Have you ever felt anxious, powerless, frustrated, or angry when your baby cries and you can’t find the reason? Parents who experience this can start to feel desperate. If all your baby’s physical and emotional needs have been met and she is still crying, Dr Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting skills may offer the help that you are looking for.
Having a baby who cries a lot can be very stressful for a mother, but crying is the only way babies have of telling us that they need something. They may be hungry, cold, wet, sick, uncomfortable or teething. They may also be frustrated because they are trying to master a new skill – like rolling over, trying to sit up, or learning to crawl. Or they may be in need of more loving, hugging and holding, which are very important needs of both babies and small children. We should meet those needs as promptly as we can when the baby expresses them. But if all your baby’s physical and emotional needs have been fully met, and she is still crying, what can you do to help your baby and save your sanity? It is here that Dr Solter describes yet another reason why babies may cry, because it is through supported crying that we are able heal from stress or hurts.
If your baby has had a stressful day, or needs to release tension resulting from past stressful events (including having been through a difficult pregnancy or birth) then she may need to cry to get relief and resolution. “It will assist her if you hold her lovingly in your arms while she cries”, Dr Solter explains. Just like adults, babies sometimes feel stressed and unhappy, and long for someone who will just hold them lovingly and listen to their hurts. Babies who are allowed to heal their early stresses this way sleep better at night, without any harsh sleep-training methods. They become toddlers who are non-violent, compassionate, bright, relaxed, and cooperative. Always responding to your baby when she cries helps develop a relationship based on unconditional love and trust.
It is common knowledge that emotionally healthy adults are those who are able to cry during times of stress or grief. Being supported by a caring person while we cry is what helps us to heal. Sometimes babies and small children need to cry too — not alone in a cot, or by themselves in their own room, but in the supportive arms of a loving parent. At such times being allowed to cry in your arms, while receiving your loving attention, can actually be a healing experience for your baby. Babies who have been through any kind of stressful events tend to be more restless and to cry more. Most importantly they need us to lovingly help them to release the stress they are carrying.
Studies have shown that babies left to cry-it-out alone, make the stress hormone, cortisol, which in large amounts can cause brain-damage. On the other hand, babies and adults who are able to cry out pain, stress, sadness, grief or frustration, while being supported and held by a loving person, show reduced levels of cortisol, sleep better and tend to be more emotionally healthy.
HELP FOR MOTHERS AND BABIES
“Because parents are often not sure how to cope with crying babies, it is important for them to be given support as well as accurate information that they can use”, says Marianne Littlejohn, a private midwife in Cape Town, who has been practicing Dr Solter’s methods and assisting new mothers for some years.
“All babies cry at times, and some cry a lot”, she says. “A mother who understands the physical and psychological causes of a baby crying, is in a better position to help both herself and the baby. Research done on battered infants found that 80% of the parents reported excessive crying by their infant had triggered the abuse. Mothers who are not supported to help and love their crying baby may reach the end of their tether. A mother who does not know what is wrong with her baby will blame herself and want to stop the baby crying at all costs. It is hard for a mother to remember at such a time that maybe her baby is upset and actually needs to cry in order to feel better, just like we do if we are upset about something.
”As your children grow they will express their physical and emotional hurts by crying. Even when they can talk they will still need to cry sometimes in order to express all their feelings in a healthy way. A child who has been allowed to cry when feeling sad or frustrated, laugh when he is happy, or express his fears if he is frightened, will find it easier to be open and talk about what he feels as he grows up. Parents need to do reflective listening with their infants and toddlers to give words and name all the different shades of emotion a child may experience, like sad, happy, upset, frightened, angry or frustrated. This will lead to what psychologist and writer Daniel Goleman describes as emotional IQ, or EQ”, says Marianne.
If the parents have created an environment of trust in which a baby can safely and comfortingly cry in the presence of empathic parents, he will know that his feelings, including sad ones, are acceptable to his parents, and it will lead to the child feeling free to talk to them about personal problems when he is older. This becomes especially useful during the tempestuous teenage years when children need to become individuals and define themselves as separate yet equally as valuable as their parents.
Here are some major pointers described by child psychologist, Aletha Solter, of the ‘Aware Parenting Institute’.
- All children experience some stress, no matter how loving parents are. Crying releases stress and promotes healing.
- Adults often try to repress crying in children because it resonates with and evokes their own unresolved feelings of hurt, sadness and grief.
- When parents don’t accept their children’s crying, children develop defences, masks or rigid behaviour patterns to stop themselves from crying and feeling all their emotions.
- Stress related illnesses, behavioural problems and the failure of children to reach their full potential is often linked to the repression of emotions and feelings.
- Children need to be provided with an emotional safety-net so they can cry and feel their emotions in an atmosphere of unconditional love and caring.
TEARS ARE AS IMPORTANT AS LAUGHTER
”Tears are as important as laughter. I learned this important fact through the years of my own parenting experience”, says Marianne. “When my first child was born, he went through a long and difficult labour and the cord was wrapped around his neck three times. The first three months were hell. No matter what I did (holding, rocking, nursing, singing, baby-slinging, bathing, changing, etc.) sometimes he just cried and cried for what seemed like no reason. I didn’t understand at the time that he needed to cry in order to heal from the stress he was carrying as a result of his difficult birth experience.
”My husband used to hold him and dance with him in the lounge while I escaped, feeling awful. It used to trigger the memories of my own mother’s rejection of my crying as a baby and I didn’t know how to handle either my emotions or my baby’s. If I had understood then what I understand now, it would have been much easier to cope”, she says.
”I remember reading Sheila Kitzinger’s book ‘The Crying Baby’ and feeling a little less anxious about my own baby’s crying. ‘The Fussy Baby’ by William Sears was helpful too. Much research has been done in recent years and there are now many new books available on the subject, including Dr Solter’s three books, ‘The Aware Baby’, ‘Tears and Tantrums’ and ‘Helping Young Children to Flourish’. I wish I had known about them when my children were babies.
“As human beings, we all experience hurts at times. It is part of life. When we disparage an expression of that hurt, we stop part of ourselves from living. Rather, what we need when we are hurting, is loving support and someone to acknowledge how we feel. Babies need this just as much as adults do, because they are human beings too”.
What we can do to help
- When your baby cries, always respond quickly. Leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep breaks the trust they have in us to love them, protect them and respond to their needs.
- If all your baby’s physical and emotional needs have been met, but the crying persists, understand that maybe your baby needs to cry in your arms in order to resolve something stressful that has happened to him.
- If you find that your baby’s crying is upsetting you and making you feel tense, try to relax by taking a deep breath, having a glass of water or asking your partner for a hug. Reminding yourself that allowing your baby to cry in your arms is helping him to release stress and relax, will help you relax too.
- Take your baby to a peaceful room and hold him calmly in a position that is comfortable for both of you. A rocking chair can work well. Look into his eyes and talk to him gently and reassuringly while expressing the deep love you have for him. Try to surrender to his need to release stress through crying and listen respectfully to what he is “telling” you. Continue to do this till your baby becomes relaxed and peaceful.
- When your baby has released all his hurt feelings, he will probably be very calm. Most babies sleep much better after a deep releasing cry, though you can offer the breast and cuddle with him first if that is what he wants.
Be happy and playful with your baby or toddler as much as you can too. Your baby’s brain is growing at this time, and the brain of a baby who is held a lot, and experiences fun and laughter will develop differently to a baby who does not have a lot of physical contact with mom, or is left to cry alone — something that should never be done. Babies and toddlers are at the stage where they are learning to trust. When their cries are responded to, they learn how to trust other people and relate to them in healthy ways. The brain of a baby who is responded to with love is very different from the baby who is left to cry alone. Learning to trust is a great life-skill we can teach to babies and children, as they will grow up with a positive attitude to other people and the world they live in.
- “The Aware Baby”, by Aletha Solter, (California: Shining Star Press,2001)
- “Raising our Children, Raising Ourselves”, by Naomi Aldort, (Book Publisher’s Network, WA, 2006)
- “Children and Babies Can Heal Through their Tears”, By Genevieve Simperingham (Read article here)
Written by Pat Törngren © 2012