Why Keep Babies Happy? A baby’s cry is a late signal of discomfort

By Dr. Darcia Narvaez

It’s quite common to hear babies cry in movies and television with adults mostly ignoring the baby’s unhappiness. I shake my head. Why are they ignoring baby’s signals? Ignorance? Cruelty? Numbness?

Don’t they know that babies are like fetuses (of other animals) until 18 months of age (Trevathan, 2011)? And so, babies need sensitive, responsive care to keep them in an optimal state while the brain is rapidly growing and setting up its systems and the child’s personality (in response to experience)? Don’t they know the research showing that sensitive care is linked to better and more growth (e.g., Moore et al., 2017) and to all sorts of short and long term outcomes—like mental and physical health (Lanius et al., 2010; Perry et al., 1995)?

A recent study shows that stress in the first two months of life may have a greater impact on central nervous system (CNS) functioning that lasts at least into adolescence (Hambrick et al., 2018). The researchers wanted to study relational poverty and trauma. In a sample of 3,523 children between the age of 6 to 13, ratings of relational health and adverse experiences were tabulated for previous developmental periods (perinatal: 0-2 months; infancy: 2-12 months; early childhood 13 months-4 years; childhood 4-11 years). Relational health was measured as "primary caregiver safety, primary caregiver attunement, consistency in primary caregiving, paternal (or partner) support, kinship support, and community support." 

Of all prior periods of life, experiences in the first two months of life had the strongest association with children's CNS functioning, though current relational health was the most predictive of current functioning. CNS functioning was measured as age-typical "cardiovascular regulation (heart rate), sleep, feeding/appetite, fine motor skills, affect regulation, relational skills, arousal, ability to modulate reactivity/inhibit impulsivity, and abstract/reflective thinking skills."

The potential long-term effects of early experience are not a surprise if you know that human infants are like fetuses of other animals until they are 18 months of age (Montagu, 1968; Trevathan, 2011) and are highly malleable from social experience in the early years of life (Schore, 2019).

Here is new evidence of the importance of keeping babies happy. A longitudinal study by John Coffey (2019) shows that happiness at 18 months predicts educational success at age 29 directly and also indirectly through IQ measures in childhood.

Here is the abstract in bullets:

  • “Parents want their children to be happy, educated, and successful, but are these goals related?
  • People assume that success leads to happiness, but research on adults supports a reverse conceptualization: Happy people are more successful. Is happiness during childhood also linked to later success? Across the lifespan positive affect is linked with expanded cognitive abilities, learning, and resource building that can be adaptive and useful such that it leads to more success.
  • Conversely, ongoing negative affect can reduce opportunities for growth and learning. Thus, happiness at any age may predict future success.
  • Yet, no research has examined if positive and negative affect during infancy predicts childhood cognitive abilities and adult academics success.
  • In a community sample, I hypothesized that higher infant positive affect (but not negative affect) would predict higher childhood cognitive abilities (i.e., IQ) and adult academic success (i.e., education attainment) in a 29-year study (n _ 130).
  • Positive affect, but not negative affect, during infancy (age 1.5), directly predicted higher childhood IQ (ages 6–8) and higher educational attainment (age 29), even after controlling for family socioeconomic status and infant intelligence.
  • Childhood IQ partially explained the link between positive affect during infancy and adult educational attainment.
  • This study advances understanding of how happiness during infancy (before formal education has begun) is linked to gold standard indicators of cognitive abilities and adult academic success.
  • Parents, educators, and policymakers may want to place a higher value on early affective experiences when considering educational success.”

But how do we keep babies happy?

First, don’t let them get distressed. This means: learn the signals of the baby.

A baby’s cry is a late signal of discomfort. Babies have only a limited number of signals—body gestures, facial gestures, fussy noises and crying. Respond as soon as possible.

A baby’s fussing means they are starting to feel panic or fear, basic innate emotions in our mammalian brains (Panksepp, 1998; later the rage system can be activated too). When left in distress routinely, a sense of danger can grow into a deep insecurity, anxiety knitted into the psyche with the stress response easily activated (Sandler, 1960). The child can end up with a feeling of badness and abandonment, leading to insecure attachment with that caregiver. Without the benefit of more supportive relationships, the child can turn into an anxious adult who will seek ways to avoid feeling those terrible feelings, cutting off the self from internal and external stimuli (losing the self and losing relationships) so that fantasy takes over (Schore, 2003). The primitive systems of rage and fear can only be calmed down with ritual actions, false narratives and one or more false selves (Laing, 1990).

Feeling abandoned and unloved, the individual moves forward with necessary self-protective distortions and falsities. In a recent paper of mine for the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, I wrote:

“Avoidance of a sense of non-being, of shame, and of annihilation shapes actions and reactions, with negative transferences to others predominating. Thus, self protectionist ethics reflect an enhancement of the survival systems through early conditioning while right-hemisphere lateralized self-regulatory and relational capacities are underdeveloped or shut down. Unable to stand negative feelings towards the self (e.g. guilt), the individual slides into bullying or being victimized as comfortable psychic locations. What becomes normalized is a role in a dominance hierarchy, either through aggressive action or through appeasement or withdrawal. The self-protective individual is not relaxed and open but braced against others.” (Narvaez, 2019, p. 652)

Second, do what traditional communities do around the world and your ancestors did not so long ago:

  • Respond to baby’s needs within a few seconds to keep them optimally aroused (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005)
  • Babies expect to be held and carried (their bodies know what helps them grow), so do so as much as you can.
  • Provide the evolved nest. Babies want to grow their best and the nest offers the support needed. As social mammals, nested care is what their bodies and brains evolved to expect. A recent study in my lab shows that provisioning components of the evolved nest to young children (affectionate touch and lack of corporal punishment, free play, family togetherness) promotes happiness and thriving in the samples from three countries we studied--USA, China and Switzerland (Narvaez, Woodbury et al., 2019).


Coffey, J. K. (2019). Cascades of Infant Happiness: Infant Positive Affect Predicts Childhood IQ and Adult Educational Attainment. Emotion. Advance online publicationhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000640

Hambrick, Erin & Brawner, Thomas & Perry, Bruce & Brandt, Kristie & Hofmeister, Christine & Collins, Jennifer. (2018). Beyond the ACE score: Examining relationships between timing of developmental adversity, relational health and developmental outcomes in children. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. 10.1016/j.apnu.2018.11.001

Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

Laing, R.D. (1959/1990). The divided self. London: Penguin.

Lanius, R. A., Vermetten, E., & Pain, C. (Eds.) (2010). The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Montagu, A. (1968). Brains, genes, culture, immaturity, and gestation. In A. Montagu (Ed.) Culture: Man’s adaptive dimension (pp. 102-113). New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Sarah R., Lisa M. McEwen, Jill Quirt, Alex Morin, Sarah M. Mah, Ronald G. Barr, W. Thomas Boyce, Michael S. Kobor. Epigenetic correlates of neonatal contact in humans. Development and Psychopathology, 2017; 29 (05): 1517 DOI: 10.1017/S0954579417001213

Narvaez, D. (2019). Evolution, childhood and the moral self. In R. Gipps & M. Lacewing (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy and psychoanalysis (pp. 637-659). London: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198789703.013.39

Narvaez, D., Woodbury, R., Gleason, T., Kurth, A., Cheng, A., Wang, L., Deng, L., Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, E., Christen, M., & NΓ€pflin, C. (2019). Evolved Development Niche Provision: Moral socialization, social maladaptation and social thriving in three countries. Sage Open, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019840123

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakely, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits.” Infant Mental Health Journal, 16, 271–291.

Sandler, J. (1960). The background of safety. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 352-356.

Schore, A. N. (2003). Affect dysregulation & disorders of the self. New York, NY: Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2019). The development of the unconscious mind. New York: W.W. Norton.

Trevathan, W. R. (2011). Human birth: An evolutionary perspective, 2nd ed.. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Related Reading by Dr. Narvaez at Peaceful Parenting: 

An 'On Demand' Life and the Basic Needs of Babies

Where Are All the Happy Babies?

The Dangers of Crying It Out

10 Things Everyone Should Know About Babies

5 Things NOT to Do to Babies

12 Ways to Nurture Babies at Conception, Birth, and Beyond

Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Are you or your child on a touch starvation diet?

Conspiracy Thinking: Understanding Attachment and Its Consequences

Psychology Today: Circumcision Series

Learn More from Narvaez:

The Evolved Nest Institute

Kindred Media

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom

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Baby's Breastfeeding Pattern

Newborn breastfeeding pattern

In the hospital we encourage moms to breastfeed every 2-3 hours to nourish baby and bring in a good future milk supply.
It’s math: 8-12 feeds in 24 hours (ideal) = nursing every 2-3 hours πŸ“šπŸ“ˆ

It’s a quick and easy way to get the message across that this baby needs to eat, and often
Unfortunately, new parents seem think breastfeeding is going to be like the first picture (cereal)...all the feeds perfectly spaced out, and all the same size. Every 2-3 hours. Easy. And the baby will sleep like an angel in between....
THIS IS NOT REALITY. In reality, your sweet newborn baby will have good feeds, short feeds, sleepy feeds, crappy feeds, and everything in between! 
The visual of the blueberries is amazing because it shows how realistically feedings are at all different times and different lengths (bigger blueberries). And did you count the berries?!? More than enough! 
Yes, we want you to nurse every 2-3 hours, but baby calls the shots. Less watching the clock   and more watching for feeding cues. πŸ‘ΆπŸ» 

Related Reading:

• Knowing my baby's hunger cues: http://www.DrMomma.org/2013/01/your-babys-signs-of-hunger.html

• The Case for Cue Feeding: http://www.DrMomma.org/2010/01/case-for-cue-feeding.html

• Why African Babies Don't Cry: http://www.DrMomma.org/2010/09/why-african-babies-dont-cry.html 

• Breastfeeding community: FB.com/groups/Breastfed

Newborn stomach size
Breastfeeding on cue awareness raising cards at Etsy

Top Reasons Why Rattle Toys are Best for Your Baby

baby with estella organic baby rattle
Baby with Estella organic baby rattle toy

As a new parent, you might be thinking through all of how you want to engage your baby. You might have thought of social interaction and even whether leaving the television on for noise is a good idea or not. But of all the ways that you can help your baby, the simple rattle toy is still considered by many to be the best option. These kinds of toys have unique benefits, so that you will start to see the beautiful effects on your baby.

Why the Rattle Toy is the Best Option for Your Baby

There are a lot of toys that can get the attention of your baby. The rattle toy is one of the best options for you to choose from. To help you know the benefits of a toy, here are some of the ways the toy will help your baby as they grow.

  • The first thing a rattle toy will do is help teach your baby about movement and sound. They will learn that a sound will come from the toy when they move their arm or hand. This concept is crucial because it will help your child focus on things as they grow up.
  • The toy will also be able to help your baby zero in on sounds. They can direct their attention to the direction of the sound.
  • You will find that it can help with motor skills. Your child will learn that a sound can be generated that is pleasing to their ears through movement.
  • You will also find that your baby will want to grab the toy and hold it for dear life. It is an easy option for them to have to teach them how to use their hands and grab items. Simply place the rattle just out of reach of your baby and watch how they move towards the toy. You will find that your baby will quickly learn how to roll and crawl towards the new toy.
  • You can also use the toy as an incentive to promote advanced motor skills.
  • Your baby will also get to work on hand and eye coordination. As your baby rattles the toy, they will want to focus on the sound.
  • The toy can also help your baby learn to play by themselves. The rattle will encourage your baby to move the toy to hear the sound. And as they grow, you may even find them producing rhythmic motions with it.
  • You can use the rattle to help your crawling baby learn to locate sounds and objects by hiding the rattle and making sounds with it. Your baby will start to move towards the sound until they find the rattle.

There are a lot of toys that you can use to help your baby grow, but the rattle is the one that they will hold onto for a long time. It can be used in a wide variety of ways to help your baby develop skills that they will use to build their life on.

Hygge for Babies

If you've ever heard of hygge, you'll know it’s pronounced hue-ga. It's both a Danish and a Norwegian word, and it is used to describe the experience of feeling warm, cozy, comfortable, and connected to the people you are with. Hygge is never forced or planned down to the detail, it's organic. In other words, it's natural. It just occurs.  Food can bring hygge. Light, especially candlelight. Food can bring hygge, and so can clothing. It's the feeling you get when you slip into a pair of soft sweatpants and a favorite hoodie, kick off your faux fur slippers, and crawl under a plump, down-filled comforter to watch your favorite TV show or film from the couch.

Hygge for Babies

But hygge is not an adults-only experience. It's just as important, if not more so, for babies to feel hygge, to feel hugged and comfortable even when your hands are busy. People have known this for years as witnessed by the age-old practice of swaddling infants from birth. Swaddle may seem like an outdated term, but it's what you do when you wrap your baby in a soft blanket to help her feel comfortable and protected, to remind her of how it felt in the womb. And since parents want their little ones to experience this loving snug hug-like feeling all day, it's why baby and toddler clothing is apt to be made of soft brushed cotton, and why most infant's first pieces of clothing are onesies, footed pajamas, and soft crown hats to keep their still delicate heads warm; clothes and accessories like those made by the caring craftsmen who make Cat & Dogma baby clothing. 

What Do Newborns Like?

Although infants and babies can't tell you what types of clothing confer hygge to them, their reactions speak for themselves. And that holds true from their first day home. Remember how he settled down as soon as you wrapped him in the swaddle blanket you had ready and waiting for him; and how a week or two later how he made himself comfortable when you tucked him into the versatile wrapping blanket?

What Do Infants Like?

Wasn't it amazing how those days passed in a flash and your newborn became an infant and his arms and legs demanded room to move as he first mastered rolling over before going on to sitting and eventually on to crawling? That's when fitted onesies take the place of blankies or perhaps if the baby is a fast grower or has long legs, a playsuit or jumper paired with soft socks or cushy booties. 

What Do Toddlers Like?

And now that he's a toddler, all you can do is sit back and marvel about how he's becoming a little person of his own. Like hygge, development isn't something you can plan, it's an organic process and all you can do is sit back and appreciate each moment and make sure he's dressed for the occasion. And while you can't manage the pace at which he develops, you can dress him to suit his personality, or okay - yours! There are sweatshirts and tops, t-shirts, and even tank tops to pair with cozy joggers or sporty pants that give plenty of roomy freedom while learning to walk and explore.

Hygge is Unisex

And the best thing about newborn, infant, and toddler clothes is that they suit boys as well as girls. But if you want to make sure everyone knows that the little being is a she, not a he, all you need do is select a pattern or graphic that attests to it. But more important is that the garments you choose are hyggelig which is the adjectival form of hygge and means something that's relaxing, safe, and comfortable; clothing that allows her or him to go off and find some hygge of their own. For hygge knows no boundaries, it's out there waiting for us all.


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