Though I no longer have a job title that matches the majors on my degree, I will always be incredibly glad I studied child development and social psychology. I use that knowledge daily as a writer, an advocate, and especially as a mom. That knowledge helped me filter out dangerous, unsolicited advice people often give to new moms — like how I should ignore some of my then-infant son’s cries so that he'd learn that he couldn't “manipulate” me — among other things. Thankfully, I already knew all the positive things you teach your baby when you proactively respond to their cries, and knew that I should feel confident in trusting my instincts (the same instincts that were telling me to take his cries seriously).
Of all the weird things people say about babies, the claim that answering their cries teaches them to be “manipulative” might be the weirdest. Manipulation (at least, in the commonly used, negative sense) requires a level of social and cognitive sophistication an infant just plain doesn't have. Plus, their needs are so simple that they'd have no motivation to manipulate anyone around them even if they were capable of such a thing (unless they weren’t being taken care of). Indeed, one of the best ways to ensure that a person does become manipulative is to ignore their needs — needs for belonging, for love, or for food, water, or shelter — thereby teaching them that they can't rely on straightforward, honest communication to get their needs met. Wanting to raise kids who aren't manipulative is perhaps one of the best reasons to proactively respond to a baby’s cries, and to do our best to ensure all of their other caregivers do the same.
One of the simplest yet wisest things I ever learned about babies came from my sister, who casually noted that fussing and crying “is just language” while describing how she stayed calm when caring for my fussy baby nephew. Crying can be really upsetting to us as adults, but infant crying is supposed to upset us so that we handle (and eventually, learn to anticipate) whatever need the baby has. If we weren't upset by crying, or if babies never cried, we wouldn't necessarily learn to do all the moment-to-moment things babies need to stay safe, full, dry, comfortable, and loved. If we stopped doing all that, they'd die. Fortunately, we can learn to predict a lot of what they'll need before they get worked up into a really bad state. When we proactively respond to their needs and their cries, they learn a lot, too, including:
That They Can Trust You
When your life revolves around staying full, dry, rested, and cuddled, your relationships revolve around that, too. So when we respond quickly when a baby cries and take care of those things accordingly, babies learn that we're reliable; a key component of building trust.
That They Can Communicate To Get Their Needs Met
Babies can't do much for themselves, so they need to be able to let other people know what they need in order to survive. Responding to their cries lets them know they can do that, even though they don't speak like we do. Simple and obvious, sure, but it's a powerful thing if you consider how scary it is to have your very survival in the hands of someone whose language you don't speak.
That Their Voice Matters
Responding proactively when a baby cries out teaches them that the things they say can make things happen in the world. That teaches them that they and their voices matter.
That Life With You Is Predictable…
Patterns are important for learning, especially for babies. When they learn that when they have a need, they can cry and you will help them, they learn that they can relax with you because they know what to expect.
...And That They Are Safe With You
Predictability and dependability translate to safety in a brand new, sometimes scary world. Even if their surroundings occasionally change, by proactively responding to their needs, babies learn that you're looking out for them. That teaches them that as long as you're there, they are safe.
That You Are Paying Attention
Sometimes our babies can't see us, and that makes them nervous. But when we appear, ready with whatever they need, they learn that we're always paying attention to them, and trying to make sure they're taken care of.
That They're Not Alone
As social animals, loneliness and isolation are really threatening to our happiness and well-being. That's especially true for babies, who are completely dependent on others for everything. Responding when they cry reminds them that they're not alone, which is especially important in moments when they can't necessarily see us.
That You Take Them Seriously
By anticipating their needs and responding every time they cry, we also teach our babies that we take their needs seriously. Once again, that helps reinforce trust, both in us and in themselves.
That They Are Loved
As we grow and become more socially complex people, how we experience and express love gets more complex, too. But for babies, love is the feeling of safety, security, and relief they get whenever we anticipate what they will need, and/or respond quickly to their cries.
That Even Though Things Feel Bad Right Now…
As they learn to predict that we will come when they call, our babies also learn that while they may be hungry or tired or wet or uncomfortable, that someone will be along soon to do something about it.
...Everything Is Going To Be Alright
Over time, by responding when they call, our babies come to learn that feeling bad is temporary and that — with help from someone they trust — they can get past it and feel OK again. That's the foundation for all of the social and emotional learning they will do later, that we need to be mindful of as we build on it in the future.