What does your baby's crying mean?
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
We want our babies and children to be happy…and happiness means no crying. Right? Nope. Crying is how newborn babies communicate their needs. However, many adults value a baby who does not cry, or feel like bad parents if their baby cries a lot. It is important to know that babies who don’t cry are not well. Crying and how we respond to it as caregivers is the foundation of communication.
We cannot prevent all discomfort or disappointment for our children; life inherently includes suffering. What we CAN do, though, is be present with them through it, assuring them that their feelings are valid and the world is responsive to their needs. This presence requires us as adults to regulate ourselves so that we can hold space for our babies as they cry/share. After all, don't we all need periodic assurance that we are safe and loved? When a baby cries, we are quick to check certain boxes:
Are they hungry? Give them a breast or bottle!
Have a wet or dirty diaper? Change the diaper!
Feeling tired? Give them the breast or swaddle or rock/bounce them
Feeling over-stimulated? Move to a different environment, or grab the swaddle!
Too hot or cold or gassy? Strip them down, bundle them up, do a belly massage!
It is great to check in with these needs, and meet them, AND there is more...which might explain why many babies go on crying even when all these boxes have been checked. I've just finished reading Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle - a wonderful read! One of the things the authors share is that dealing with a stressor is not the same as dealing with the stress. Once a stressor is removed, the stress has to be released from the nervous system. One of the best ways to release stress is having a big ol' cry! A friend told me that she recently realized that every time her 7 month-old baby cried she shushed her by putting a breast in her mouth. My friend was not allowed to have strong emotions as a child and stuffed them in order to appear FINE all the time. She suddenly saw that she was unintentionally re-creating the same pattern with her own daughter and decided to change that. She bravely used tools (self compassion, focus on breath, yoga practice) to keep herself calm so she could hold her daughter and allow her to cry and let out her pent up emotion. She told me, "It gets easier and the crying has been less." Such powerful work! In 2011, at the urging of another doula friend, I attended a workshop with Ray Castelino and Mary Jackson. A whole new world opened up to me that day. Ray passed away recently and was a former chiropractor doing amazing work on healing attachment and birth experiences. Mary is a midwife who has worked with Ray for a long time. Their workshop was called “Helping Babies Tell Their Stories.” During the workshop, I was particularly moved by one of the exercises. Ray asked a participant to come to the front of the room and tell him about her day. She started talking about waking up, and getting out of bed…and then Ray started patting her on the arm and saying, ‘shhhhhhhh.” A look of confusion passed over her face. He asked her how she felt, and she said, “Frustrated! You asked me to tell you about my day, and then didn’t want to hear what I had to say.” “Yes,” said Ray. This is what we do to babies all the time in our society. Becoming comfortable with the communication that is happening through crying is important. Cries are different when there is physical discomfort and when there is a need for emotional release. There are times when shushing is calming and appropriate, and there are times when babies need to be heard. Since that workshop in 2011, when I hold crying babies, I tell them, “I am listening. I hear you. Tell me more.” It still surprises me to see them de-escalate most of the time. Sometimes I speak to what might be upsetting them: “that was a noisy room we were in!” Or “You didn’t like being in the car seat that long.” I believe that what I say isn’t as important as the empathy behind my words. Try this out with your baby; I think you’ll be surprised with the results! In my work, I see how the small changes in one family can benefit humanity as a whole. This shift in the meaning of crying can have a profound impact on our families, communities, and future generations!
Life Beyond Birth provides support for expectant parents, and new babies & their families, online and in-person. Find a class or contact Molly at www.lifebeyondbirth.com.