When Babies Cry and What We Can All Learn From the High-Needs Baby and Child

[This is a post written from an attachment parenting perspective but of course a little of my Waldorf-inspired thinking snuck in at the end!]


From THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, published by La Leche League International:

“Your baby’s cry is meant to be disturbing, for it is his most important means of communication. Only by crying can he let you know that he needs you to help him – to come to his rescue.”

From Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small:

“The biological function of crying is to signal, and as in any signal, it has import only if it affects the recipient.”

“As most parents know, crying is not just a signal of hunger. Even in newborns, it communicates much more- the need for touch seems to be especially important; and clearly a crying baby is announcing its internal state and calling for some sort of change.”

“Crying evolved to serve the infant’s purposes: to assure protection, adequate feeding, and nurturing for an organism that cannot care for itself.:


From Our Babies, Ourselves:

“The average Western infant cries twenty-two minutes per day in the first three weeks of life and thirty-four minutes per day until the end of the second month, when crying gradually decreases to fourteen minutes per day by twelve weeks.”

“Even to the casual visitor in less developed nations, it becomes apparent that babies in non-Western cultures rarely cry; I have never heard an African baby or a Balinese baby cry during my many trips to both those sides of the world. And this casual observation has been confirmed by ethnopediatric research.”

“But there is, in fact, no such thing as a fake cry. The baby is crying for engagement of some sort-for personal interaction and social contact, or because it is bored. Babies also laugh during the first month of life, which spectrographically looks more like a cry than a chuckle and is probably related to conflicting emotions or rapid shifts in state.”


The first few days after a birth, a baby may be upset at the breast when..

Their suck is weak and they are not drawing much volume of milk

Their tummy is full of mucus from delivery.

They are experiencing difficulty with latching on.

If they are not going to the breast often enough, and showing very late signs of hunger, they may be too upset to latch.

Once the milk comes in, a baby may be upset at the breast when..

The breast is very engorged and difficult to latch-on to.

Mother has a forceful let-down or over supply that the baby is not used to.

Once breastfeeding is established, a baby may…

Have a regular fussy period, often late in the afternoon, that occurs predictably day after day.

May be fussier during growth spurts – two weeks, six weeks, three months.


  • If a baby has long periods of hard crying and seems to be in some sort of physical discomfort for which there is no apparent reason that you or your doctor can discover, he is often said to be colicky.
  • Colic = crying at least three hours a day, three days per week, for three weeks
  • -look at keeping baby on one breast only during a two to three hour period if you believe this is an issue related to foremilk/hindmilk imbalance
  • -look at vitamins, food supplements such as brewer’s yeast, large amounts of caffeine or foods or drinks with artificial sweeteners, maternal history of cigarette smoking, or a certain food (or foods containing milk- potentially allergenic beta-lactoglobulin ) in the mother’s diet that can be making baby more uncomfortable.
  • Rule out Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) -See www.pager.org for more information regarding GERD.

A Very Few of the Many Possible Signs and Symptoms of Reflux:

  • Frequent bouts of painful crying
  • Frequent episodes of spitting up
  • Nasal regurgitation
  • Painful bursts of night waking
  • Inconsolable bouts of abdominal pain
  • Again, see www.pager.org for more details or discuss with your pediatrician.



“When a baby cries, a nursing mother’s immediate instinctive response is to offer her breast. Whether it’s been ten minutes or two hours since baby was fed, a few minutes of sucking may be all he needs to settle down.”

From Our Babies, Ourselves:

“What seems to work best is simple human contact. Peter Wolff long ago demonstrated that picking up a baby works better than anything else to stop any baby from crying.”

Also you can look at:

  • -too warm
  • -too cold
  • -something he is wearing is causing the problem – try removing all of his clothes
  • -look the baby over carefully to make sure nothing is irritating the skin
  • -if he seems too warm, try leaving him in just a shirt and diaper
  • -if the room is too chilly, try wrapping him in a soft blanket
  • -some babies feel more secure if they are wrapped up snugly, or swaddled
  • -once he is calm, offer the breast again. This time he may just nurse off to sleep
  • -If he has downed so much milk he repeatedly spits it up, and still he cries…Try holding him against your shoulder and “baby waltz”
  • -try baby in baby carrier or sling and vacuum
  • -try a drive in the car
  • – a walk outdoors
  • -a warm bath may soothe you both
  • -rocking chair
  • -some babies cry because they are overtired but they are not happy being held as they fall asleep. Try laying your baby down and talk or sing to him softly as you pat him gently.

-“Babies are sometimes fretful for reasons that no one, not even a mother, can understand. If you can’t calm your baby right away, try not to let it upset you. Your baby will always benefit from a calm, loving mother. In handling any tiny baby, you have to move slowly and gently.” from THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING.

“SOME PARENTS ARE BLESSED WITH BABIES WHO ARE NOT SO EASY…” from Dr. William Sears. These babies are otherwise known as the….


Features of High-Need Babies: (As listed in Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book).

“Supersensitive” – acutely aware of environment, easily bothered by changes in environment, startle easily during day and settle poorly at night, do not readily accept alternative caregivers

“I just can’t put him down” In-arms, at-breast babies

“Not a self-soother”


“Wants to nurse all the time”

“Awakens frequently”

“Unsatisfied, unpredictable”

“Hyperactive, hypertonic”




Interestingly enough, Meredith Small, author of Our Babies, Ourselves,  points out that in other cultures :…”it is assumed that personality does not form until much later in life- until the child can talk and hold a conversation, or be trained. Babies in these cultures are viewed as blank slates, personality-less beings in the process of further development. But in other cultures, especially America, many believe each person has an inborn basic nature, one that might be molded or influenced, but which is essentially persistent through time….Although people are born not as blank slates but with a certain brain chemistry and genetic complement, it is the experience of life that molds this particular personality trait or behavior is purely genetic or purely learned – everything is a mixture of both.”  [Carrie’s note: Just a thought to ponder!].

EASY BABIES: are ones that are rhythmic in their bodily functions, adaptable to new situations, mild in their responses, and mostly in a good mood.

“DIFFICULT” (Meredith Small’s word, not mine!) BABIES: irregular, slow to adapt, intensely responsive to all stimuli and generally negative in attitude.

“…the mother’s awareness becomes an intimate part of the baby’s environment, and thus an influence on the infant’s developing personality.”

Ways to Try Soothing the Fussy Baby:

-rhythmic motion

-close and frequent physical contact

-soothing sounds

-feeding baby frequently

-responding promptly to baby’s cries

-wearing your baby

In “Raising Your Spirited Child” (Carrie’s note:  This book should be required reading for all mothers and fathers, for all types of children, not just the “so-called “Spirited Ones”), Mary Sheedy Kurcinka identifies the following characteristics:








First Reaction


She talks about ‘redesigning the labels’ .  I agree with this and feel strongly you should guard your thoughts and that you should guard your words around your “high needs” child! Over the years I have spoken with so many mothers who identified their child’s traits in rather negative terms with the child right there!  Please do not send this type of labeling and energy to your child!  They understand exactly what you are saying about them!

Soothing/Calming Activities for Older Spirited Children from the wonderful book “Raising Your Spirited Child” :



Sensory Activities




I must add here, however, that so many of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas and thoughts are applicable to the high-needs child.  The whole idea of not drawing consciousness to the child’s individuality I believe is extremely important for a high-needs child who may feel singled out by his or her parents even at an early age.  Steiner’s notion of  a parent and teacher guarding your thought and speech around a child is also paramount for this child.  The idea of establishing rhythm can also be so helpful and necessary for a high-needs child who by their very nature is irregular and therefore cannot do this themselves.  Perhaps this is another post in its entirety.

Just a few thoughts from my little corner of the world.


The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, published by La Leche League International

The Baby Book by Dr. William Sears

Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small

Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Living With the Active, Alert Child by Linda Budd

The Gesell Institute books by Louise Bates Ames, PhD and Frances L Ilg

4 thoughts on “When Babies Cry and What We Can All Learn From the High-Needs Baby and Child

  1. Just a thought… maybe it could be a future post some day… how to respond to the baby’s natural needs while maintaining a rhythm for an older child as well. I am thinking of “baby” as under the age of 24 months, really. Particularly, how to navigate the stages of transitioning to one nap a day, babies beginning to become more independent toddlers and not wanting to always remain in a sling any more as you work, high need babies who have difficulty napping for very long, etc… how to work with these things. In my experience, the periods from 12-18 months and then 18-24 months are times of such huge change and growth/learning for babies.

  2. Pingback: Stress Signs in Infants « The Parenting Passageway

  3. Did you ever write that post about the older high-needs child? I am lucky that my second son is an easy-going, happy, observant little boy who responds very positively to attention and is quite happy to entertain himself if his basic needs are met (he will be one next week). This is a blessing, as his older brother (3) is distinctly high-needs and has been since birth – we did the whole frequent feeding, babywearing, waltzing the floor for hours sshhhing and patting list. Now he is a lovely, intelligent, sweethearted boy who is still just as ‘difficult’ and demanding. I would love as much advice as possible, as it is so difficult to manage myself, keep to our routine (against his unpredictable resistance) and find ways to give him the attention he needs without neglecting his brother (it is hard not to just concentrate on the one making all the fuss!)

  4. Pingback: 5 truths about the development of babies | The Parenting Passageway

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