Crying to be Heard

Emotional Health in Infancy

How we respond to crying matters, because emotional and mental health in infants is the key to healthy relationships in later life.
Crying, movement and facial expression are your baby’s language.
In the past thirty years scientific evidence has at last provided support for what infants have been trying to tell us and many parents wanted to believe.
Babies are intelligent, aware beings and their cries have meaning.

From the very beginning your baby is aware, even as a tiny embryo, even before the central nervous system is formed. It is as if every cell in the body can remember. We do not yet know how this happens, but there is now a wealth of research that shows this to be so.  Babies are learning all the time. Their earliest experiences of conception, of being in the womb, of birth and early infancy have a profound impact physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.(ref 3,7)

How our society is now, is the product of old scientific myths that did not respect babies as people. This misinformation made parenting difficult and infancy stressful and has left a legacy of social and emotional disfunction and distress.
Parents of earlier generations were expected to believe
* that the infant brain is primitive so babies don’t feel pain
* that babies’ cries are meaningless reflexes, to exercise the lungs
* that birth is just a mechanical process to get the baby out
   so it doesn’t really matter how it happens
* that babies can’t really see
* that their smiles are wind
* that they don’t remember their early experiences
For generations, most parents learned to cope with crying babies either by not responding for fear of "spoiling" the infant and so leaving the baby to cry alone, or being unable to bear the crying,doing everything and anything to rescue and quiet the baby with distractions, feeding, movement, pacifiers, music etc.
Neither of these methods actually, truly respects or listens to the baby.  Instead the effect has been to repress crying, and to pass on patterns of shutting down tears and anger, unaware of the long term consequences for physical, emotional and mental health.  (ref2,4,7)

When your baby cries, ask yourself if you are responding to your own anxiety and discomfort, or to your baby’s needs. If you find your baby’s crying unbearable, maybe your own infant crying was not received. (ref 4,1)

Your baby learns from you, from how you express your own feelings and from how you relate with him.
Because babies easily pick up on our anger, fear and distress, and can be upset by conflicting emotions, it is helpful to practise acknowledging and naming our own feelings.
After giving birth it is normal to feel a mixture of emotions. If your labour and birth did not go as you wished, you may feel anger,disappointment or regret. It can help your baby if you acknowledge these feelings and separate them from how you feel about him.
e.g. “I am feeling angry and disappointed about what happened at the hospital. It is not what I wanted for us...  I am not angry with you little one. I love you and I’m so happy you are here”

Love in Action (from Craniosacral case notes)

I had such a beautiful session with a mum and baby
They had a planned Caesarean birth because placenta previa was discovered at 32 weeks. During the last two months of the pregnancy both parents were in an anxious and hypervigilant state.
At ten weeks the little one was jumpy and restless, slept very little and was unsettled and tense even when asleep. He would fuss and stop and start when feeding.

This is an account of the second session
The baby seems to me to be holding a lot of tension from that scary time in the womb. He was marinated in adrenaline for two months,picking up the anxiety and fear of his parents.
I lightly put my hand on the baby's sacrum. He was agitated and fussy,fed for a bit then cried.
I suggested the mum might lie on the treatment table with the baby on her tummy. I made contact with the mum at her head and sacrum and tuned in. After a while, I suggested she talk to her baby about how she had felt, and what had happened during the last two months of their pregnancy.
The mum was wonderful.  She talked with her baby about how scared she had been. How she had counted the days, checking each morning that there was no bleeding, and how the daddy had talked to the baby telling him to “hang on in there”. She told the baby how well he had done, holding on till the last week.

It was so beautiful. I sat there with tears running down my face and watched as shock visibly released from the baby.
Later I said “I am just going to put my hands on you, little one?
..... You can let me know if this is OK”
I moved my hands on to the baby who became completely relaxed and went into a deep, peaceful sleep. To his mother's amazement her baby didn't wake even when she moved him into the pushchair, nor did he jump when someone banged a door outside the treatment room.
It was such a moving session
such a privilege to witness
love in action

Staying Centred and Being Real

Babies cry for a reason it is your baby's way of communicating. When
your baby cries, if you get agitated and speedy,  deepen your breathing,
slow down, and acknowledge your own feelings.
Try to hold back from rescuing.
Remind yourself that :
* Crying does not mean you are a bad parent.
* Your baby is communicating with you (not judging you, or controlling you)
* Crying is a healing way of releasing stress and distress
* Crying needs to be received.
Now be with your baby, listen and observe.
Let her teach you her language.  (ref 4,6)

What might she be saying? Is she likely to be hungry, tired, over-stimulated, uncomfortable, too hot, or too cold? Does she need contact, quiet, or a change of scene?
Or is she expressing her feelings? What does her body language tell you? What has been going on around her or just happened? How might it be from her point of view? What is your baby’s story?
Talk with your baby about what is happening. Then allow time for her to really receive what you have said,  and invite her to respond.
for example...”I'm going to take you into a quieter room... you can let me know if this is ok”

Everything is new to your baby. Too much stimulation and sudden change can be stressful. Try to give your baby advanced warning, particularly when you are going to break contact or move away. 
....“I am going to lay you down soon while I”....
....“we will do this just once more and then I need to”....

Talking with your baby about what is going to happen, may prevent difficult events from becoming traumatic. It can minimise shock and help to build security and trust.   (ref 1,3,6)

By acknowledging our own feelings and insecurities, we can support babies in expressing themselves.
By practising being present and centred and going at their pace when we are with babies, we deepen our ability to listen, to understand their language and to really be with babies as they tell us their story.

Some stress is normal

As babies grow, even in the best of circumstances and with plenty of loving care, little children's lives are not free from stress. It is the inevitable result of living and growing and relating. They can have daily losses, fears and frustrations from a variety of sources ... separations, conflicts of interest, lack of competence, feeling hurried, other children needing attention and being over-stimulated from changing input.
Your baby may cry to release accumulated stress and built up tension, this is natural, beneficial and healing.
We need to learn to be with babies as they cry, to hold them and hear their story, to acknowledge their distress and hear their protests without trying to hush or distract the baby, or make it all better.
Of course comforting techniques have their place, but we need to be aware that they can become imprinted as ways of suppressing difficult feelings, and have been shown to be the basis of later addictive behaviour. (ref 1,2)

Avoiding Overwhelm

When crying seems to have no obvious cause,it is likely that the baby is releasing tension from fear, frustration, anger, loss or pain. Let your baby know it is ok for him to feel what ever he is feeling and that you love him just as he is(not only when he is quiet and smiling)
While you are holding a distressed baby be aware of eye contact and body tension. As long as the baby opens his eyes and looks at you from time to time, you know the crying is ok. He is needing you to hear history.
When we get desperate to soothe the baby, our own stress levels rise our breathing changes and we begin to feel powerless and ungrounded. Then the baby gets more distressed as he finds no-one to anchor him in the chaos. (ref 2,6,8)
If your baby’s crying begins to escalate and he stops making any eye-contact, or begins to stare or tense up, it is important to do whatever you can to comfort, calm and quieten the baby, to avoid overwhelm.

Acute Distress

In very young babies crying may relate to their experience of coming into this world and excessive crying can be symptomatic of trauma. If bonding has been disturbed, or not well established, the baby may have cut off from relating, and it is likely that both baby and mother are in distress.
In acute distress, when the mother gets ungrounded and her breathing changes, the emotional and energetic cord is broken. She may be suffering a high sleep deficit or post natal depression and both mother and baby may be in physical pain or still in shock from a difficult birth. Babies in acute distress have lost contact with themselves, with their mother and with the world. They may either be unresponsive or hypersensitive. It is important to get support for both mother and baby to recover and to rediscover their connectedness.  (ref 8)

Space, Stillness and Bonding

Bonding with the mother is established both before and after birth, on different levels through hormones, the energy field, touch, communication and eye contact. Body contact,especially skin contact in the first months of life supports bonding and the healthy development of all the body systems in the baby.
Healthy bonding needs a balance between opening and connecting, eye-contact, communicating and shared activities (the expanding phase), and closing, resting, sensing within, digesting and integrating (the contracting phase).
Even while carrying your baby, be aware of his need to rest from relating, and acknowledge his impulse when he wants to reach out, to explore and connect.
It is important to respect both your own and your baby's need for space and stillness as well as for contact and activity. In a slowed down state of quiet presence we can access our innate wisdom and so does the baby. The more we can learn to be present,relaxed and centred in our own bodies, the more our babies will be able to stay present and connected in theirs.
The more we can acknowledge and be with babies, supporting them with their feelings, the more babies will be able to access the full range of emotions and be true to themselves as they grow and relate in the world. (ref 5,7,8,9)

This article was written for Birth and Beyond, the newsletter of the Birth Resource Centre, Edinburgh. It has also been published in a National Childbirth Trust newsletter in Manchester and can be found on the Worldwide Alternatives to Violence website.

1."The Aware Baby" by Aletha Solter
2."Tears and Tantrums" by Aletha Solter
3."The Mind of Your Newborn Baby" by David Chamberlain
4."Secrets of the Baby Whisperer" by Tracy Hogg
5.”Touching the human significance of the skin” Ashley Montague
6. booklets: "Being with Babies volumes 1 and 2, by Wendy Anne McCarty
7. Breath of Life conference 2001 talk by Dr. Michel Odent
8. Embryology Therapy and Society Conference 2002 talk by Thomas Harms
9. Bonding Attachment and the Family Congress 2003 paragraph

Links and References
Bonding and Emotional Health
Listening to Babies
Tears and Tantrums
Infant Trauma
Bonding Before Birth
Touch and Attachment
index page
©Lesley Downie