There has long been a debate about whether to comfort or ignore babies when they are crying. So much so that one occasionally finds experts making suggestions, some of which are almost ludicrous.
Common Suggestions for How to Stop Your Child Crying
In an article in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, to eliminate child crying, Thomas Dorsel states: “Do not allow acquisition” (Dorsel, 1978, p. 158). In other words, he says to never reinforce crying — which he quickly notes is utterly impossible.
His next suggestion is to: “Insulate against crying.” Yes, that means to block your ears or isolate your child so that you cannot hear him or her. “If the parents cannot hear the children crying, they are not likely to reinforce through attention or otherwise,” he claims (p. 158). (Needless to say, if the child is crying because he or she has just suffered a serious injury, the insulation technique will not only not extinguish the crying, but it might also extinguish the child.)
Another suggestion: “Use a punisher that produces non-crying” — which, he acknowledges, might be “hard to find” (p. 158). He suggests reinforcing non-crying only “combined with” punishment.
Most importantly, Dorsel notes that one should not attempt this program “half-heartedly.” That one should not even think about trying to tackle a crying problem unless one is stalwart and determined (p. 158).
The absurdity of such suggestions brings us, once again, to our original dilemma: whether to comfort or to ignore.
The solution, once one sees it, is simple. Yes, of course crying is, in some sense, a baby’s way of communicating. It is almost always a sign of distress: pain from teething, discomfort caused by a soiled diaper, alarm, or a bruise resulting from a fall, and so on. In this sense, Dr. Developmental Psychologist was right: completely ignoring a cry makes little sense. At the very least, one needs to try to locate and remove the source of distress.
Moreover, given that love and emotional bonding are important parts of the parent–child relationship, it could reasonably be argued that a baby in distress should always be held and comforted. Even putting aside the bonding issue, as a practical matter, changing a diaper or holding and rocking a child is sometimes the only way to keep them from crying for a very, very long time.
On the other hand, doesn’t one also need to be concerned about inadvertently reinforcing the crying?
We have concluded that a baby’s cry is probably not operant (i.e. a baby usually cries for a genuine reason — such as distress), but could we conceivably create an operant form of crying? This is clearly the logic behind the school of thought that recommends ignoring. And, as I noted above, ignoring does seem to reduce the frequency and/or duration of crying in certain contexts. Even if we are not concerned about operant crying per se, we are definitely teaching something when we pick up and comfort a crying baby. Should we be careful about what we are teaching?
Comfort or Ignore?
While outlining this essay, I was reminded almost immediately about a very different crying-baby problem (also read Decoding Baby Crying). That is, the practical problem that parents and other caregivers face when a baby is crying. Just what is one supposed to do: comfort or ignore?
The world is not ready, I suspect, to read two separate articles by me about crying babies, so in this essay I will do my best to present reasonable solutions to both problems, and, toward the end, I will show how they overlap.
A baby is crying. In an attempt to stop the crying, a caregiver slaps the baby. The baby then cries louder. Again, in an attempt to stop the crying, the caregiver slaps the baby. Once again, the crying gets louder. Eventually, the caregiver gives up, and, after a while, the baby finally stops crying.
In the above scenario, is the crying operant or respondent? Is the slap reinforcing the crying? If the slap is not reinforcing, what is it doing? How would you prove it either way?
Rather than putting it down to one type of behavior, I think the crying, in this case, seems to be both respondent and operant. Also, the slap seems to be reinforcing — because it’s strengthening the behavior that it follows — but it also seems to be an unconditioned (also called unconditional) stimulus (UCS). Slapping a baby should make the baby cry, just as tapping a tendon on someone’s knee should make the knee jerk.
I think the scenario outlined already shows that the slap is reinforcing the crying. To show that it’s also a UCS, we could just wait until the baby has completely stopped crying and then slap it. At this point, the baby will almost certainly start to cry again, which shows that the slap is a UCS.
One reason why I feel strongly that the crying-baby problem is a reasonable tool for determining someone’s real understanding of the basics of operant and classical conditioning is because this problem barely even touches upon truly complex issues. All interventions produce multiple effects on behavior, both in the short term and the long term, and all behavior is the result of multiple causes.
Although the crying-baby problem can be looked at in the context of multiple causes and effects, one can also approach it (and indeed solve it) using only basic facts about operant and classical conditioning. Advanced concepts in behavior analysis tend to cause unnecessary confusion in introductory courses, in my experience.