“I’ve been trying to practice Aware Parenting, tuning in to when my child needs to have a stress releasing cry and have been working hard to not distract her out of her cry. I recognize that I’m the one who has difficulty with her crying and he needs me to be calm and confident and truly support her at these times. Yet, it’s difficult JUST to hold the baby when they’re overstimulated and so upset (at bedtime and tired) rather than try to help by singing or rocking. What practical tips can you offer?”
Genevieve answers: Just about every parent finds it incredibly difficult to listen to their baby when they cry. A baby’s cry sounds so urgent, because it is, they’re dependent on us to help them feel calm and settled again. We desperately want our child to feel at peace in their little body and yes, just holding your baby when he’s upset can feel so ineffective. Yet, when other needs have been ruled out, often giving him your full calming and reassuring presence without distracting him from his feelings is such a precious gift and can offer your baby just what he most needs to make his way back to a calm, balanced and settled state. The more present and emotionally available we are, the easier it is for our baby to make their way back to feeling the security of that warm and loving connection. Our calm presence has a soothing effect and anchors them.
Crying is generally seen to be a problem, yet sometimes the babies (in-arms) cries are the solution to the problem. For many reasons, babies do become frustrated, they are very vulnerable to stress and are very sensitive to all the input from the world around them. But luckily they are born with the innate ability to release stress (and even trauma) through in-arms crying. Babies who get to clear any buildup of frustration when calmly listened to and empathized with when upset, tend to be generally much more settled, find it easier to get to sleep and tend to sleep for longer stretches at night.
Yet being calm and truly present when our child is upset isn’t easy. Your baby registers your eye contact and the quality of your connection to them. They can feel whether we’re present to them or distracted with our worries. For these reasons, (assuming urgent physical needs or illness are not the issue) calming ourselves is the most important task for parents holding an upset baby. This continues to be true for children of all ages and is also an important factor when children are sick or physically injure themselves. The emotional response is still important, as well as the physical actions.
Parent and baby’s brains literally resonate and harmonize together. Our babies/ children’s brains have mirror neurons that mirror the messages our brains are emitting. When we’re stressed, they become stressed, they feel the effects of our stress and anxieties. Also, your baby sits in your energy field and feels the quality of your energy, as well as your physical touch. A parent’s relaxed body encourages their baby or child’s body to relax, a parent’s tight and tensed body causes baby’s body to tighten and tense up.
Probably the best thing you can do to calm yourself, and hence your baby, is to notice what’s happening in your body in terms of recognizing the emotions, sensations, stress and tension that your body is holding. When you bring your awareness to enquiring into how you’re feeling in your body, you might notice; “oh wow, my shoulders are so tight, my breathing is so shallow and laboured, there’s a ball of anxiety in my stomach”. This awareness brings with it a natural urge to relax more.
Speaking out loud the process of relaxing can really help; “ok I’m slowing down my breathing, I’m relaxing my muscles, this is tough, but I can get through it.” This kind of self-awareness and self-talk is very healthy. You can speak through your process out load to your little baby with a calm soothing tone, consciously slowing down your speech. “It’s ok sweetheart, we’re both a bit stressed, we’ve had a hard day, now we’re starting to relax and wind down, no more pressure for today”.
If you can slow down your breathing, your stress will reduce, if you can slow down your rate of speaking, this will reduce your stress. Slowing your breathing slows down your thinking, slowing down your thinking slows down your breathing. As you relax, your baby will feel that your body and touch become softer and their muscles will likely start to relax and soften. Sometimes, the crying will initially intensify as your child feels that you can truly cope and be there to listen to their upset, but you will hopefully feel that it’s a good clean releasing cry. Just continue to hold, listen and respond with calm reassuring expressions.
Re the singing and rocking, this may or may not have a positive effect. Singing and rhythm play an important role in parenting babies and young children. Yet vigorous rocking in response to a child’s upset (although it may stall their crying) may increase the baby’s frustration, it can be overstimulating depending on what your baby needs. If they need to cry, the singing and rocking may pull them out of their feelings, distracting them, inhibiting their ability to have the cry that they need to have and hence slowing down their process of de-stressing. Be attuned to your baby and read her cues, perhaps a soft and calm rock or song can give them a soothing reassuring sense as they let it all out, especially after the more vigorous crying stage.
Actively listening to children starts at birth. Just as it is for adults who show their upset to another, if the listener is over-active with hugs, touch, talking, distractions and attempts to make the person sharing feel better, it can pull that person out of their feelings, leaving them feeling shut down and not truly heard. It’s a bit similar for babies and children. Often when a baby appears to be soothed by vigorous rocking or distractions, the baby has zoned out of their feelings but their stress may still be high and will likely erupt again before too long.
If you find yourself walking on eggshells because your baby is easily upset, they may need some good quality listening that allows them to clear a backlog of stress from their nervous system. Children who are supported to express their frustrations through big releasing cries as their parent lovingly holds them and gives them the message that they are held and safe can release their stress from their body and nervous system. Babies who can release their stress as they need to because they’ve become over-stimulated, perhaps they got a fright, perhaps they are frustrated to have been woken up by a loud noise, perhaps they’re frustrated because they’re overtired and haven’t managed to get to sleep because of distractions.
Singing and rocking in response to a baby’s upset is often spurred by the parent’s anxiety and understandable desperation to get their baby to stop crying. If this is the case, the message the baby receives isn’t likely to be one of support, love and reassurance. If you feel relatively calm and attuned to your child, you can assess if some gentle singing or rocking helps their body relax. Being attuned to your own and your child’s feelings is always the key as every baby and every situation is different. Most babies need a lot less jiggling than we realize. Babies who are lovingly listened to when they need to release stress through in-arms crying, when tired, tend to relax and fall asleep without too much difficulty. If stressed, they have a cry, reset their system back to calm and move forward with meeting their next need, which may be sleep or may be play. This awareness that your baby can release stress through in-arms crying (when you’ve ruled out other immediate needs like hunger) can give parents more confidence to just calmly be there with and for their babies as they express their upset.
To sum up, keep bringing your awareness back to what’s happening in *your* body when your baby is unsettled or upset. Practice slowing your breathing and some positive reassuring self-talk to bring your stress or anxiety down. My Stress Relief for Parents CD has some great tracks to help parents with developing self-regulation skills. When you start to feel calmer, your stress will decrease and your ability to tune back in to your child will improve again and you’ll be more able to feel what your baby is feeling or imagine what your child is feeling. At this stage, you’ll gain more confidence in reading your baby’s cues and meeting their needs effectively. The more present you become to your own feelings and your needs for emotional release and de-stressing, the more present you’ll become to your child’s feelings and their need for emotional release (in your loving presence).
Aware parenting brings an invaluable element to attachment parenting. I have practiced Aware Parenting from the beginning of my parenting journey as I was lucky to be given Aletha Solter’s first book the Aware Baby when I was pregnant with my first child in 1997. Because of gaining this awareness, it’s always been interesting to observe parent-child behaviour from this perspective. Most of the other mothers I knew also breastfed on demand, co-slept, carried their babies in slings and practiced attachment parenting and gentle discipline, and also a large percentage of the parents who have sought my parent coaching over the years have also already been tuned in to attachment parenting.
Yet, because it’s still much less well known and understood, most of these same parents weren’t aware of and didn’t practice aware parenting or hadn’t otherwise gained the knowledge that crying itself is one of the needs a child has. Hence, understandably, they would become very busy in their determination to make their child stop crying, often over-encouraging them to feed even if the child was crying because they had hurt themselves or became overstimulated. The baby would pull away from the offered breast, but the parent’s nearly full attention would be on encouraging the baby to feed understandably assuming that this was the soothing that they needed. I could see that their babies/toddlers were often very unsettled and seemed to carry a lot of frustration in their little bodies. It was through Aletha Solter’s work that I first learned the term Control Pattern. She describes that the ways that the caregiver habitually distracts the child from feeling and expressing their upsets, can become internalize in the child and they themselves learn to rely on these distractions. The problem being that they miss out on the opportunity to feel, to express and thereby work through and release the tensions from their system.
As an Aware Parenting instructor myself, I’ve also had the privilege of being involved in the journey of change as parents have gained this knowledge and worked hard to become more present and calmly responsive when their baby is upset and other needs have been ruled out and many parents report how their baby’s body becomes softer and more relaxed as the layers of tension start to release.
There are many and varied sources of frustration for babies and young children, and from an aware parenting perspective, one of the sources is often the child’s unmet need to be allowed to have big cries when needed. Just as I’d learned about from Aletha Solter, founder of Aware Parenting, babies who were rarely given the permission and support to have releasing cries without distraction were often the same babies who struggled to get to sleep, seemed to need to feed nearly constantly day and night and tended to wake one to two hourly during the night and at that tended to be restless and squirmy in their sleep.
My experience with my babies. Generally, my baby would rouse for a feed when they needed but generally had pretty long stretches of sleep. Again, while acknowledging that there are many contributing factors to a child’s sleep patterns, from my observations as a mum and from my many year’s experience as an Aware Parenting Instructor, I have come to mostly attribute difficulties with getting to sleep and having relaxed and settled sleep with stress. There are many sources of stress and many factors which help to prevent, alleviate and resolve excess stress and being held, closeness, the parent’s ability to release their own stress and the parent’s capacity to be present with the child while they show and aim to offload their stress is an important factor. Both my children always tended to sleep easily when they were tired, regardless of whether we were at home, out and about, in routine, out of routine, teething or not.
We travelled in India with our first child when he was two and he luckily went to sleep easily each evening regardless of what was going on around him, whether we were at a restaurant by the beach, on an overnight train, or in our little hut, his body clock and tiredness kicked in. All he needed was the closeness to myself and my husband and his little sheepskin rug. At times when one of my children became unsettled at night or found it harder to get to sleep, I would aim (not always successfully!) to slow things down, spent more time at home and give more of my calm presence and sure enough that big releasing cry would push to the surface releasing the knots of tension. The trigger could be any frustration or disappointment big or small. Sometimes there would be big cries for a couple of days, but inevitably the crying would release the knots of tension that had built up for whatever reason and they were again more settled and slept better at night.
My name is Genevieve Simperingham. I’m a parent educator, parent coach and psychosynthesis counsellor and the founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute in New Zealand. I work with clients all around the world through phone or skype consultations helping them develop peaceful parenting strategies that are specific to their unique challenges and helping them explore and resolve the difficult emotions that tend to inhibit their ability to feel connection and confidence in their parenting and partnering.
I’m also a certified Aware Parenting Instructor, Heart to Heart Facilitator, Beyond Consequences Instructor and parent educator. To read more about crying in-arms and Aware Parenting, read “The Aware Baby” by author and psychologist Dr. Aletha Sotler.
Dr Solter says: “There are two basic reasons why babies cry. The first is to communicate an immediate need. In newborn infants, the primary needs are for milk and physical contact. The second reason why babies cry is to release stress and heal from trauma. When a baby continues to cry (while being held) after all of his immediate needs are met, it is possible that he is crying to release stress. I recommend always holding babies when they cry. No baby should ever be left alone to cry.”
You might also like to read: Babies and children can heal through in-arms crying Why do many parents struggle to cope with their child’s cries?
And by Marion Badenoch, a fellow Aware Parenting Instructor based in Australia; Secure attachment for our baby and sleep; we can have it all!