Crying:The Language of Tears By Pinky McKay

Crying: The Language of Tears By Pinky McKay

Pinky McKay mentored me last year, to have Pinky guest posting here is an honour.

It seems there is nothing like infant crying to stir up confusion and strong feelings among mothers – and anyone else who wants to offer their ‘two bobs worth’. How often do we hear, crying is good for the lungs (like bleeding is good for the veins?), or if you pick him up every time he cries, you’ll make a rod for your own back (don’t you like a cuddle if you feel teary?)

The first rule of the crying game is, ‘don’t blame yourself ‘. It is not your fault if your baby cries, even if she cries and cries! At first, crying is pretty much the only way your baby can express feelings like discomfort, hunger, exhaustion and loneliness but as she grows, she will be able to communicate through facial expressions and body language, then eventually by telling you exactly how she feels and what she needs.

Although it may take a few weeks to get to know your baby’s cues, if you keep your baby close to you and do some baby watching, you will be amazed at how even very young babies can give clear signals about how they feel and you will learn your individual baby’s tired and hungry signs. If you respond to these signs promptly, you may be able to avert full-blown crying.

Let’s take hunger cries as an example, babies give a lot of subtle cues that they are ready to feed, long before they begin to cry – such as rooting with their mouths, making sucking noises and trying to suck on their fists – if these signals are ignored, they will cry. Crying is a late hunger cue and when we repeatedly wait until a young baby cries (sometimes it is unavoidable) perhaps because we are trying to implement a strict feeding schedule, we can set ourselves on a path to unnecessary feeding problems.

Rather than trying to impose rigid feeding schedules on young babies, there is likely to be less crying if you follow your baby’s hunger cues, rather than the clock. In fact, some strict regimes have been associated with breast milk supply failure, poor infant weight gain and infants who fail to thrive.

Leave the Baby Crying?

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of crying is how long we should leave babies to cry in order to teach them to sleep – if at all. Although the experts are divided on sleep training techniques, most would agree that leaving a newborn to cry is inappropriate. There is also increasing evidence that deliberately leaving babies to cry can have detrimental effects. A policy statement issued by the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health (AIMHI) advises that, “Controlled crying is not consistent with what infants need for their optimal emotional and psychological health, and may have unintended negative consequences.”

According to research by U.S Neuro-biologist and trauma specialist, Bruce Perry, when your baby falls asleep after being left to cry it out, it is due to a process which he calls the ‘defeat response’. Normally when humans feel threatened our bodies flood with stress hormones and we go into fight or flight. However, babies can’t fight and they can’t flee, so they communicate their distress by crying. When infant cries are ignored, this distress elicits a ‘freeze’ or ‘defeat’ response and the infant shuts down (and sleeps).

A number of studies demonstrate that these elevated stress levels in infants may cause changes in the physiology of the developing brain. In particular, by permanently shaping the stress responses in the brain, which then affect memory, attention, and emotion. The saddest risk though, is that as the baby tries to communicate in the only way available to him, he will learn a much crueller lesson – that he cannot make a difference, so what is the point of reaching out. This is learned helplessness.

Perhaps the best advice with regards to crying is to remember that a baby cries because she needs something – or someone. By seeing your baby’s cries as communication rather than manipulation, and observing your baby closely, you will soon learn to differentiate between a grizzle, a red alert cry and tears of frustration, and you will respond intuitively without consciously having to work out, ‘what kind of cry is that?’ After all, you are the expert about your baby.

Pinky McKay is the keynote speaker at this year’s Toddler & Baby Show in Melbourne.

Pinky is an International Board certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), runs a private practice in Melbourne specializing in gentle parenting techniques. She is a sought after keynote speaker and best-selling author with 4 titles published by Penguin, including Sleeping Like a Baby and Parenting By Heart, she’s an expert source for media appearing regularly on major network TV and quoted in various publications. Pinky’s books, parenting resources and her free newsletter ‘Gentle Beginnings’ can be found on her website Pinky also has a fabulous Facebook page you can like which will keep you update on her tours and blogs.

Pinky McKay will be talking about milk, sleep and love (sleeping and feeding) daily from 1.10pm – 1.55pm at The Baby & Toddler Show (Bio-Oil Main Stage). Melbourne’s premier baby and parenting event, The Baby & Toddler Show will run from 30 March to 1 April (9.30pm – 4.00pm) at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. This year the show will feature renowned parenting speakers including baby expert and author Pinky McKay, and parenting psychologist, Angharad Candlin. Also at the show is the Advice Hub with hands-on workshops and a range of childcare and parenting experts; exciting attractions to keep the little ones entertained; and new, innovative and unique baby and toddler products to see, buy and touch! Early Bird tickets to the show are currently on sale and can be purchased through The Baby & Toddler Show’s website at



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Nathalie Brown

Child Behaviour Consultant at Easy Peasy Kids
Child Behaviourist and researcher. Creator of "Less tantrums. More smiles". I look at the bigger picture and think outside the box when working with children and their behaviour. Their world is different. As adults we sometimes forget this. Happiness Creator in my spare time. Eater of chocolate and cake.

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  1. Sarah Gill says

    When my baby (now 16 years old!) was wee…I went to a video by Plunket about Tired Signals that babies show you. It was wonderful because I could then "read" her. This lady sounds so smart. Wish more people knew of her as you see so many babies out who should be at home in their cots. I am going to share this..thanks.

  2. I love this.
    There is so much parenting guilt when it surrounds your baby crying. Truth be told ALL babies cry, and it’s ok to leave them somewhere safe crying if you need to collect yourself for a few minutes, or you are going to the loo.
    The way I have explained it to my kids is that babies cannot talk, and so they cry when they want to let us know that they want something (Bluey used to get quite concerned over his then baby brothers cries). Sometimes they just want to see a friendly face, someone to talk to them, sometimes they’re hungry, or uncomfortable.
    We try to make babies happy, just like we would like to be, but sometimes we might be in the middle of something we need to finish first (aka, peeing).
    I have seen PND first hand with my best friend, and i have seen her lash out at her baby and openly “hate” her. This is where it put crying into perspective for me, and I realised that not everyone copes with the crying so well, and that sometimes the best thing is to put your baby somewhere safe, turn on some music really loudly and go outside for 5minutes.
    There is no shame in needing to take some time to calm down too.

  3. Pinky has huge amounts of experience and great advice. I just wish more mums and dads read her books and learned from her wisdom.

  4. Danielle says

    I remember my mother in law trying to hold me back from picking up my newborn first daughter when she started crying during dinner one night, because it would ‘spoil her’ I picked her up and gave her a cuddle anyway…you can’t spoil a baby by loving them too much! The best thing I read about babies in my 2nd pregnancy is that the mother’s body is a newborn baby’s natural habitat 🙂

  5. I tried “controlled crying” when Miss 10 was about 1. Let’s just say it wasn’t for me. It works for some people but I couldn’t go through with it. We co-slept and it worked well. While I don’t run each time I heard any of my babies crying, I really can’t bear to just leave them when they do.

  6. I really wish I could have made it to Melbourne Nat. It would have been great to see you again.
    Enjoy your lunch

  7. It really bothers me that people see babies crying as manipulation. Talk about ascribing adult ways of doing things to babies who in no way understand that they’re separate from their Mama let alone try to manipulate their parents or caregivers. I love the way Pinky writes, it’s just so sensible – a lot like what you say lovely Nathalie. x

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