Crying Infants and Moral Judgments

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crying baby As my daughter Katie Grace just had her 13th birthday (happy, happy birthday, darling girl!)and as I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the Infant Wing at school,  I’ve been thinking a lot about babies and crying and our discomfort with hearing their cries. More specifically, about the moral significance we seem to place on crying babies and the judgment we heap on their parents.

You see, Katie Grace was what you would call a colicky baby. And at least in Katie’s case, “colicky” was code for “we don’t know what her problem is, but she sure is loud!” She was fussy pretty much all the time, but at 4 PM it kicked into hyperdrive. She would scream her bald little head off from 4 until around midnight, and no amount of babywearing, diaper changing, change in my diet, co-sleeping, co-bathing, shooshing, swaddling, singing, homeopathic remedies, baby massage, swaying, dancing, or standing on my head would help. She just had a biological imperative to cry and scream, and cry and scream she did.

Frankly, she scared me.

When we went out, people would coo over her—she was loud, but cute—and say to me “Oh, she’s so sweet! Is she a good baby?” My answer ranged from a watery smile to “Well, she hasn’t knocked over a liquor store yet.” Because the truth is, what I wanted to say was “No. No she’s not a good baby. She screams all the time. I don’t think she likes me very much and frankly, I’m not so sure how I feel about her either.”

Our culture has two messages for new mothers— “Good” babies are quiet babies, preferably ones who are sleeping and don’t demand our attention in any way.  And a “good” mother knows how to keep her baby quiet. And I am saying this as someone who has been on both ends. I’ve been the mother of the screaming baby and I will admit I’ve been the lady in the grocery store silently judging you for having a screaming baby. I may have smiled at you and not said anything, but inside there was a little part of me thinking “Good grief, why can’t they keep that baby quiet? She must not be trying the right things. If I had a baby that screamed like that, I certainly wouldn’t aggravate the baby and the world by bringing it out in public.”

Which is, of course, utter crap. Even mothers of colicky babies have to leave the Colic Cave sometimes. The world doesn’t stop just because you have a fussy baby. And the truth is that even non-colicky babies make noise. It’s something babies do. They eat. They sleep. They poop. And even the happy ones are noisy. The last thing a new mother needs is your (or my!) judgment.

So, next time you’re out in public and hear a screaming infant, what can you do? I would suggest several things.

First, retire the “good baby” question. The false equivalency of quiet babies to good parenting is flawed and serves no purpose.

Second, try and pull up a little empathy. Have you ever felt helpless? Overwhelmed? Utterly unable to communicate your needs? Congratulations, you know both how the new baby and the new mom feel.

Third, take those empathetic feelings and channel them into something that’s actually helpful. Even a smile can brighten a new mom’s day. If it’s someone you know, you can ask how she’s doing or offer to hold the child. During the Dark Days, my favorite people were the ones who offered to hold Katie Grace for a little while. Sometimes when I see a mom of a crying baby and I don’t know her, I smile and say “It can be so hard. I had a baby who cried and cried and I remember how difficult it could be.” 

Babies cry. Some babies cry more than others. And in the history of the world, I don’t think there’s ever been someone who, after listening to it for more than 10 minutes, has said “Oh, how I love the sound of crying babies! It’s so sweet and makes me so happy!” It’s not meant to make you happy. It’s meant to make you help.

Motherhood can be a sisterhood that connects us or a dividing line in the Mommy Wars. But it’s up to you to choose which path you’ll take.

1 Comment


  1. //

    I have five kids and my 2nd and 3rd were “colicky” and no, nothing worked and my third child didn’t let up until he was nearly 8 months old. He just turned six and he still cries when he doesn’t get his way (not all the time, but often enough.) My first was pretty easy and my youngest two were, too. Clearly, it isn’t a parenting issue 😉 Some babies are just that way. I have moderate hearing loss (mostly in my left ear) and I think some of it is due to the screaming bundle of love I had to bounce over my left shoulder 24 hours a day for eight months. I always hated the “good baby” question. It’s a bad question. I always said yes, he’s a good baby. All he asks for is what he really needs (which is true, even if the baby is asking to be held constantly.)

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