How to help a crying baby or child
Updated: Oct 17, 2019
‘to have a good cry in the arms of someone who loves you allows the emotional hurt to dissolve’ - Jennifer Kolari
Crying children is probably one of our biggest challenges. It definitely is a trigger for a lot of parents and other adults around a crying child.
Two of our babies cried quite a bit, even if we gave them all equal amounts of loving attention. I think each baby has its unique sensitivity to their surroundings and react differently to outer stimulation. Sometimes it can be quite stressful and demanding when our baby cries for a long while and we don’t know why and on top of that we feel exhausted. How do we hold it together to help our baby regain his/her peaceful state?
· By keeping calm
· By not blaming ourselves that we are doing everything wrong
· By recognising that we may be feeling guilty, tired, tense, anxious, irritated, …
· By relaxing our body by taking deep breaths
· By staying present with our child
Because the more relaxed we are the more likely our baby will return to its natural relaxed state.
The only real solution I found for a crying infant was to pick them up and provide as much loving affection as I could. I truly feel it is imperative to hold our child when they cry, as it gives them the message that they are safe, loved, cared for and that their needs will be met.
Mainstream viewpoint commonly has us believe our child is being capricious and we are spoiling them if we pick them up at every whim. Whereas, I have always felt my girls were simply expressing themselves the only way they could when they were feeling uncomfortable, over-stimulated, tired, disconnected or whatever else was going on in their body or mind that I just couldn’t get. Whatever the reason, they just needed my loving care. I wasn’t spoiling or programming them to become totally reliant on me. Quite the opposite, I was nurturing their fundamental need to be reassured and loved, which in turn, I believe creates confident, autonomous, self-loving and resilient beings.
In the daytime, one of the easiest ways I found to soothe my baby or get her to sleep was to carry her in a sling. Carrying my child close to my heart was by far the best way to comfort her when she was agitated or tired. The benefits are immensely rewarding as it aligns physical closeness with emotional safety. And, of course, it is a highly practical tool as it gives us the freedom to use our hands while caring for our baby. Which is probably why mothers have been carrying babies in slings since time began.
For some of my daughters, there were two reoccurring factors that could be the source of discomfort and crying during the first couple of years. The first being digestive problems, as the baby’s digestive system is often not yet completely formed when they are born. The second factor was teething pain that could certainly make my babies very cranky.
In my experience, it was all about observing and learning to read my baby’s body language and sounds while using my instincts. I learnt to understand her crying signals. And the last alternative, once I had eliminated all the obvious crying cues (a feed, a nappy change, to be held or to put to sleep), was that she possibly just needed to cry to release tension.
For me, this frequently occurred at the end of the day when all the tensions culminated. Therefore, I learnt to relax knowing my baby just needed to cry without necessarily understanding why. I found with my girls they were highly sensitive to my own emotional state and other people’s energies and the only way to release the excess tension was through crying.
It was not until the arrival of Peony, our fifth child, who cried quite a bit as a baby, did we understand the full significance of validating our children’s tears to relieve tension. Peony came into this world with ease and grace, a beautiful home birth, breastfed for over 18 months. Plus being the youngest of a family of 5 girls there were always extra arms to hold her. When Peony was around 18 months old, I went to see an Aware Parenting psychologist as she was still not sleeping through the night and waking up several times to feed. The psychologist explained that rather than trying to fix the crying with breastfeeding in the day, which is what I was doing, she suggested holding Peony while she released her tears, once I was assured that all her other needs had been met. It worked! Her sleep improved and so did ours - ‘Hallelujah’. Since then she has always slept soundly and peacefully.
Unfortunately, we didn’t do so well with our fourth child Berenice, who cried every night for over a year. At that time my husband and I were exhausted, we had 4 young children and my husband was overloaded with stress from running his own business. The sleepless nights felt like an ongoing nightmare. We were living in France where the general census was to condition babies from the start by letting them cry themselves to sleep. We gave it a try and for me, it was the most unnatural and torturous experience.
In hindsight, I feel Berenice greatly suffered from this emotional negligence. It took her years to feel safe to go to sleep on her own. In the years that followed, we compensated by giving her a substantial amount of intimate time before going to sleep. Where we would just lie with her, talk, caress her hair, massage her feet or listen to meditation tracks (www.meditationforkids.co) or peaceful music. This special time alone with Berenice was precious to her, particularly as her younger sister took up a lot of my time and energy.
When Berenice was older I explained to her the error we had made, which was done out of ignorance not out of a lack of love. As Elizabeth Gilbert puts it: ‘you made the best choices you could, given what you had.’ We obviously didn’t intentionally want her to suffer, but it was our responsibility to make amends.
Another technique I used to repair the trauma was by using meditation and visualisation. Whereby, I imagined Berenice as a baby crying in her room, I would come in straight away, pick her up, hug, kiss and reassure her. After which I would take her into our bed to snuggle down for the night. As we now know, the mind is an incredibly powerful tool for healing. In fact, I have found this technique to be very effective with any past regrets, mistakes or shameful experiences. It is an impressive means to feel the experience without attaching ourselves to the drama of the story to obtain a positive outcome.
Writing is another incredible tool for healing traumas or processing any worries. Dr Daniel Siegel says ‘writing leads to profound psychological and physiological changes’.
I also found that when my girls were moaning or whining they generally required the same attention and connection as when they were crying. Or they needed to cry but hadn’t quite yet reached the point of tears. In this case, I gave them my total presence. Even if they were whining to obtain something that I had said no to, which is often only the superficial reason for the moan or cry. Like wanting sugary foods when they have already had enough that day.
I would look them in the eyes with kindness and say ‘sorry not possible’ without any further explanations and I would just stay present. These words were often enough to release those pent up tears so that my child got the relief she needed. If not, at least the boundary was set and they had my loving attention.
Like most kids, our girls could be whiners so when they were old enough to understand, I would ask them to reformulate their requests without the whine. Sometimes, I would imitate their voices with humour so they could see how funny they sounded. Or, I’d suggest talking to me in a normal tone, the way I would if I was asking them for something or expressing myself. The idea was to bring the communication back to a normal dialogue between two people.
From my experience, a child cries for a reason. It is not misbehaviour, even if they are having difficulties identifying or expressing what’s truly going on for them. It could be something that happened in the day, several accumulated events, not enough attention from me or my own tensions that they are picking up on, … Sometimes we were unable to pinpoint the cause and it didn’t really matter. Whatever the reason they just need to let it all out with a good cry.
If they didn’t want me to touch them, I would still stay close while they cried so they felt safe to calm down when they were ready. And when they were older and expressed their need for time alone, then I would check up on them regularly to see if they were ready to talk or have a cuddle.
I don’t believe kids use crying as a means of manipulation. If this was the case, then the parents might want to ask, why is my child using crying to manipulate? What does he/she really need? What patterns have been set up for them to use crying as a means of manipulation?
I think what is essential is to give kids permission to cry freely at any age to prevent the build-up of suppressed emotions. And if we are uncomfortable with a crying or an emotional child, is it because we ourselves weren’t given permission to express these emotions freely when we were a child. Society’s prevailing belief is if we stop the crying we stop the pain and hurt, but in fact, we are stopping the child’s natural healing process. When children cry it’s because they feel safe to release the pain, which I believe is a healthy way to start life.
I highly recommend Althea Salter’s books on the subject of crying.