Dilemmas: Will our baby suffer if we leave him to cry?

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Tanya and her partner adore their new baby but disagree on how to deal with him when he cries. Tanya wants to pick him up all the time, but her partner thinks that the baby is seeking attention and that if they pick him up they will just be developing bad habits. What should they do?

WHAT VIRGINIA SAYS

When I went to Albania and saw the abandoned babies there, what was so utterly creepy and distressing was not the crying but the silence. Tiny babies just lay there, passively, knowing that however much they cried they would never get any attention. Others hauled themselves to their feet and, hanging on to the bars of their cots, rocked to and fro to comfort themselves. The nurses had learnt that it was a great mistake to pick one of these babies up, because the moment you put it down again it would jerk into life, screaming and screaming and screaming for more attention.

Far from being a bad habit, screaming and crying for attention is a very good habit. It's those babies who realise that screaming and crying gets them nowhere who end up as isolated adults, unable to ask help from others, suffering a deep inner loneliness however plausibly confident their act is on the outside.

When a baby of, say, six months screams for half an hour, it is screaming for 1/8,640th of its life. For a 30-year-old, the equivalent would be screaming solidly with loneliness for one-and-a-quarter days. It is a tremendously long time to feel neglected and sad. When someone says of a crying baby that it "just" wants attention, I never understand what they mean by the word "just". It's like saying of someone screaming with agony being tortured that you should take no notice because he "just" wants the torturer to stop. No doubt Tanya's partner, though, would say that people who scream when they are in pain after, say, a motorcycle accident should be left alone because they are developing bad habits.

We learn a fundamental lesson from being paid attention when we scream and cry as children. We learn that people love us; that we can trust people to care for us when we are miserable and lonely. Slowly the habit of screaming and crying goes, because the child starts to feel so confident that it will get attention if it screams and cries, that it doesn't need to do it. It feels surrounded by an inner conviction that comfort and love are always all around it; there is no need to ask.

I remember going out to dinner with some friends when my son was tiny, and they actually suggested we put his carrycot in a room as far away from us as possible "so we won't hear him". I was gobsmacked.

Instead, the baby was put in the corridor outside the sitting-room and screamed throughout, so I had to keep him with me all through dinner, much to their fury. Heh, heh.

There are all kinds of theories about crying babies, one of which is that you should simply go into their room, say a few reassuring words, and leave after five minutes. But that's cruel, like showing a starving man a plate of roast chicken, and then removing it.

If I were Tanya I would first of all buy my son a dummy - if she hasn't already done so. They are fantastically comforting. Then I would always go to him if he cries, and pick him up and feed him if he wants. Finally I would have him in bed with my partner and myself or, if my partner refused, at least have his cot in the same room. If that didn't go down too well, I'd suggest that my partner slept in the baby's room while I slept with the baby. If he complained, I'd tell him he was developing bad habits. He should learn to sleep on his own. See how he liked it.

WHAT READERS SAY

A cuddle helps build caring children

When a baby is scared, cold, unwell or just wanting to be comforted, he can tell you only by crying. (Some countries think we are most unnatural leaving them alone at that age, anyway.)

My husband and I always comforted our babies. They may not be perfect children but they are very kind and caring, which I like to think started from us when they were so tiny.

RHODA JANE WATTS

Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire

Comfort would have given me confidence

During the Thirties when I was a baby, the Dr Spock of the day was a Dr Shand, who would have supported Tanga's partner's attitude. My mother digested Dr Shand's theories about early child development.

My earliest memories are of rejection and isolation as I cried in a pram. In all other circumstances I was well nurtured and had a loving upbringing.

At nearly 70 years my conclusion is that, if my demands had been met at that stage in my development, the confidence and assertiveness which I lacked at later stages in difficult conditions of my childhood and adolescence would have been there to help towards a better maturity.

JAMES LEE

Stowe Street, Lichfield, Staffordshire

A maxim for motherhood

WHEN bringing up children I found this maxim quite useful to keep in mind: "True independence is only achieved through the fulfilment of dependency needs."

DEBORAH MARKS

Yorkshire

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

All this talk about politicians coming out reminds me of a dilemma I had last year at the office - and still have. I am gay, but a secretary there took a fancy to me and constantly asked me out, slipped her arm through mine, and so on.

Clearly, she wanted more than just friendship. Eventually I told her I already had a girlfriend, which was a lie, and upset her terribly as she felt I had been leading her on. I still wonder if I did the right thing. Would it have been better to say I was gay? I didn't want the office to know, although I'm sure some of them must guess. Or should I "come out" now? I wish I hadn't lied because now some people think I'm straight and make nudge-nudge wink-wink jokes about girls to me. I feel very confused about what to do.

Yours sincerely, Andrew

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Please send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail: dilemmas@ independent. co.uk - giving a postal address for sending the bouquet.

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