Babies are born with the ability to cry. Crying is their main way of communicating. They cry when they are hungry, tired, uncomfortable, sick or in pain and when they are stressed. On average, young babies cry for almost three hours a day, and around 1 in 10 babies cry for a lot longer than this.
Crying usually reaches a peak at about 6-8 weeks of age and is most common in the evening. From 3 months to the end of their first year, babies on average cry for an hour a day. There are of course wide variations and some babies cry for much longer periods.
Knowing how to respond to our babies crying is often a source of anxiety for parents and can cause feelings of helplessness and frustration and even anger and despair. There is a great deal of advice out there on how to respond to our babies crying, some of which is damaging to their emotional and physical development, so many parents feel very confused and unclear about what to do.
Fortunately, Aware Parenting gives us a clear understanding of why babies cry and how we can respond in a way that meets their needs and supports them to return to being calm and relaxed.
Aware Parenting identifies 2 reasons for crying:
- To communicate physical needs such as hunger, pain, discomfort. It is the only way that babies can tell us that they are hungry or uncomfortable or in pain.
- To release stress. No matter how carefully we look after our babies, it is inevitable that they will experience stress including pre-natal stress, birth trauma, over-stimulation, overwhelm, exposure to frightening events, parental stress etc.. These experiences create emotional pain and babies have the innate ability to express this pain through their tears so that it doesn’t get stored in their body.
So, from an Aware Parenting perspective, babies are either crying to communicate to us that they need something or in order to heal. The healing power of crying is not well understood in our culture, particularly in relation to babies and people are often really uncomfortable with emotional expression in both adults and children. But learning how to listen to our babies is such a powerful and healing experience, for us as well as our children.
So what can you do when your baby cries?
It can sometimes be hard to work out what your crying baby needs, particularly when you are getting to know your baby. If you are concerned that she might be sick or hurt, if the crying sounds different to normal or is excessive or if you are in any doubt, then it is very important to take your baby to a doctor or child health nurse.
- When your baby cries, start by checking if she has any immediate physical needs - is she hungry, warm enough, does she need a nappy change? Meeting these needs promptly is very important and, if this is the cause of her distress, she will stop crying once you have met the need/needs.
- If you have met all immediate needs, and ruled out any medical problems, and your baby is still crying, then it is likely that she is crying to release stress and tension.
- Aware Parenting is very clear that a baby should not be left to cry on their own. Aware Parenting never recommends the “Cry it out” approach because babies need our comfort and loving presence while they are crying, in order for the release of stress and tension to be effective and healing. In addition, if they are left to cry on their own, it causes extreme distress and stress for the baby. When we hold our babies as they cry, they feel our loving presence and it supports them to express the feelings more fully.
- Hold your baby lovingly in your arms and tell her that you are here and listening as she tells you all about how she is feeling. You don’t need to rock her, or bounce or distract her, you don’t need to put her on the breast if she is not hungry or give her a dummy to suck. You just lovingly hold your baby and allow her to continue to cry until she has released her stressful feelings.
- After being supported in this way, babies become much more calm, they sleep better, they make more eye-contact and are more connected to us and they wake less frequently at night. We can be reassured that our baby is feeling a difference in their bodies by observing whether they feel more relaxed in their bodies after some crying in arms, and whether their feeding and sleeping are easier and more relaxed too.
- In the first few months it is often difficult to learn to interpret your baby’s cues and to differentiate crying to express a here and now need and crying to express feelings/stress/tension. So you can observe your baby and get reassurance from her behaviour that crying in loving and present arms is helpful for them.
- It is also helpful for us to observe how our babies are when we do distract them from expressing their feelings (e.g. by jiggling, rocking or using dummies). It is often really clear that the stressful feelings are stored up for another time, and we see that our baby will keep trying to release that tension, especially when she is tired, when she is frustrated, or when she is lovingly held.
Mothers need help and support.
The first few weeks and months of motherhood is such a challenging and exhausting time. Mothers need support as they are with their baby, getting to know each other, establishing their milk supply, and responding to their baby’s needs.
Listening to a baby's feelings is a difficult thing to do and can be enormously challenging, particularly to start with: it can connect us with our own feelings from when we were a baby, it requires us to be really clear that we have met all the baby’s immediate needs, we need to trust the natural healing mechanism of crying, even though this is not well understood in our culture and lovingly listening to feelings is so different from what most other people do. The majority of us were not parented this way and we were not lovingly supported to cry ourselves and many of us were left alone to cry, or shamed or punished for crying. So parents really need to feel supported themselves in order to be able to support our babies.
This might be through having a Listening Partnership, where you swap empathic listening with another parent as you share your feelings and thoughts with each other. It could be writing in a journal about how you are feeling. It might be having the support of an Aware Parenting Instructor to offer compassion and guidance. But having someone listen to our feelings is essential and is so helpful in supporting us to gradually increase our own feelings of being calm and relaxed in our body, and confident to listen to our baby’s feelings.
Sometimes we may respond harshly to our babies if we are feeling exhausted, stretched, overwhelmed or frustrated when they cry. So we need support to express our hurts and feelings, to cry ourselves and to release our stress. This allows us to feel much more resourced to support our babies and it is much easier for us to welcome our baby’s feelings when we understand intuitively ourselves how powerful it feels for us to cry in order to release stress.
Sometimes we don’t have the capacity to listen to our baby crying to release stress and that is ok too. But every time we are able listen, she will release those feelings from her body, which means she will feel more comfortable and more relaxed. And the empathy and unconditional acceptance that develops when you hold your crying baby, nourishes her healthy attachment, and fosters self-esteem, self-acceptance, deep trust and profound love.
So, when your baby cries:
The Aware Parenting approach is always about making sure that all immediate physical needs are met first. If you are concerned about your baby’s health, always seek the advice of a doctor.
When you are confident that her needs have all been met, lovingly hold your baby and allow her to cry.
Remember that when your baby is crying to express how they are feeling, the crying itself is not the pain – the crying is how she is able to release the pain. Crying is healing!
Reach out for support with a listening partner, journaling, or having a session with an Aware Parenting instructor. There is a free Facebook group run by a team of Aware Parenting Instructors who provide compassionate support and advice for parents. https://www.facebook.com/groups
Read Aletha Solter’s book “The Aware Baby”. It is a wonderful book, full of information and advice, based on strong scientific research, which I have read and re-read many times. She offers specific guidelines on how to distinguish between your baby crying to express an immediate physical need and crying for emotional release. Aletha also clearly reassures us that crying in response to stress and trauma (with loving support) is not the hurt, it is the process of becoming “unhurt”. http://www.awareparenting.com