Crying in Arms as it Relates to Attachment Parenting

I have been reading about a parenting approach that is getting some attention lately. I was confused by it and wanted to take a few minutes to share my interpretation of “Crying in Arms” as it relates to my understanding and practice of Attachment Parenting (AP).

My intention is to shed some light on this approach for parents who practice AP, rather than tout one parenting choice as better than another.

The concept of “crying in arms” means that after all of baby’s normal needs are met, but he is still upset, you calmly hold him in your arms. You lovingly and gently look into his eyes and reaffirm how much you love him. The goal is to provide your baby with support and comfort while he’s upset.

What It’s Not

Crying-in-arms (CIA) is entirely different from crying-it-out and controlled crying. The crying-in-arms approach does not in any way suggest that it is ever okay to leave a baby alone to cry.

Within the practice of Attachment Parenting, nursing should never be withheld from a baby. This does not mean that mom is always going to be available to nurse, but it should never be withheld because mom or dad is afraid nursing is performing a disservice to the baby.

Babies cannot be spoiled or over-comforted. They cannot over-nurse.

The Need to Cry

Some of the articles that promote CIA share that babies need to cry in order to have certain coping mechanisms developed within them. To me, this suggests that if I do not let my baby cry sometimes, I am giving him a disadvantage.

However, this goes against many mothers’ instincts–and science. Research shows that babies cry to express a need and it is our role to determine their need and meet it.

This is not to suggest that AP babies never cry. They do. And sometimes we are burned out and confused and have trouble determining or meeting this need.

Practically Speaking

I think I was so confused by the CIA approach because I did not understand where it fit into AP.  Much of what is being conveyed sounds like a repackaging of the old belief that a baby needs to exercise his lungs. And for me, choosing to allow my baby to cry because ‘crying is beneficial’ did not resonate with my instincts or what I have learned.  And it is tough to be sure when a babies needs have all been met.  Babies who are nursing can be nearly incessantly hungry, and simply need the comfort of the breast.

CIA is just a fancy name for something that I was already doing–respectfully responding to my baby’s needs.  If my baby cries and nursing (or anything else) won’t calm him down, I instinctively speak calmly to him, rub his back and try to soothe him.

As I process this practice with friends and trusted mamas, the more I understand how it relates to Attachment Parenting; it is not something to be used in place of nursing, it is another way that we can comfort a baby who simply cannot be consoled.  It is not a way to make sure our baby spends some time crying, it is a way that we can offer comfort and connect during those times when we desperately want to  soothe our baby and not even nursing will do it.

What are your thoughts? Does letting your baby cry in your arms go against your instincts?

Jennifer Andersen is a stay-at-home Mama of two kids ages 2 and 4.  Though she has never let her children cry-it-out, sometimes her husband encourages her to.


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44 thoughts on “Crying in Arms as it Relates to Attachment Parenting

  1. I have never left either of my babies alone to “cry it out”, but there have certainly been times, when they were little, when they cried even when I’d done everything I could to console. My son, in particular, went through a short phase (about 2 months) when he cried himself to sleep, even though I was doing everything I could to calm him. I held him, nursed him, danced with him, bounced him, rocked him, etc. He strained against me and wailed for 10-15 minutes until he fell asleep. It was a very difficult time for me because I really was commited to doing everything I could to meet the needs of my babies. I nursed on demand, co-slept, and carried my babies most of the time. Luckily the phase passed after a few months, but I can say that I definitely know what “crying in arms” looks like, although it wasn’t something I actually planned or wanted to do. Sometimes all you can do, when you’ve tried everything else, is just hold your baby close until the storm has passed.

    1. Nicely said, Terri. My daughter had a similar period. She was born just before Thanksgiving Day and all I can remember of that Christmas is the hours between 7 and 9 pm, when Sydney was so upset. My husband and I did the same; walked her, bounced her, walked faster with her, walked slower with her… It was so hard on both both my husband and I.

    2. Just curious if you ever tried to put your baby down when he was doing this. I have 5 kids, my 2nd and 3rd were twins, and I have always used nursing to get them to sleep, all but my 3rd child, my only boy, one of the twins. He would nurse until full but still be awake and then do the same as you described, struggling, pushing against me, crying. I realized that he WANTED to be put down. If I would take him to our bedroom and lay him down, he would pull his little legs up, flop them to the side, sigh this content little sigh, close his eyes and fall asleep. The crying would stop very quickly as soon as he realized he was down. He is now a happy busy little 6.5 year old boy, who is affectionate and loves a good cuddle until it is sleep time, and then he wants to sleep:) He is go go go…sleep.

  2. When my daughter was a newborn, it was rare, but there were a few times where she was inconsoloble (sp?) I breastfed & my DD spent alot of time in the Moby Wrap, so she was usually close to me. But I do remember her crying and crying & me not knowing what her issues were, but I refused to just lay her down somewhere to cry. I knew not to allow myself to get all frazzled over her crying & I just held her close & went about my business in whatever I was doing. I think, even if you aren’t looking at them & talking, just holding is comfort in itself. 🙂

  3. I don’t practice cry-it-out with my daughter. When she was small however there were times that she was over-tired, or not feeling well, and despite all my attempts to comfort her she would cry. So I would just hold her and let her cry while I walked/bounced. Sometimes I would cry with her.

    1. Oh boy, Morgan. I too (we probably all do) know that feeling of crying right along with our baby. Maybe it is because we ourselves are exhausted or feeling helpless, but most times for me it was because I so desperately wanted my baby to be comfortable and just could not figure out how to do that. And so I too, just held her, and loved her and spoke to her calmly.

  4. I think it’s the same approach we use with our toddlers, our friends, our loved ones. Sometimes we cannot fix their hurts or fill their needs, so we hold them and offer the support and protected space to process their feelings.

    As a newborn, I couldn’t necessarily make my daughter’s reflux discomfort instantly go away, or her irritability from being overtired. But I could be physically supportive and give her a safe place to be.

    As a toddler, I can’t necessarily meet her needs of running through the parking lot without holding onto my hands, or getting to see grandma and grandpa on demand when they live in another state. But I can be physically supportive, emotionally supportive (acknowledge her feelings, sympathize, relate), and offer a safe space to process and be able to move forward to what we consider “more productive coping” as adults.

    We do the same for a friend grieving the loss of a loved one, for our spouses even just dealing with the everyday stresses of life, and so on. I think it’s an entirely human response, even if it’s one that our independence- worshiping, solitary culture doesn’t always really support.

  5. You cannot “make” a baby stop crying. Sometimes they just have some oent up feelings- over tiredness…and frustratio from that. Crying is a good and natural release. Alone? No.

    Also when you are parenting multiple young children Mama needs to meet her needs too. CIA is used in our home not because we want our baby to be unhappy- or frustrated. Or to exercise her lungs. Not because Mama is unattached and unwilling to give a little “it is just for this season” …She is more than happy to stand on her head to meet her childrens needs. But she has also been in this “season” for 4+ years and some times, Mama needs a BREAK. And baby doesn’t understand why. So Daddy takes our sweet little and walks her, holds her, comforts her…And Mommy gets some breathing room.

    CIA is part of team work. CIA is part of baby learning that being in the family unit, everybody gives a little. If our baby gets too worked up…we trynursing again…and Daddy walks some more. 3 (naturally/ecologically spaced) babies in 4 years = everyone gives a little.

    1. Hannah, I am glad you brought this up, because I was also thinking that this is a good application when dad, grandma, whoever takes over while mom regains her composure (if that is even possible!). Again, I think that it is something that dad’s and grandma’s in attached families probably do anyway. Yeah?

      1. I would say we do this too, and it is the only time my little one cries for the most part. We are on baby 5 and there are 4 other kids and myself who sometimes need something, so there are times that my hubby will hold our daughter while she cries a bit until I am ready to nurse her again. She would never be extremely upset or crying hard, but more complaining. Our kids range from 8 down to 4 months so yes, everyone gives a little is right:)

  6. When mt daughter is over tired she refuses to nurse. The only thing that helps is wrapping her up and walking with her.

  7. When my 6mth old was brand new she would scream hysterically (people would come up to me and ask what was wrong) it would sometimes go on all evening. It took us a few weeks to work out it was sleep she wanted, I would feed her but she would refuse it, we would rock her, sway with her, sit in the dark, the light, cool, warm, allowing her to suck on fingers – we tried everything but always trying something – until one day one of us just sat holding her, quietly and let her scream and scream it was heartbreaking to hear it but 2minutes later she was fast asleep. It was her way of falling asleep – it almost seemed to me like some kind of energy release. As she got a little older it stopped and she would fall asleep very easily however its started occasionally again. She is a real livewire and really wants to be crawling – to the extent I can’t stay in an environment of crawling/toddling babies for long as she gets frustrated and cries that she is not moving too (it won’t be long). Last night she woke and it seemed as though she was full of energy, her little arms were wiggling and her legs. Again I tried feeding, rocking, stroking etc etc but it was only the screaming (in arms) that allowed her to sleep. I really see this as her having a burst of energy that she needs to get rid of to relax again and the only way for her to do that is scream it out. She is a very happy baby and I believe we fully meet her needs so I am happy with this. Some good therapies involve us standing there screaming so why shouldn’t a baby want to do the same 🙂

  8. I agree with the article. When you’ve done everything else, holding them through their tough moment is about the only, loving thing you can do.
    However I tend to wonder if “naming it” is a problem. Once you give it a name it’s something to be misinterpreted, misrepresented. I wish people could just trust their instincts and those seeing people trusting their instincts, trust in THEM.

    1. Tricia,

      I totally agree. This was given a name by somebody else and it is why I was so confused. Trusting our instincts is the single best thing that can be encouraged.

    2. Yes, Yes and YES again. Giving it a name and a description just takes the instinct away from. I actually feel this way about attachment parenting. I think for the most part any mom following her instincts and her babies cues will naturally “attachment parent”. Most mothers if they followed their instincts and had tried everything else would carry, shush, bounce and hug their babies to try to sooth them and get them to stop crying if nothing else would.

  9. There were hours in the night when my dd would fling herself back, arching away from the breast, and cry. I walked with her, talked, yes also cried sometimes, feeling worried and exhausted. I did not know what caused it. Now I can see I had an oversupply – caused by separation in the hospital, followed by kind souls encouraging me to space feeds. If I could go back…I’d do some block feeding, and ring my LLL Leaders in the morning for support!

  10. I have done CIA’s with all seven of my girls. I am not a CIO type of Momma, I tried once with my first daughter and it broke my heart, not to mention it didn’t work. For me, the way I look at it is, my babies will only be little for so long, and as long as they need me to help comfort and console them, I’m there. It’s my job as their Mother. It’s not always easy, especially when she’s crying and only wants me to hold her, at the same time I’m trying to do a load of laundry, dinner, and homework with the other kids. But, it’s worth it. All of my girls, that were so attached to me when they were little, are now all very independent, confident young women and girls.

    1. Michelle,

      I was led to this time of parenting for the same reason- it just felt like the only way to go for me. I did not even know there was a name for it until I started searching for validation that my choices were good for my baby (given that everything around me suggested otherwise). Thanks for sharing that.

  11. My interpretation of CIA is that it is different from the typical approach to soothing a crying baby. Typically when a baby cries we try to meet his needs and if we have done everything we can, we continue to soothe, with an expectation that if we soothe successfully, the crying will stop. With CIA, the crying itself is acknowledged to be soothing, and rather than saying, “There, there, don’t cry,” we say, “You need to cry right now, that’s it, let it all out.” So it is more of a mindset thing, since what you are doing physically (holding baby in close contact, talking in a soothing tone, walking or rocking) is similar to typical soothing. I did this occasionally with my first child, who had a tendency to get overstimulated. However, with my second, it was part of his typical routine. He would nurse to prepare for sleep, but instead of falling asleep nursing, he would come off the breast and scream. It seemed like it was just something he needed to do to transition from awake to asleep.

    1. DeeDee,

      That is interesting. Thanks for sharing that information. I can see what you are saying. I do wonder for how long it is soothing for a baby. Do you know what I mean?

      I can see what you are saying, that the mindset changes. And I suppose when we are in tune with our children we know when it has been too long.

  12. I think this could be taken very badly. As a mom who had PPD, the overwhelming frustration of trying to soothe a baby who is full, dry and seems fine in every thinkable way, could be too much. Putting my baby down and walking away when she would get like this was often the only thing that kept me and her alive.

    1. Lindy,

      First let me acknowledge how awful PPD is, and it sounds like you had it pretty severely. That must have been a time that you were not sure you would get through. Bringing home a new baby is so very challenging and when something like PPD is added in it truly feels like it is all too much. It does not feel fair that some moms have to have this experience.

      I think everyone will agree with me and with you by saying a safe mommy and baby is always the priority.

      I hope that you are doing well now.

      1. Lindy,
        I just wanted to offer my support and say, that even though I do the CIA approach, there have definitely been times that I’ve had to put the baby down and walk away. I was lucky enough to only of had PPD once, and that was with my last and 7th baby. So, the baby crying non-stop, plus all of my other kids fighting/playing/and just plain chaos at times was too much to handle. I had to put my daughter down and walk away for a few minutes to regroup. I think a safe baby and a sane Mommy is priority.

  13. Letting a baby cry at all goes against my instincts… but if I’ve changed, burped, nursed, and taken the baby down to nothing but a diaper and she’s STILL crying, then I will just hold and pat her back… talk to her… gently say, “I know. I know. You’re having a hard time.”

    It’s not me choosing to let her be miserable; it’s me choosing to offer her a shoulder to cry on (literally) when nothing _I_ can do will solve her problem.

  14. So THAT’s what I am doing (CIA)!

    With my first, we did CIO, because I didn’t know how else to get him to let anyone else put him to bed without nursing and because everyone swore it worked. Broke my heart, but it worked in three days and it was over.

    With #2, I CAN’T do that. It just was not happening and clearly, I needed a different solution. At 15 months old, Momma needed to be able to go out from time to time before #2’s bedtime. I couldn’t stand for him to stand at the crib rail and wail his little heart out though. He never relaxed, never calmed down, even when I came in to him. Books I read didn’t give me any good solutions either.

    So I started CIA without knowing it had a name. We do our normal bedtime routine: bath, change, reading books, nursing (if it’s me) or a sippy of water (he’d nurse earlier — I know he is full. Then I hold him in my arms, facing out. He presses his cheek to mine and wraps his little chubby arm around my neck and we rock. He might cry for 3-5 minutes, but then he falls asleep, he is put in his crib and all is right with the world.

    AND he will let my husband and my mother do the same now. Thank goodness. Those CIA sessions are getting shorter and shorter too.

    Later he will wake sometime between 11 pm and 2 am and will comfort nurse and we will co-sleep into the morning. I don’t see any need to night-wean, as this is mostly when he nurses anyhow and it it convenient and loving to both of us. Since he is allergic to cow’s milk, I see no reason to push weaning him anyhow. It’s nice to have that “excuse” (ha!) let him to nurse longer. But no one’s given me trouble about it. They must know me better by now!

    I am probably doing it all wrong and will have to adjust the sleep situation again, but for now it is working well. And I was able to go to a baseball season opener with my big boy, his first game, while my mother put the little one to bed. Isn’t that what it is all about anyway?

  15. This is exactly what I have done with all 6 of my babies. I just never realized it had a name other than mothering. I have caught so much hell from my family and friends, telling me I need to put them down to cry. I can not and will not. If we don’t answer them when they cry then I think they won’t trust you fully.

    1. Tessa,

      I have so much admiration for moms and dads who continue to do what their instincts tell them even when those closest to them are (sometimes aggressively) telling them they are wrong. And I LOVE this thought; “I just never realized it hand a name other than mothering”. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  16. Thanks for the clarification. I think this is a very important conversation for those who practice AP. There can be a lot of real and perceived judgement (for lack of a better word) in the AP community. It needs to be clear that APing does not mean that your baby/toddler will always be calm and content and that nursing and babywearing will solve all problems. Babies are people too and they experience the same emotions we do as adults. There are times when I just need to cry from frustration, anger, sadness, etc… We need to let parents know that sometimes there is nothing you can do to stop your baby’s crying and there is a compassionate response in line with AP practices.

  17. I don’t necessarily do attachment parenting per se. However I am constantly attending to and responding when my kids need something… Even when it is just crying in my arms. As exhausted as I have found myself i still know that being present and attending to whatever need they have reaffirms our bond and their faith and trust that I will be there for them. They have all become fantastic sleepers and are very secure, happy children.
    I remember specifically when my last DS was born he would just cry and cry for no reason and I would just hold him and we’d cry together for a little while and then I’d be able to get ahold of myself and I’d start to rock and hum a lullaby and eventually he’d calm and fall asleep.

  18. Here’s a tip: use earplugs. It’s not to ignore the baby, just to make it easier to stay calm if Baby is crying LOUDLY.

  19. Before my son was born, I met a wonderful nurse who said one of the hardest things for mom and baby is to nurse when baby is crying, frustrated, irritable. Latching on is more difficult, mom is tense because baby is tense and vice versa. Get him/her to relax, and the process is much easier.

    I realize now that CIA (Great to put a name to it!) made my nursing experience with both kids so much easier/relaxing. Especially with my daughter…where nursing served almost as a pacifier to my son, CIA has helped my daughter and I find ease, and nursing was a success.

  20. All these comments appear to be AP moms congratulating each other on how they are doing it right (with the exception of the mom with PPD). That’s fine for those who can do it. But NO parent should EVER feel guilty because he or she personally cannot do what is recommended by one expert or another, or some x number of moms. I was a single parent with a support network of 0, not counting paid baby-sitters. There were times when I had to step outside onto the back patio when my toddler was secured into her high chair to get my composure back. And I had an “easy” baby! You do WHATEVER you need to do that will not hurt your child to preserve your sanity. If you can hold your infant when she is crying, just to comfort her, well and good. But if you can’t — because you are dead on your feet, because you are feeling overwhelmed, for any reason whatsoever, if you know your child’s physical needs have been met, CIO will NOT psychologically scar your child. NO GUILT!

    1. Carol,

      It must have been overwhelming to be in those moments and not have any support. I spend a lot of time thinking of moms in your situation. I wish there was more support available.

      CIO is different than what you described. CIO is intentionally leaving a baby so that he will figure out how to put himself to sleep. What you describe is leaving your baby so that you can calm yourself down. I think we all agree that a safe baby is the priority.

  21. I think all of these labels to parenting are so strange, really following your parenting instincts and babies cues is what attachment parenting is but we have to label it, just like now labelling “crying in arms” is really just holding your baby and consoling them when there is nothing else that will work.I have always nursed on demand, carried, held, co-slept because it was what felt right to us and I didn’t even hear about attachment parenting until me 4th baby. CIA is like this as well, but I think labelling is just confusing. I am not puposefully letting my baby cry in my or hubbies arms, it is not like she needs to cry, it is just that nothing else will work so we hold her and continue to work on solving her reason for crying. I think it sounds so odd to say that it is good for a baby to cry in your arms, like they need to cry. My 5th baby rarely cries, maybe a squeek here or there to say she is ready to feed or wants to be picked up, but if it is necessary for her to cry we are in trouble because she pretty much never does;) She is just very easy to read, and I am experienced enough to know what works with her…a good reason to have lots of kiddos:)

  22. I never let my children CIO. But when I was a first-time parent of a small, cranky little baby I learned something very important from Dr. Sears: If your baby is crying and you have done everything you can to meet his need, you’ve diapered him, nursed him, addressed his immediate needs (tempreture/stimulation/etc), you’ve held him and cuddled him and tried to console him, and he just keeps crying…you’ve done your job, you’re *doing* your job. Its not our responsibility as parents to stop their crying. If we’ve met all their needs (including their emotional ones) and they are still crying, its all we can do.

    Babies cry–some of them cry a lot. I think parents might drive themselves insane trying to stop all that crying. I’ve always felt it’s my job as a mama to help my son deal with his feelings, not to stop the feelings from coming. This was true even when he was an infant. I can’t save him from the pain of this world, but I will always hold his hand through it all.

    Of course when they are infants, we need to meet most of their needs. I did, or tried my best to do so. As he got older I tried to pull back a little as I saw he was ready to meet certain challenges, even though they were upsetting (we’re not talking about calculus here, normal baby stuff like sitting up, crawling, walking etc). A child’s tears should always be addressed by the parent. But the answer isn’t always to stop the crying by any means necessary, sometimes it is a learning process.

    At any rate, I’ve never heard the term CIA until now. From how it’s described here I’m not sure it’s what I practice at all, but I’d just like to say that not letting your kids CIO doesn’t mean your kids never cry–it just means you’re always there to help them when they do…in whatever way is best for them in the short and the long term.

    Thanks for this article!

  23. My baby girl is 8 months old and I am a firm believer of AP. Till today, there was only this one time when I tried everything to soothe her (everything!) and it just didn’t work (at this point she was about 3 months old). We were out at a temple when she started crying, so I decided to leave after a while and we got into a cab. She continued to wail really loud in the cab that I had to wind down the window. Then after half hour or so of non-stop crying, I think she got tired and she fell asleep on my shoulder. Upon arrival at home, I tried to nurse her and she accepted this time round and was sleeping for the next 2 hours.

    The entire time, she was crying, I did the same thing, rubbing her back and talking to her and telling her I was here and love her so much. I was almost in tears because I could feel the pain in her cries and felt totally helpless because I couldn’t soothe her whatever and however I tried. When she woke up two hours later, she was giggling and smiling at me like nothing ever happened.

    Ever since that, nothing like that every happened again but sometimes when it happens, that’s about all you can do right?

  24. Nicu2 Believes, just like adults, babies don’t cry just to cry. As parents we need to set a trend that when our baby needs something they can always trust mommy and daddy to take care of them. Wether the child is three days old or 33 years old, that child should never feel like their parents aren’t there for them. It is true that we can’t understand what they need all the time. Maybe their tumy doesn’t feel good, you wont know, why would you not comfort a helpless child when the only way they know how to comunicate is by crying? Babies need you… and if they don’t need you, then you aren’t doing a good job.

  25. I have found many moms to refuse nursing and insist on their child cring in arms instead of meeting the child’s needs. To me, CIA is almost worse than CIO a lot of the time because the parent is there refusing to meet the child’s needs.
    If everything has been done to care for the child that is different but I’m funding that to not be the case.

  26. I fed my little girl on demand to around 19 months. We co-slept, and she has woken frequently since she was born – Her feeding became constant from around 10 months (whereas before I would get two/three hours between feeding)- she waking most nights every time she came off the boob sleeping for an hour at a time maximum. I found myself feeling terrible most of the time, with hair loss and other symptoms related to a low immune system – and chronic sleep deprivation, I also started to resent night feeding- At 15 months I had to return to work part-time to help pay the rent – I wanted to keep breast feeding as a comfort to her but I also wanted to gently encourage her to sleep longer. She is coming up to 19 months now and for the last couple of weeks her dad for the first time has been getting up with her in the night and putting her to bed this has involved a little crying in arms to begin with (feeling cross it was not mummy – but not crying with tears) – but now we are all getting more sleep and she asks for Daddy in the night. We use a gro clock so she knows when boobies go to sleep and wake up. I think a mothers needs also need to be taken into account as I could not function on so little sleep – and I feel we made the right decision as a family. Sorry for the long post.

  27. I also think, although, it is good to know the best ways to be loving responsive babies and meet their needs, we also need to trust our instincts – and make sure our own needs are being met, I also am careful not to look at attachment parenting as a rule book – it should not be how does this fit in with attachment parenting – but how does it fit in with my child, parenting and ideas.

  28. I’m one of those parents who is considering CIA as a means to limit might nursing. My almost 10 month old has been latching on (mostly to comfort nurse) 20 to 30 times a night (you read that right) for the last 2 months. We bedshare in a family bed with my husband and 3 year old, always nursed on demand. I don’t mind night nursing one bit its the constant latching on that is getting the beat of me. My nipples are sore, my back, neck and shoulders are in pain despite chiro and massage, my relationship with my husband is affected due to having to interrupt our time together constantly to nurse my daughter back to sleep (it all takes 5 minutes but still).
    Boobs are not the ONLY acceptable way to comfort a baby, simply because they’re optimal, are they?

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