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
I’d like to bring special attention to the article by Genevieve Simperingham “Children and Babies Can Heal Through their Tears”. We cover the same material, but she gives some extra points to make it easy for moms to understand how babies communicate their needs. You will find it here:
Thanks Genevieve for a beautifully written article!
Hi Pat, I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. You have a way of describing these concepts that make them highly accessible. It warms my heart to see the awareness of aware parenting spreading, so much healing needed. Thanks!!!
Hi Pat, me again. I totally missed the pointer to my article at the end and the acknowledgement. Thank you I’m just so pleased that there’s such a big team of us helping parents to help their children heal and thrive. 🙂
I really like this article and it’s message, but I’m curious about an issue I’ve had a couple times with my daughter. She’s 6mo and a sweet, happy, funny baby 99% of the time. The issue is sometimes when we are in the car after a long day, and we are almost home, she starts screaming her head off! She has gotten so upset like this a couple times that I’ve pulled over to get in the backseat and calm her down, nurse her, etc. I think I’m just writing this partially because I feel guilty that I’ve let her cry for a few min before I’ve stopped (I know she’s not hungry, cold, in danger, etc and we’re usually very close to home). I talk to her and sing, but she seems to get louder and angry, which is when I pull over to see what’s going on the back seat.
Do you guys recommend this pulling over (I usually have time to do that. My daughter’s health is more important to me than getting anywhere on time anymore…), or how long is a relatively reasonable amount of time to let her cry because she’s tired and angry? I feel terribly guilty for even thinking about “letting” her cry at all, but I feel like getting home to a comfy place might be helpful too. Thanks!
Hi Tia, you raise a very important point, and one that often confuses mothers. It’s lovely to hear that your baby’s needs are more important to you than anything, so yes, I would recommend pulling off the road and picking her up. She is probably upset by the fact that she is in the back of the car where see you or touch you. But you raise a very important point. Sometimes babies ‘need’ to to be allowed to cry in our loving arms to heal from upsets — just like we as adults feel better if we can cry in someone’s loving arms when we are upset. You mention that this often happens in the evenings. When babies are tired, all the little stresses of the day start to surface and that’s when they may start to cry to let the stresses out. We can help if we hold them in our loving arms and “allow” them to cry till they feel better.
You mention nursing her although you say you know she isn’t hungry. If a baby is hungry of course we should nurse them, but when they are upset often they will refuse the breast and then we can just hold, make eye contact with them, listen to them respectfully and ‘allow’ them to get their feelings out. Putting something into their mouths at this time to stop the crying can confuse them, because they are learning, “When I am upset I mustn’t cry, I must suck.” Or even worse, “When I am upset, I mustn’t cry, I must eat!”
You say you feel terribly guilty even thinking about ‘letting’ her cry at all. If we were not allowed to cry about our hurts in our mothers’ loving arms as babies, when we hear a baby cry, we get upset. That’s because it triggers all our own unshed baby and childhood tears. Do you have a friend or support-person you can talk to about this? Talking about it may even make you cry, which means you can get some of your own unshed tears out (we all have them) and then it gets easier to be there for your baby.
Parenting expert Pam Leo says it helps to keep repeating to yourself, “The crying is not the hurting. The crying is the healing.” Of course this applies only to holding upset babies while they let their frustrations out. It is not about refusing to feed a hungry baby, attending to a baby in pain or leaving a baby to cry alone at night to try to teach them to “self soothe”. Babies are too young to be able to soothe themselves and need a loving person to help them.
You ask how long we should hold a crying baby. It differs from baby to baby and from day to day, depending on what has happened that day. Of course if you are stuck in rush-hour traffic, sometimes you can’t stop. But as soon as you can, it’s good to hold her and say, “You were very upset but Mommy is here now and Mommy is listening.” She may choose to cry then, or she may choose not to — both of which are fine. Over time if babies learn that they can get their hurts out and we won’t stop them, they start to feel safe with us. They become able to let out stresses as they happen, or release old ones they are holding in from other incidents.
Here is a very helpful link from “The Peaceful Parent” about babies and crying:
I have just been reading at another blog where a discussion almost identical to this, is going on. If anyone would like to join in the discussion there, here is a link:
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I just posted a comment on another post but I have a question I would like to raise here. I totally agree with the concept of allowing babies to cry in order to express their emotions in the comfort of a loving presence. Can you please tell me though why it is important to “always” be holding the baby in order to allow the child to express their emotions? Why wouldn’t it be acceptable to just be in the same area/room and be saying the same things to the baby? Do all babies have the same need for physical comfort at all times? Wouldn’t it also be a useful thing to teach babies that parents can’t always be in physical contact with them? If babies are capable of learning such complex concepts as “When I am upset I can cry and my parents will love me and comfort me by holding me” wouldn’t they be capable of learning the concept of “when I am upset I can cry and my parents will love me and comfort me by being there somehow”
Hi Diana, I found that an interesting question, and one that often confused mothers, so thank you for raising it. My experience is that it depends on the age of the baby. Young babies are very helpless, and a few millennia ago, if they were put down anywhere, they would be a juicy morsel for a predator — they carry that biological awareness. So if we put a young baby down, they will cry to be picked up.
Sometimes they have a need in the present (like hunger, gas-pains, etc. that we can meet) but at other times they have a need to release the inevitable stresses and frustrations that build up every day, or to process out a difficult birth, or some other hurtful thing that was too big to process at the time. At this age their brains are not yet mature enough to feel comforted enough or safe enough to do “stress release” crying if we are not physically holding them.
So young babies need to be picked up as soon as they start to cry, and held in our loving arms. Whether we feed them or not depends on whether it is a hungry cry or a “stress release cry” — which only crying can fix — but it must be in our loving arms, or they will feel abandoned, and the cry will not bring about healing, but instead create more trauma. So we hold them in our loving arms, make contact and say “Mommy is here, Mommy is listening” (after ruling out any other need in the present that can be met.)
When children reach about a year old (it varies from child to child), they sometimes prefer to have us nearby (e.g. baby is on the bed and you sit next to them). They don’t want to be held, but they do want to know that we are within reach so that they can approach us for touch if they want to, and withdraw if they would prefer. By this time their brains are mature enough to know that Mommy is really there, even if she isn’t actually touching them. Once again we can just say, “I am hear, and I am listening to you. I can hear you are upset. I will stay with you till the upset is over.”
A mother on one of my groups described this process with her toddler, and so I interviewed her. It was so well explained about how the CHILD knows what they need and all we have to do is follow. Hope this helps.
A MOM’S STORY ABOUT HOW AWARE PARENTING WORKED FOR HER AND HER TODDLER
L: Hi Vic – welcome here. Sleep deprivation is terrible. It’s something I have gotten used to functioning on, but since we implemented Aware Parenting in December last year I can honestly say that all my children sleep better at night. Especially Nathan (3 years) and Dylan (now 16 months). Since I have 2 other kids and a husband who is a very light sleeper, I feel like I need to get baby back to sleep as fast as possible, so I feed him back to sleep, and often that means sitting up in a chair with him in my arms, because he cannot lie still in bed with me 95% of the time.
So now I let Dylan cry mostly in the day so that hubby is not disturbed – he really struggles with crying kids, although he is coming slowly to accept the validity of it as he is faced daily with the very real benefits of calmer children. Dylan seems to need a good cry at least once or twice a week at the moment, and its more when he is about to figure out a new skill. And I do this just before nap time. He sleeps so peacefully afterwards and wakes happy and well-connected. He is also sleeping much better at night now, and if he wakes at night, generally goes back to sleep faster.
I also know that if he wakes a lot one night then the next day I need to give him time and undivided attention for crying in a quiet space in my arms. I don’t know if this helps, but I am happy to chat and share my experiences (limited as they are at this stage). All the best of a hopefully peaceful night!
P: Thank you L. I hope it is starting to make some sense Victoria. I know you’ve have come here not yet knowing quite what Aware Parenting is about yet.
L, You say you “do it” just before nap time. Could you explain a little please? I know that when toddlers have hurts and frustrations (as they all do) they need to have a good cry in Mommy’s arms, but I am just wondering how you manage to time when it will happen. Is it something like you know it is building up, but you maybe use distraction or something until you can give him the time, and that as soon as he has your full, loving presence, he is then able to let the hurts out at that time?
L: That’s exactly how it is. Usually our mornings are busy and full, and I can tell when it’s building. Especially if he has slept badly the night before, been fussy through the morning, a bit more clingy than usual, trying to drink from me more than usual etc. Then once I settle the other boys, I tell them that Dylan needs a cry and I will be with him in his room.
And he can tell that it’s coming. He is quiet in my arms. As I walk into his room, close the door and sit down in the chair with him facing me, I remove all distractions – books, cute pillows and toys, I close the curtains, and I look him in the eyes and tell him gently “Mommy is here, Dylan is here. Mommy is listening to Dylan now”, and he starts crying – loudly with all his heart! If I need to go out of the room for whatever reason – as soon as I open the door, he stops crying. As soon as we are back in the room and sitting again he carries on from where he has left off.
He still cries for immediate hurts as they happen, and we have a cuddle, but this is his release time, where he knows he has my total, undivided attention and can express himself as he needs to. Sometimes he cries like that on my lap, other times he needs to stand on my lap, sometimes he slides down to the floor in a heap and drums hands and feet on the floor and rolls around before getting up and coming back to me.
It always ends with him in my arms, smiling at me and then snuggling into me ready to fall asleep. Sometimes after the cry he wants breast-milk or water, but not always.
I think more than anything I have learned through Aletha Solter’s books to read his personal signals. I know now when he needs that time alone with me and when he needs laughter or crying. I know when he genuinely needs milk or when it’s a distraction he is trying to use. And he has tuned into my needs in the same way. He knows when I am busy with the other boys or the business that I can give him milk but he will need to try wait a bit more for the crying and release of emotions time.
I wish I could give him the crying space immediately, but with homeschooling, 2 other kids, 2 businesses and every day life it’s just not always possible. This is the best I can do at the moment, and it works for now.
P: I can see how intuitively the two of you are working. It seems he can put most of his hurts on hold till he has Mommy’s full attention, and then he knows it’s safe to let them out. I love it that you can read the clues now when stuff is building up inside him. It almost sounds like a dance between you, where you can “feel” where the other person is at.