It’s nearly suppertime and your baby has being niggling and crying for several hours. Now he is crying inconsolably and your nerves are jangled. You are tense, upset and exhausted. The only thing you can think of is how to get him to stop for just a few minutes so you can have a break. You may have tried every calming technique that you know – feeding, changing, rocking, talking gently to him, etc., but nothing seems to comfort him. Does this sound familiar?
It’s good to remember that your impulse to calm and soothe your baby is natural and correct, say Carrie Contey and Debby Takikawa, but to calm a baby, the parents need to first become calm themselves so that their bodies communicate that calmness to the baby. To assist parents, the authors have developed a five-step programme called ‘CALMS’ to help you, and published it in a handy, easy to use pocket book.
Among other things, they remind us of the value of talking softly to the baby in feeling language. Even if he is too small to understand our words, he is able to experience the intent behind them and our inner congruence with what we say. But before we speak, first we need to learn to listen to what our babies are trying to tell us.
So what is different about ‘CALMS’?
Parents are usually taught how to calm their babies by holding, rocking, stroking, singing, and talking to them in a gentle and loving voice. But that may not be enough. Those responses leave out the first and most important step, say the authors. What helps our babies most is when we are able to take a deep breath and relax so we can really listen to what our babies are saying, and can communicate by our responses that we have heard them. Once they know that they are heard and their needs understood, they begin to feel safe and secure.
Babies are conscious beings who are able to communicate with us from the beginning of their lives. In fact this very sensitive communication begins even before birth. One of their greatest needs is to know that we are picking up what they are trying to communicate, and will respond appropriately. This is very important right after birth, which is a very intense transition for the baby. He feels and experiences everything that is happening, and after he is born he will cry for his mother’s comfort and reassurance, stopping when he is safely in her arms.
From birth on, babies give us ‘cues’ to tell us what they need. They can’t talk yet, so when they are hungry, needing love, caring or closeness, or if they are in pain or upset by anything; they tell us by crying. This can be very distressing to parents. We are programmed to react to our babies’ cries and to try to soothe them, so when a baby is crying deeply and seems inconsolable mothers sometimes feel desperate. It is especially so if the baby doesn’t seem to be hungry, wet, ill or physically uncomfortable, and you can’t understand why he is still crying.
C – Check in with yourself and connect with your feelings
It can be stressful when your baby is upset and nothing you do seems to calm him down. As a result you may become tense, upset, anxious or even angry, which creates a vicious circle. It is much harder to calm your baby if you are not calm yourself. So the first step is to check in with yourself and identify what you are feeling. Are you scared, angry, frustrated, anxious or feeling helpless? Is any part of your body tense? Is your heart pounding? Getting in touch with what you are feeling makes it easier to calm yourself down.
A – Allow yourself to take a breath
Try taking several deep breaths and breathe out any tension you are feeling. Having a glass of water, feeling your feet on the floor, tensing and relaxing your fists, stepping outside into the fresh air, etc. can also help. Figure out what best helps you to start to relax. Sometimes it also helps to say out loud what you are feeling. It might be something like, “I really want to help you baby, but I am feeling desperate too”. Getting into touch with what you are feeling and putting it into words, can help you to relax. As you become more relaxed, you baby will sense it, and it will help him to settle.
These techniques are a wonderful resource to have in a crisis, but they will work best if we make them a day-to-day way of life for handling even small upsets, says Cape Town clinical psychologist Abraham le Roux. Then when a problem situation does arise, both the parents and the baby know the procedure because we have used it successfully many times before.
L – Listen to your baby and what he is trying to tell you
Now that you are feeling more relaxed and calmer, it’s time to listen to you baby and ask the question, “What are you trying to tell me little one”? Take your time, listening respectfully to your baby’s cries and body language and letting yourself feel what may be upsetting him. Sometimes it involves a bit of a guess-work at first, but your baby will become aware that you are listening, and want to know what he is feeling. That alone can calm him. Over time as you get to know each other better, you will find it easier to recognise certain kinds of crying. But at the beginning, even if you find it hard to figure out his needs, by being relaxed and listening to him, the bond between you will become stronger. He will feel more secure with you, and better able to tell you what he needs.
M – Make contact and mirror your baby’s feelings
Now that you have listened to him, you can start to talk to him and mirror his feelings back to him. This is done not only in the words you say, but also with your tone of voice and body language. Sincerely put into words what you think he may be experiencing. It might be something like, “I can hear that you are very upset and I know you are having a really hard time. I understand and I am here to help you get through this.”
Resist the temptation to say something like, “There, there, don’t cry, it’s alright, everything’s fine and you are okay baby”. If your baby is not feeling okay, but is upset and having a hard time it’s not helpful to deny his feelings. Rather be present for your baby and what he is feeling. It’s helpful to put into words how you are feeling too. You might say, “I hear you are hurting and I am here for you. I really want to help you, but I feel anxious too. I am doing my best. I am trying to calm down so I can help you”. Mirroring and validating the baby’s feelings, rather than denying them is very important for the relationship and for both of you. Even before your baby can understand the words, he will feel the intention behind them, and saying the words will change the way that you feel.
S – Soothe your baby
Now that you and your baby are communicating your baby will be better able to receive the benefit of the comforting measures you have learned, like rocking, stroking, carrying, and breastfeeding – things that didn’t comfort him when you tried them before. He will probably begin to relax.
Sometimes your baby may start to cry even harder when you pick him up, and may not want to feed or be rocked. That’s okay too – he may just need to cry in your arms for a while to release his hurts and frustrated feelings. We are all able to do that better when we are supported by someone who loves us and is tuned into our needs. If he is allowed to express what he feels, he will become calm and peaceful afterwards.
As you repeat the CALMS process over the days and weeks, you and your baby will learn to understand the cues that you are giving to each other. You will learn more about what your baby is experiencing, and he will feel safer and more confident.
WHAT YOUR BABY MIGHT BE TRYING TO TELL YOU
I’m hungry, I’m too hot, I’m too cold, I’m scared, I’m lonely, I got a fright, I’m in pain, I’m overtired, I’m over-stimulated, I need help to calm down, I need to be held, I need you to love me, I need to cry in someone’s arms.
The advantages of CALMS
- It empowers parents and makes parenting easier.
- It reminds you that your baby’s cries are his way of trying to tell you something important. As you respond genuinely he will learn to work through the feelings that are upsetting him.
- When you respond appropriately to your baby’s feelings he feels loved and cared for. He also feels understood and validated. This lays the foundation for well-being and happiness through childhood and into adult life.
- When you are able to respond to your baby’s needs it makes you feel good, and less helpless.
- The bond between you and your baby is strengthened, laying a good foundation for the future.
Why the book was written
The current baby literature is full of techniques for calming a crying baby, says Carrie. But unless we allow the baby to communicate to us why he is crying, and let him know that we hear him and understand his feelings, we are missing a very valuable opportunity to help the child on a much deeper level. CALMS aims at more than just stopping the baby from crying, she explains. The aim is to let the baby know that he is heard and understood and that we will address the underlying need.
CALMS is also about helping the parents get their own systems into a state of calm. Then when they are caring for the baby or child, the child feels the safe, calm presence of the parent, which in turn calms him. Using conventional soothing techniques without listening to our own feelings or the feelings of our babies, may stop the baby from crying, because the baby may learn to adapt to the parent’s expectations. But only when the underlying needs are addressed are problems truly solved, and the baby’s needs for safety and security met.
Making it work for you
It’s 2.00 am and your baby, who usually sleeps well, is crying desperately. He seems to be cutting a tooth and has woken almost every half-hour since bed time. Your exhaustion and frustration are turning to desperation. You reach over and shake your husband, but he just groans and rolls over.
You stagger to the bathroom, realising you are too angry and upset to help your baby at this point. Looking in the mirror, you see your reflection and groan. Then you remember the CALMS method. So you stop, take a breath, and allow yourself to get in fully in touch with how tense you are. You have a glass of water, tighten and release your fists, take several deep breaths and begin to calm down. Now you can more easily tune into what your baby is trying to tell you.
As you relax, you start to understand your baby’s needs better. You realise how much he must be hurting, so you pick him up and say, “Hi sweetie, I hear how upset you are and how much you are crying. Those gums must really be very sore.” You are surprised to hear how calm and loving your voice sounds and realise your were pretty frustrated and tense when you nursed your baby to sleep a little earlier, which may have made things harder for both of you.
Your baby is still crying, but you are more relaxed now, and you understand that it will be easier for you to settle him than it was earlier. So you take him into the rocking chair, hold him against you and begin to rock, grounding yourself by keeping your feet on the floor and staying in touch with what you and your baby are feeling. You imagine how much pain he must be experiencing to cry so long and hard. So you stroke his back and talk gently to him, letting him know by the tone of your voice that you hear his cries and understand he is in pain.
As your baby begins to relax you offer him the breast and he settles a bit more, becoming sleepy after a while. When he is deeply asleep you lie him down and you fall asleep too. You both sleep till morning. When you get up, you look at his gums and see that another tooth came through in the night!
In a nutshell
- Become aware.
- Take care of your feelings and release any stress you may be holding.
- Treat your baby as a conscious little person who is communicating with you.
- Help your baby feel secure because he knows “When I have a need they hear me. They take care of me. I am safe”.
- Remember that feeling safe strengthens the attachment between you and creates and a secure base for your child that will have long-lasting effects on his wellbeing. He learns “I can trust these people, they hear me and understand me. All is well in my world”.
(Excerpts from the book used with permission.)
For information about CALMS: www.whatbabieswant.com, www.earlyparenting.com
- “CALMS, a Guide to Soothing your Baby”, by Carrie Contey and Debbie Takikawa, (Hanna Peace Works USA, 2007)
Written by Pat Törngren © 2012
The new updated version of “CALMS a Guide to Soothing your Baby” is out. Click here if you would like to buy a copy:
CALMS, a Guide to Soothing your Baby