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Studies and Scientific Work

Prof. Dr. Bernhard Hassenstein
Institute for Biology at the University of Freiburg

The cry of an infant is a biologically significant signal. It indicates that something undesired is happening to the child and it cannot be ignored by the mother. It is not recommended that you harden yourself against these cries. Mothers should always look to their crying child and try to find the reason for their distress. If rocking the cradle and a few soft words are enough to sooth the baby, the crying means that the baby felt abandoned and required confirmation that his mother was around.

If the baby is not soothed, you should check the following:

  • Is the child too warm or too cool?
  • Is his nappy dirty?
  • Is he hungry?
  • Is he scared of the dark?


As a mother’s experience grows, she will know the reasons for the crying and develop ways to sooth her baby. For example, if a child is scared of the dark, it is fine to leave a nightlight on or to leave the door open a crack, even if this means that voices will be heard. Voices can actually sooth a baby more than absolute silence, which can in some cases scare a child.
It is a huge mistake to leave the baby in a room where one cannot hear him crying as this can leave the child with feelings of abandonment. The child may then continue, again and again, to try to eliminate this perceived threat with greater force. There are two reasons why it is wrong to think that an infant should only be helped when he is hungry or needs changing and to leave him to cry if ‘he only wants company, nothing else’.


1. Unlike adults, an infant cannot reason that he is safe and that he has not been abandoned despite being left alone in the dark. Therefore, if presence indicators from the mother are missing, the child interprets it as a loss of contact.

2. Confirmation from the adults that they are there is just as important for the infant as feeding and diaper changes. Lack of physical contact provokes fear of abandonment in the child.

Fear is not a purely ‘subjective’ matter, but rather involves, as we know, extensive switchovers in the nervous and hormonal system. As an example, the digestive system becomes largely suppressed. An infant that is crying because he is scared of being left alone is under a lot of stress. The opinion that crying is good for an infant – ‘he’s just digesting’ or ‘it’s good for his lungs’ – is also completely wrong.

Some caregivers do not give crying infants any attention because they fear it will spoil them and turn them into little tyrants. This idea could only be justified if the infant had an understanding of spatial conditions (‘Mummy is just next door’), however we have just mentioned that this is not the case. Crying is a call for help to the mother to ‘rescue’ the baby from a perceived dangerous situation.
When a mother soothes her child with tender loving care, this is not ‘giving in’ to his demands and will not lead to spoiling the child. It is simply the fulfilment of a necessary care obligation. Furthermore, children who are given abundant amounts of attention at the beginning of their lives are independent of their parents quicker and are less likely to turn into clingy, problem children. If not quickly remedied, a lack of care in the first year of life (and in subsequent years) can later lead to a lot of additional support being required from the parents during the toddler and school-age years.





What it really means to ‘spoil’ a child will be discussed in further detail later on). Spoiling a child is an up-bringing error that should most certainly be avoided in older children. Fully satisfying the needs of a young baby when it comes to feeding and attention from the caregiver will not spoil him. Learning to delay gratification is something to practise later when the child is older and can understand what his mother is saying when she explains something.