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A mother asked this question:

"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 baby when he's 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 which 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.  Practic 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 more calm, 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 breast fed 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 sleeps 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 holistic 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!

9 Comments
  1. Tan 5 years ago

    Some awesome tips as always, especially on an issue as difficult as simply being there for our children when they cry. I was really hurt though by the implication that parents who don’t practice aware parenting methods causing their children’s sleep problems. What about parents that DO allow their children to cry in arms and yet are still faced with sleep issues? Or parents that DON’T practice aware parenting methods and have children that sleep brilliantly? There is so much judgement already to do with sleep, complete strangers ask if your baby is a “good baby” meaning, do they sleep well, people ask “does he/she sleep through the night yet?”. With all these questions comes the inherent judgement that parents of babies that do not sleep are bad parents. There is more than enough judgement in the world, and this was the LAST place I expected to find more of the same, albeit in different language and for a different reason. I am happy for you that you had children who slept well, it is wonderful that you did not have to spend endless hours holding a screaming baby all the while being sleep deprived and wondering what you are doing wrong but please be mindful while making blanket statements about the reasons why some babies don’t sleep as well as yours.

    • Hi Tan, I’m sorry that you feel hurt by what I’ve shared. My intention is to help sleep deprived parents who are desperately trying to figure out how they can get longer stretches of sleep so they can function better during the day. I have no interest at all in making any parent feel guilty, I’m passionate about helping parents, it’s my passion in life. I have always felt so very blessed to have been inctroduced to Aware Parenting so early in my parenting life and wholeheartedly wish that more people knew about this approach. Nearly without exception the parents I work with through my coaching and counselling work tell me that they so wish they’d had this kind of information sooner. I trained to be an Aware Parenting instructor because I’m passionate about how much this kind of information can help parents. I hope that for those who don’t resonate or find it useful that they will just scan past and keep searching for that which does resonate, but I can’t hold back from sharing that which I’ve seen to benefit countless families because some parents will feel judged.

      In response to : “What about parents that DO allow their children to cry in arms and yet are still faced with sleep issues?” – I don’t claim that crying in arms is an answer to all problems, just that it is one of the needs. My first baby cried nearly non-stop day and night for his first 8 weeks. We didn’t know if it was colic or the effects of birth trauma but he seemed to be actually in pain and nothing helped until I cranial osteopath drove 2 hours to come and give him and I treatments, which brought an instant transformation. This is just one of many examples that I could give from my own years of parenting. With my daughter her difficulties related to dairy and gluten allergies. When I read about the negative effects of dairy and gluten on children, which turned out to be the cause of health problems she was having I could have chosen to be hurt that they implied that I was a bad parent because I had been feeding her the wrong food or read it as something worth trying. This is what I suggest of this information. Please don’t read it as something you might be doing wrong, but as something you could work with to address a problem you may be having (if there is a problem).

      And in response to “Or parents that DON’T practice aware parenting methods and have children that sleep brilliantly?” In writing articles such as this, I’m hoping to reach and help the parents of babies or children who carry a lot of built up tension in their bodies, which is manifesting in dificulties such as sleeping well. Parents of children who sleep brilliantly aren’t looking for solutions because they don’t have a problem. A parent doesn’t need to have read about or even heard about aware parenting to meet their child’s needs to release their stress. Many parents do it instinctively and then enjoy the validation of reading about it.
      Once again, I’m very sorry that you felt judged and let me assure you that I have great care, respect and admiration for all parents and don’t judge the choices a parent makes. I simply offer what I know in the hope that I can helps parents who are seeking solutions to their difficulties.

  2. Andrea 5 years ago

    Hi,

    I love this way of dealing with crying. The only question I have is this. My 5 month old daughter loves to fall a sleep while ‘drinking’ from my boop. The thing is, I don’t want to be the only one being able to bring her to bed. So I want her to fall asleep without the boop, but ofcourse she doesn’t like that and cries…. Is this also a form of stress-release, or is it me not forfilling her needs for sucking. She doesn’t want the pacifier. Please let me know your thoughts about this, our how you let your children fall a sleep.
    Thanks!!
    Andrea

    • Hi Andrea,
      have a read of this article on the subject by Aletha Solter. She talks about changing the pattern of putting your baby to sleep and recommends feeding your baby just before putting her to sleep, which may involve some crying, but as long as you’re confident she’s well fed and you hold her and empathize with her, she will discover that she can get to sleep without being fed at the time which will make it more likely that she will have a stress releasing cry before sleep if she needs it and allows your partner to help with putting her to sleep.

      It may help to start with supporting stress release cries at other times and to make the transition away from feeding to sleep during the day first. Many of my clients have had success by latching their baby off the breast whent they’ve come to the end of their feed and are now sucking for comfort. Although sucking for comfort is fine, your baby will need to discover that she can fall asleep without feeding.

      I breastfed on demand and was aware of the disadvantages of putting my baby to sleep by feeding (every time!), so I made sure that they would feed, then sleep at least some of the time and it did seem to avoid them developing the dependency, which meant that my husband could get the baby to sleep as well as I could. Good luck! http://www.awareparenting.com/cryinginarms.htm

  3. Svcan Blgin 3 years ago

    Hi,
    When my daughter cries, i hold her in my arms and whisper that i am here. But generally she wants to stare around and keeps moving to turn face out. If I try to hold her, she gets angrier. Is it okay to let her distract herself?

    • Hi Svcan, I’ll bet it feels so reassuring to your girl when you hold her and whisper that you’re here for her. And yes it’s important to let her have freedom of movement. It’s hard when you can see your baby is tired and needs to sleep but she’s finding it hard to settle. It’s hard to stay calm and centred at those times, but the more relaxed you can become yourself, the more you can help her relax and settle, and sometimes a little one just needs to have a big cry to get their frustrations out before they can settle, yet they still need to be held and reassured that you’re there and caring.

  4. Jen 4 months ago

    I practiced in arm crying with my son from when I discovered Aletha sisters book when he was 6m old and it transformed things for us. I now have a 4wk old baby and wondered if the process is suitable for such young babies?

    • Author
      Genevieve Simperingham 3 months ago

      Hi Jen, great that you discovered aware parenting when your first child was a baby. Your new baby – congratulations by the way 🙂 – will now be a couple of weeks older again since you wrote this. There will be times when your baby cries and you’ve worked your way through the checklist of all possible causes of distress and at these times when you’ve attempted to fill possible needs, it’s a good time to settle in to considering that the need may well be the need to have a cry and instead of continuing to be very busy looking for solutions and going around and around in circles, this is a good time to sit and be calm with your child and let him or her know that you’re being very empathic “oh my sweet child, you’re so upset, I’m looking after you” and you’re just being present with them. This will help you to relax and settle, to focus on the stress and difficult sensations in you and try to settle yourself as you settle your baby. The more relaxed the parent is, the more settling this can be for a baby whose need is to release stress and feel calm.

      Also read my article; babies and children can heal through their cries. And there are some articles on Aletha Solter’s website also.

      For deeper support, you could join our peaceful parent premium village membership. There are a couple of parents seeking support in the forum at the moment who are at a similar stage, and you can ask detailed specific questions to gain more support and to be pointed towards the relevant helpful member only resources. Premium membership.

      • Jen 3 months ago

        Thank you so much I really appreciate your response and your articles have been very helpful

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