungry.
STEP 3: Do this until…
…either he’s done, which may last longer than you expect, or you reach your limit of being present. Remember that after a good cry in arms, babies typically stop on their own and drift off to sleep or stay awake but peaceful.
It’s okay not to do something to stop this type of crying, as long as baby is with you. Sharing your loving, listening presence is ‘doing something’!
If your baby won’t easily cry-release with you, be curious if there’s anything you’re doing that if you didn’t, he would cry?
Please avoid letting your child cry in a crib while you’re present but outside the crib. Best to take him out for the cry.
There are nuances. If you find your baby or toddler doesn’t want to be held, stops the instant you pick him up, you find it difficult to allow your baby to cry in arms, or you’re concerned about not doing it “right,” don’t hesitate to reach out.
Next, reap the benefits!
As you implement this process, watch the level of trust between you and your child deepen and your bond strengthen. This bond of honesty and trust is very special and incomparable!
Your loving arms, listening ears, and open acceptance will establish healthy ongoing communication–because your child knows you will listen and that he is loved no matter how he feels. Rather than distracting, ignoring, or “waiting until he has words,” begin the journey together now.
For more related to CIA and sleep (also helpful if no sleep concerns), read more here >
For a discussion about ‘cry it out,’ attachment parenting, and stress-release crying, read Aletha Solter’s article here >
Is this an effective way to stop my 1 year old from nursing all night? Neither one of us is getting enough sleep. I nurse him to sleep then he wakes after 1-2 hours. Eventually I end up cosleeping which I feel Like neither one of us are really sleeping that long. How do you do this method when they are trying to nurse and crying? Do you just keep repositioning and saying no?
Yes! Check out these articles and see if they help: https://consciousbaby.com/withhold-nourishment-if-dont-nurse-for-comfort/, https://consciousbaby.com/the-1-reason-your-baby-wont-sleep-and-how-to-help/.
Also, I answer questions in more detail in my FB group, come join us! https://www.facebook.com/groups/consciousbaby
Could I use CIA to get my baby used to sleep in his crib? He is crying when in and immediately stops when held. Wouldn’t I be teaching him to cry further if I keep picking him up?
Thank you in advance
Hi Angie, Please refrain from having your baby cry in the crib. He’s communicating a very important message to you through what he’s doing; often this is related to processing a separation experience or other early experiences. His feelings are legit; what’s taught and learned is the emotion control patterns.
I was just wondering how to really tell the difference between if your baby actually needs to nurse or just cry. My 6 week old will always take my breast so it’s hard for me to tell if he is taking it because he needs to eat or using it as a control. Thanks!
Hi Haley, first to consider is can you tell when your baby is eating vs nursing for comfort/sleep. If so, that’s your answer. If not, pull in other clues, such as length of time since last feed, how well they’re sleeping, etc. 🙂