what goeds wrong? crying, from demand to release

Aletha Solter on the crying hour of babies

review of:
SOLTER, Aletha:
‘The Aware Baby’, Shining Star Press, Galeta CA, 1984.


I agree with Solter's insistence on taking children in their parent's bed, her stressing the baby's need for being carried around and cuddled, and her advocating of feeding on demand. More - but not insurmountable - problems do I have with her stance on reward and punishment. But I could not believe my eyes, when I read what she has to tell about crying. Since that is the central point of her book, I could not refrain from making some comments on it. Especially since Solter's ideas are typical of a far more general misconception: the idea that all our problems originate in the past - in our early childhood.

Parents be warned: according to Solter, their most important mistake is to think that crying signals an immediate need. Although such is sometimes the case, crying is in the first place a release of tension. Still according to Solter, crying is not so much an indication that something goes wrong, it is a need in its own right, on the same footing as the need for locomotion, for being touched and cuddled, for stimulation. Still according to Solter, there is something like a need for the release of tension.

But there is more. We innocents, who assumed that tensions were caused by hunger and similar trifles, and who fancied that we could release those tensions through feeding or other obvious interventions, turn out to be utterly wrong again: the tension is caused by the traumas to which the baby has been exposed, especially the trauma of birth. The extent to which a baby cries is in correlation to the extent to which it had a difficult birth. So, do not even think of pacifying your child: you would onlydisturb the satisfaction of the need for release of tension. Worse still: the way in which you pacify your children determines which kind of 'control mechanisms' your children will develop to handle tensions: thumb sucking, immoderate need for drinking, not being able to fall asleep without lullabies or bears, and what have you!


There is something wrong here. Rather than a means of releasing tension, crying is a call for help from a helpless being. Or, when it is the parents who are the cause of the problem: the protest of a defenceless victim. As parents knew from way back: when they hear a child crying, they cannot help to do anything they can to soothe the baby. That is why crying is so efficient: no parent can stand his baby crying, and he will not rest until the crying stops.

A call for help. That is already apparent from the kind of behaviour the child is displaying when it cries. Waving with the arms, squeezing the hands together, stamping and kicking, and especially the production of sound itself: if anything, this is incipient behaviour, an attempt at intervening or asking for help, however inefficient. The baby wants to do something! And because it is not able to, the parents have to do it in his stead. That is why crying subsides in proportion to the child's increasing ability to help itself. Instead of waving with the arms when it is hungry, it soon is able to grasp a bottle. Instead of stamping and kicking, it soon is able to follow its mother. And, instead of producing unarticulated sound, it soon is able talk and properly formulate its needs. In that sense, crying is a premature attempt at acting and talking. Compare with the helpless chick that spreads its beak wide open to let his parents know that it is hungry, and flaps its wings in an abortive attempt at flying and catching food. Nobody would even think of interpreting the chick's behaviour as an attempt at releasing tension. In fact, the chick's - or the child's - tension is released not through their call for help, but precisely through the intervention of the parents. It is obvious, then, that tension can only be released through action, be it that of the parents, or that of the child, when it has finally grown up.


Granted, there is a difference between the chick and the baby: the human baby is far more helpless, and hence subject to an incomparably broader array of problems. Not only might it be hungry, it also might be wet, it might have problems with digestion or dentition. And such are only the most obvious problems. For there are hosts of other possible causes of discomfort that are difficult, if not impossible to diagnose. Thus, a toddler was fretful, apparently without cause. Until her mother suddenly noticed that one of her toes was squeezed behind the strap of her sandal. A baby might have too warm or too cold. Something might be itching, a blade of grass might be pricking, or ant might have bitten. Just try to communicate that to your incomprehensive parents! Or, conversely: try to figure it out as a parent. On top of that, children have also other than purely physical needs. They want to be carried around by their mother, or a least know their parents in the vicinity. And, helpless and curious as they are, children often want to investigate or to grab something out of their reach. Or they might cry because they want to go out, while their parents are doing their utmost to keep them inside, because it rains or it is too cold. Last, but not least, a whole array of problems arises as a consequence of the poor or increasing cognitive powers of the child: think of the often severe problems when the child realises that there are children and adults, man and woman, man and animals (See: 'Leaving me alone just like that!’,'The bear', soon on this website).

That is avery broad range of problems indeed. And to face all these problems, the child disposes of merely one single expression: crying. That is where the shoe pinches! Parents are not always willing to admit that they simply do not know what is going wrong. And such is rather the rule than the exception! That is why elusive evildoers, like teething or colics, are predestined to become most cherishedscapegoats. All too good that many discomforts disappear as a matter of course. And all too good that the baby does not stop crying until his parents succeed in removing the cause of his distress!


It has become common knowledge that a baby wants to be held or to cuddle against the body of his mother, and that he cries when you just leave him alone. Until recently, however, that obvious fact was not acknowledged: parents used to leave their children alone in order to have their hands free. In order to justify their behaviour, they had to find some alternative explanation for the baby's crying. One explanation was that babies happened to have a 'crying hour', because crying would benefit the development of the lungs!

Not otherwise fares Solter. From the parents of past generations, she only differs in that her understanding of the needs of babies is somewhat broader. She can imagine of more reasons for crying than hunger, thirst or pain. But she does not, or is not willing to unfold the whole array of those needs: problems deriving from cognitive developments are not mentioned in her entire book. That makes her conceive of cases where crying is not caused by needs that are not met. To fill up the gap, Solter conjures up new scapegoat, far more impressive than the development of the lungs: the trauma! There are rather innocent traumas, such as the one caused by the experience of suddenly being left alone when mother is called on the telephone. But,- as could be expected from Solter's contention that the amount of crying is in proportion to the severity of the trauma of birth, in most cases she just means the trauma of birth.


However much Solter's approach gives the impression of being psychological - after all, the trauma has a seniority of already more than a centuryin psychotherapy - in fact, her 'tensions' are the umpteenth example of the widespread propensity to reduce the complicated psychological life of the child to a purely physical event - and such reduction is the basic mechanism of hysteria’. Although Solter's child is more than a mere digestive tract that has to be fed from above and cleaned from below, her tensions turn out to be not very different from the 'secretions' of olden days. To enforce her theory of stress-release crying, she summons up Frey, a biochemist who claims that tears help to release tension through the secretion of certain substances. That amounts to a psychologically elevated physical theory of secretion. Faced with the fact that a baby does not produce tears during the first months after birth, Solter bluntly refers to future investigation, which surely will find some physiological processes involved in crying. When there is no secretion via tears, we surely will find some other product that is ejected… Such expectation is nothing more than the counterpart of the countless pills that are pushed in the digestive tract.

A NEW HYSTERIA In practice, Solter recommends a kind of reversed 'crying hour'. While, formerly, the parents had their children perform alone, they now are supposed to lovingly hold their crying children and to listen to their grief. Getting in touch with the baby is an essential part of the releasing process...

Solter has the story of an eight-months-old boy taken on a visit to friends. He began to cling and being fretful. His Solter mother concluded that he might have a need to cry, excused herself, went to another room, hold him firmly and let him cry. After some twenty minutes of crying, she came back to her friends, where the child started playing,totally relaxed.

It is obvious that the boy, just like all the other babies of his age, was not prepared to share his mother with her friends. Instead of acknowledging this obvious fact and to react accordingly, his 'aware mother' conjures up some 'need to cry'. To the effect that she has to stop enjoying her visit and tot retire with her son. Or to phrase it plainly: that she has to yield to the whims of her son. That cannot but remind of the former craze of fainting Cinderellas, who at once stood in the centre of attention. Not surprising that children of 'aware parents' develop a need for crying! We are dealing here with nothing less than a new form of 'scientifically' legitimated hysteria. Already Freud knew that crying was the primeval form of hysteria. With Solter, such hysteria in nuce unfolds to a completed hysteria, sealed and legitimated through the comforting presence of the mother. It was Janov that paved the way for the promotion of crying to a new therapeutically legitimated hysteria in his scream therapy - think of 'John Lennon's who has been treated by this master, as you can judge from his impressive song 'Mother'. It speaks volumes, though, that Solter mentions merely a peripheral book of that former guru (’The Feeling Child’), and not his central ‘The Primal scream’.


Solter warns that the child will develop all kinds of misbehaviour when 'unaware' parents frustrate his need for crying: thumb sucking, obsessive drinking, clinging to cuddly toys, lullabies, and what have you. Solter subsumes all these kinds of misbehaviour under the category of 'control mechanisms'. A word to be afraid of! But, such innocent 'control mechanisms' are only the prelude to inhibited cognitive powers, cancers, allergies, kidney disorders, high blood pressure, cardiac and vascular diseases, rheumatism, not to mention schizophrenia and autism, let alone all kinds of maladjusted or even criminal behaviour. And what is more: just like the original sin, the curse threatens to be perpetuated in that parents inevitably will transmit their own pain to the next generation. Granted, the good old hell of the priests is nothing compared to such box of Pandora conjured up by their profane successors!

Granted, there is a grain of truth in Solter's train of thoughts: it is important to prevent the displacements of needs. The child that is not allowed to sleep in its parents bed, will invent all kinds of displaced needs to keep his parents dangling: ‘I am thirsty’, ‘I want the light turned on'’, ‘There is a crocodile under my bed’. Conversely, the parent, thatwants to soothe his child with sweets,teaches his child to displace his justified needs to oral ones.

But it is utterly wrong to hold that crying is the central need that must not be displaced. When your child is not prepared to grant you some amusement with your friends, there are two possibilities: either your child is not ready for it, in which case you should postpone your visits to your friend, or your child is ready for it, and you have to learn it to leave his mother alone with her friends. In the first case, the parent has to give up his desire to live as if he had no children, and in the second case, the child has to gradually give up the idea that it can claim his mother for the rest of his life. When the parent does not want to face such alternative, he is caught in the trap of ambivalence: he wants to visit his friends but is not prepared to temporarily reject his child. That cannot but results in the rather ridiculous scene of a mother retiring with her child when visiting her friends! The 'reversed crying hour' turns out to be nothing less than one more of the very 'control mechanism' Solter wants to eradicate: a need for crying is assumed where a conflict between parent and child should be tackled. Just like other children invent all kinds of needs when they are left alone in bed, just so will the children of Solter's 'aware parents' feign to have pent up tensions due to supposed traumas: their Solter mothers will surely come to the rescue …


The trauma of birth throwing open Pandora's Box, here is another displacement: the displacement of the whole range of problems one has to face during his life to the sole misconduct of one's parents. Compulsive eating or drinking, cancer, criminality: with Solter, the fact that the baby was not allowed to cry is to blame. And the need of the baby for crying itself stems from the trauma of birth: the crude manner in which the baby sees the light of day. It suffices to put this sequence upright down to see how absurd it is: a smooth landing on the world, under the expert hands of soft gynaecologists à la Leboyer would suffice to immunise us against all the kinds of problems that we might face in our later life...

Still, countless mothers yield to the spell of such magic formulas, judging from the often caricatural efforts spent on delivery, that one dwindling moment out of the endless chain of far-reaching events that will hurt the baby on his long way to death…

The cult of crying, just like the cult of painless childbirth - is a symptom in the real sense of the word: the condensation of the idea that life is suffering with the idea that such suffering can be alleviated through crying. Shall we, under the burden of all the misery that we, poor Westerners, have to carry on our shoulders, fall in each others arms and indulge in a nice hour of shared crying? Or, shall we, as more enlightened people have done from way back, resign in the face of insurmountable obstacles,but all the more deliberately tackle the remaining problems?

© Stefan Beyst, July 2002 (translation March 2004)

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