Over the years, I have counseled parents on the importance of responding to a baby's cry. In a previous
article on this subject I listed ten reasons for a quick response to tears, and discussed the importance of
giving loving messages and emotional reassurance to a baby, who after all can only communicate pain or
unhappiness with cries and body language. This article will explore another benefit of compassionate
responsiveness to tears: helping the baby learn to talk.
A baby's first attempts to communicate cannot be in words, but can only be nonverbal. Yet only part of the
baby's nonverbal vocabulary is taken seriously by many in our culture. If a baby gurgles happily and then says
"Dada", we are likely to find a smiling father beaming at the baby, and encouraging more such
attempts at speech. Everyone recognizes that parent-baby interactions of this kind can only serve to enhance
the learning process, and allow the baby to progress at her natural pace. We all know that babies in
orphanages who were left alone for long periods of time can develop speech problems. It just makes sense that
encouragement and "conversations" with a baby are healthy and good.
However, if that same baby starts to cry, our culture tells us this is somehow different from other
attempts to communicate. We are warned not to respond too quickly for fear of spoiling her. The baby is
"coercing" us, "manipulating" us, or deliberately making us miserable, and it is up to us
to "show her who's boss". Yet what is the difference between babbling, early syllables and words,
and crying? All of these behaviors are attempts to learn to communicate. If we respond only to some of these
behaviors, and not to others, we are telling the baby that only some communication is effective and valuable.
The baby then receives harmful messages about which feelings can be safely expressed, and about learning in
general: sometimes learning is acceptable, and sometimes it is ignored or punished. Sometimes attempts to
express feelings with sounds are successful, and sometimes they are not. These mixed messages can only slow
the learning process, and confuse the baby who is always, after all, learning about learning.
It is easy for parents and other adults to support and encourage a baby's attempts to communicate pleasure;
in fact there are few things in life more delightful. A smiling, gurgling baby elicits our smiles, creating a
joyfully shared moment in time. When a smiling baby babbles, we encourage this learning with our own smiles
and words in response. The baby says "Dada?" and we say "Yes, here comes Dada!" But when
the same baby tries to communicate displeasure or pain due to hunger, fatigue, loneliness, or some other ill
with tears or babbles of hurt or fear, we are told to punish or ignore this communication, for fear of
"spoiling". Yet tears are simply another attempt by the baby to learn to communicate feelings, and a
step along the way to full verbalization. Ignoring a baby's tears or vocal protests is not only unkind, it
sets up artificial categories of "good" and "bad" communication, which can only slow a
child's linguistic development and affect her self-esteem. The best way for us to help a child develop at her
optimum rate of growth is to be fully supportive of every step she takes.
Virtually everything a baby does is geared toward learning; they are programmed to learn as much as they
can in order to survive and contribute to the world around them. Surely the best message we can give a baby is
that all attempts to communicate - whether in gurgles, words, or cries - will be met with our attempts to
understand and respond with compassion to their needs. When we can do this, we are also teaching that learning
itself is a positive and joyful experience, and that they can count on us to support them as they grow and
It is only when we can fully accept ourselves and others "as is", that we can have truly loving
relationships. If we are not fully loved and trusted in infancy, we may never learn how that feels or how to
give that feeling to others. What more important learning can there be?