When a baby’s cries go unheard

The babies will stop crying.

Behind chain link fences, in camps and “tender age facilities,” tended by government employees who are surely capable but are certainly not their mothers or fathers, those babies’ cries will stop.

Crying, after all, serves a very basic biological function for babies. Tears act as a major source of communication for those too young to speak. Crying is a baby’s way of saying, “I need something.” Crying happens when a need needs met, and serves as a basic, natural function designed to get attention from a caregiver. In turn, a mother’s body becomes biologically hardwired to respond to a crying baby. A woman’s ears, for example, have evolved to register a higher pitch than men’s—it’s part of the reason why men so often slumber through the wail of a baby while a mother wakes up at first cry and wonders how it’s possible her partner didn’t hear it. Crying helps complete the mother-baby symbiosis that is both so very basic and so very intricate. Crying serves a purpose.

But when a baby cries and cries and that need isn’t met?

They stop crying.

But the silence isn’t because they’ve “learned” that they don’t need what they want. Babies, after all, cannot differentiate between “want” and “need.”

What they have learned is that their crying, that biological distress signal, a major way of communication, isn’t working. They learn that their need is not going to be met. And so science steps in again, and the babies actually put themselves in a sort of suspended period, a stasis. Their heart rate slows. Their breathing slows. Their body says, “You are in danger. You must conserve your energy.” Their body begins to shut down to protect itself.

Momma is not here. Daddy is not coming. Shhhh.

After a major outcry from both sides of the political aisle and all corners of the globe, President Donald Trump reversed his decision to separate families through executive order on Wednesday, but I fear the damage to our reputation, at home and in the world, has been done. And I know there has been lasting damage to those little ones who cried and were not heard. They learned a second lesson – that America isn’t kind. Furthermore, until those children who were already taken are reunited with their parents, that order is just a piece of paper.

This isn’t about immigration. This isn’t about who voted for who, or whether a wall should be built. This is about thousands of children, who were separated from their parents, on the whim of the president and this administration, placed in detention centers, and traumatized. This is a moral issue. A country’s compassion is based upon how it treats those who are most vulnerable. We sent a very loud message about that. At some point, correcting course and saying “This is not who we are” means far less than the policies that underscore that this actually is who we are becoming. We are the country that took babies away from their parents and locked them up. That we stopped doesn’t erase the fact that we did. Hopefully, they will be reunited with their parents soon—before the tears stop.

Because there is something worse than a crying baby, and that’s a baby whose despair is so deep it goes quiet.

And it’s a country that remained silent while they cried.

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