Introduction to Aware Parenting (for calmbirth programme participants)

To find out more about calmbirth, a programme which I highly recommend, visit http://www.calmbirth.com.au

After completing the calmbirth course, you are now preparing for the birth of your baby.  Whether you are first-time parents, or whether you already have a child or children, this is a unique time in your life.  Getting ready to welcome your new baby into the world is also an invitation to you; an invitation for you to enquire into what kind of a parent you want to be.

My name is Marion Badenoch Rose, and I have written this piece that you are reading now because I care deeply about babies and children.  I love inspiring parents be the most loving, compassionate, aware parents that they can be.  I have spent more than 20 years studying the development of babies - this includes a Ph.D. on the mother-infant relationship, a psychotherapy training and practice, learning from my own children, and being an Aware Parenting Instructor.

There are a lot of conflicting beliefs out there in the world of parent education.  It can be a very confusing time for parents, when deciding which parenting path to follow.  There are three main schools of parenting – mainstream parenting, Classical Attachment Parenting, and Aware Parenting.  I offer a brief outline of Aware Parenting (www.awareparenting.com) with another invitation.  

I invite you to read this, and then check in with yourself.  If it resonates with you, and you want to practice Aware Parenting, then I recommend immersing yourself in it.  Get hold of a copy of The Aware Baby, read it and re-read it; read my articles at www.parentingwithpresence.net   Set up emotional support for yourself, so that you have regular opportunities to talk about your feelings, and about your parenting.  The more your feelings are listened to by caring adults, the more present aware you will be, and the more emotional presence you will be able to give to your baby.

If you are interested in some of the things you read here, then my invitation is to pick this up again at a later date and have another read; or have a look at some of Aletha Solter’s articles or my articles.  It, at some point, your heart says, “yes”, then, again, a copy of The Aware Baby will be essential reading for you.

If what you read here does not appeal to you, or speak to you in any way, keep searching, reading, and exploring, until you find something that you can wholeheartedly say, “yes” to!  Parenting is a wonderful time to listen to our hearts, and to do what feels most true for us.

So, where does Aware Parenting come from?

Aware Parenting was developed more than 25 years ago by Aletha Solter, a Swiss-American developmental psychologist, who studied with Piaget in Swtzerland, before moving to California, where she received her Ph.D. in psychology.  When her children were born, she wanted them to grow up able to freely express their feelings, so that they wouldn’t need therapy as adults!  She discovered Aware Parenting through parenting her own children.  She found out that they could heal from stress and trauma from birth onwards, and that when they were given the loving support to do this, they were calm, present, affectionate, slept easily, loved to cooperate, contribute, concentrate, and be gentle and caring with others.  

Her first book, "The Aware Baby", was published in 1984.  A revised edition came out in 2001.  It is jam-packed with research that supports the Aware Parenting approach, and includes Dr. Solter’s own parenting experiences, as wells as stories from some of the thousands of parents that she has helped.  She has since written three more books, “Helping Young Children Flourish”, “Tears and Tantrums” and “Raising Drug-Free Kids” http://www.awareparenting.com/books.htm   The Aware Parenting Institute now has certified instructors in many different countries.  Dr. Solter continues to travel the world on workshop tours, and offers phone consultations to parents all over the world.

Why I recommend Aware Parenting

When I came across Aware Parenting nine years ago, I was pregnant with my first child.  What I read in The Aware Baby was congruent with all I had learnt during my psychology degree, Ph.D., and psychotherapy training – that babies are exquisitely sensitive beings who are profoundly affected by their experiences in the womb, during birth, and in their early years.  

The aspect of Aware Parenting that was new to me was the knowledge that babies are able to heal from stress and trauma from birth onwards, with the loving support of their parents.  In this way, they are able to retain their natural awareness and loving nature, and to stay connected to their true potential.  They are able to grow up free of the effects of stress and trauma.  I felt so excited to discover that not only could I do all I could to meet my baby’s needs, but that I could also help her heal from any stressful experiences she might have.

My daughter is now eight and a half, and my son is four. (She was born using HypnoBirthing; he was born using calmbirth) and I am as passionate about Aware Parenting as I ever was.  I run an Internet support group, write articles, and offer Aware Parenting consultations to parents by phone, Skype, and email.  I have seen the profound effects when families fully embrace the Aware Parenting ethos.  I see parents loving parenting, and feeling deeply connected to their children; I see securely attached babies who sleep calmly and who are alert and aware; and I see children with a sparkle in their eyes, and who love to compassionately connect and cooperate with others.

What is Aware Parenting?

You can read about the three main aspects of Aware Parenting here: http://www.awareparenting.com/english.htm#aspects

Aware Parenting is a unique type of attachment parenting.  That is, it recognises a baby’s attachment needs – for plenty of physical closeness, breast-feeding, attunement to his needs, and sensitive responding to his cries.

It is also based on non-punitive discipline, which means no punishments or rewards, and no authoritarian or permissive parenting.  Democratic parenting is practised, where parents aim to understand the needs of their child, including the need to heal from stress.  Parents learn to set loving limits with their child, not in a way that punishes or shames the child, but in a way helps hiim express the painful feelings underlying difficult behaviours.  This requires parents to move beyond mainstream beliefs about “misbehaviour”, and means that parents and children remain connected even in challenging times.  When parents provide loving limits, their child retains his natural desire to contribute, cooperate, and care for others.  

You can read more about this here: http://www.awareparenting.com/misbehav.htm

Finally, Aware Parenting is based on the understanding that babies and children are sensitive, feeling beings, and that they are easily stressed.  A core aspect of Aware Parenting is in knowing that babies have real feelings.  Aware Parenting helps parents distinguish between immediate needs, and feelings that need to be heard.  Parents can then meet immediate needs, and lovingly listen to their baby and child’s feelings.  All babies experience stress, and some babies experience trauma, and parents practising Aware Parenting aim to help their baby and child heal from stress and trauma through listening to their crying, as well as using the powerful tools of laughter and play.  

Babies have feelings

This is one of the main differences between Aware Parenting and most other parenting approaches – the acknowledgment that babies, just like adults, have real feelings.  Babies need sensitive care, from the time they are in the womb.  The first, and most important aspect of Aware Parenting is to do whatever we can to meet our baby’s needs, and to protect him from stress and trauma.  This means as much awareness during pregnancy, birth, and after birth about what babies actually experience.  

Newborn babies are exquisitely sensitive to sound, quality of touch, light, and the emotional world around them.  The more sensitive we can be to them – to talk quietly, to touch them with awareness, to keep the light dimmed, and to be calm ourselves, the more their needs for care are met.

Research has shown that the more a mother experiences stress during her pregnancy, and the more difficult the birth, the more a baby will cry.  So Aware Parenting recommends us to do all that we can for a calm pregnancy and birth, (which you are already doing!)  It also reassures you that you can help your baby heal if he does experience any stress.

One of the major needs that small babies have is for closeness.  The more your baby is carried, touched, and held, the more that need will be met.  Research indicates that babies who are carried more in the early months, cry less.  The old myth that babies can be “spoilt” is not backed up by scientific evidence.  In fact, the opposite is true – babies who experience more closeness become more securely attached, and children who are more securely attached are, at 5 years old, happier, have more friends, and cooperate more.  The mainstream ideas that babies need to learn to become independent early are based on old-fashioned and out-dated ideas.

Babies have real feelings, and they cry

In Aware Parenting, babies cry for two main reasons.  The first is to indicate an immediate need – such as a need for closeness, for food, to be made more comfortable (such as a nappy change, to be warmer or cooler, or a change in position).  

The second reason for crying is the same as in adults – to express feelings and to heal from stress or trauma.

The challenge in Aware Parenting is to learn to distinguish between these two types of crying.  Since most of us weren’t parented in this way, and since most parents do not parent this way, it is a big learning journey, especially for first-time, first-generation Aware Parents.

If a baby is crying to express an immediate need, then what he most needs is for us to respond quickly, sensitively and accurately to that need.

However, if he is crying to express his authentic feelings, then what he requires from us is to simply hold him, and be completely present with him, without distracting him from his feelings.  This means not rocking or jiggling or wiggling a toy in front of his face, or pushing him in a pram, or putting him in a car seat and driving around.  

What he most needs is for us to be really present with him, and to hold him, and to listen to him as he expresses his feelings.

Empathy for a baby

Think for a moment what it might feel like to be a baby.  To be in the womb, where everything is muted, the lights, the sounds, the touch… where he always has the feel of fluid or the firm touch of the womb… where he does not feel hunger, or fullness, or thirst.  When he comes out of the womb, everything is louder and brighter… there are all kinds of new sensations – of his respiratory system and his digestive system… of air against his skin – of clothes being taken off and on, of new sights and sounds and smells and tastes…. Just imagine how he might feel, without any mental understanding of what is going on.

With Aware Parenting, the more we can do to be sensitive of a baby’s feelings, the more we will protect our baby from stress.  For example, a baby moon, where we stay at home, with quietness, and awareness in our touch, and care for the mother, so that she can be fully present with her baby… all these will help.  With older babies, carrying them in a carrier when we leave the house, so that they have closeness and protection from over-stimulation will help.  

And yet, we cannot protect our baby from ever having any uncomfortable feelings.  All babies will experience confusion, fear, overwhelm, frustration, disappointment, and sadness.  Our job is to do all that we can to minimise stress, and then to acknowledge his feelings when he does feel these things.  

Sources of stress

It can sometimes be hard for us, in our adult-centred world, where we are aware of the stresses of adulthood, to connect with what might be stressful for babies.  Giving ourselves the opportunity to feel into what it might really feel like to be him, without concepts, or a cognitive understanding of the world, helps us to be more empathic and compassionate with our baby.

There are six types of stress for babies:
Prenatal stress (stress whilst in the womb);
Birth trauma;
Unfilled needs – such as a need to be held;
Over-stimulation – this is one of the major stresses for new babies, since practically everything they experience is new and unfamiliar;
Developmental frustrations – this is something that we cannot protect our babies from – since every time they are learning a new skill, they experience the frustration of wanting to do that new thing – and the frustration is part of what drives them to learn it;
Physical pain – such as illness;
Frightening events – such as separation from parents, or parents acting in stressed ways.

Each baby differs in the amount of stress he experiences.  A baby whose mother is very calm during pregnancy, has an easy birth, who is held and carried for most of the time, and who is protected from over-stimulation by being carried in a carrier when out; who is physically well, and whose parents feel generally happy, and have plenty of loving support, will experience less stress.  

However, he is still likely to feel some uncomfortable feelings every day, despite this – since for a new baby, even the telephone ringing is a new event that can bring about confusion or fear.  So, even a baby who experiences few stresses is likely to cry for a small amount of time every day.  

In comparison, a baby who has one or more of the following – a mother who is stressed or scared whilst pregnant, a difficult birth, separation after birth, who is kept separate quite frequently, who is ill, or who frequently experiences stressful events such as loud noises, parents shouting, or busy shopping areas, is likely to have more stress to heal from, and is likely to try to cry for long periods every day.  

Add into this mix a baby’s own unique temperament – highly sensitive babies experience things even more strongly, and have more feelings to express in response.  

What we can do to help our baby

As parents, we can aim to limit these sources of stress, and then to hold our baby and be present with our baby when he does have feelings.  

But to truly listen to our baby’s feelings requires a great deal from us.  Since most of our parents did not know that we had feelings that needed to be heard when we were babies and children, most of us have a lot of unheard feelings.  

When our baby cries, not for an immediate need, but to express feelings and release stress or trauma, it often helps us connect to our own deeply painful pent-up feelings.  

This is why, if this way of parenting appeals to you, it is really important that you do a few things.  

Our own feelings and our baby’s feelings

Firstly, is to thoroughly understand Aware Parenting, so you can do all you can to meet your baby’s needs, and to be clear about the difference between immediate needs and needs for emotional release.  I recommend reading The Aware Baby, and Aletha Solter’s articles at http://www.awareparenting.com/articles.htm and my articles at http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/  as well as this article called “I’m pregnant and I want to do Aware Parenting”, at http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=4088

Secondly, explore you own relationship with your feelings.  How are you with experiencing and expressing your own sadness, grief, confusion, disappointment, and frustration?  How about your joy, curiosity, compassion, love and contentment?  Aware Parenting is not just about how we are with our babies.  It is fundamentally about how we are with ourselves.  

We cannot be present with particular feelings in our babies unless we can be with those feelings in ourselves.  Otherwise, our baby will express his sadness, and, if we cannot bear to hear our own sadness, we will stop him from expressing his sadness.  Only when we can be with our own sadness will we able to sit, holding him, feeling deep love and compassion, and really hear what he is experiencing.  

You might want to read this article called “The Invitation of Aware Parenting – how our babies and children help us to Flourish” at http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=4099

Another fundamental aspect of Aware Parenting is having friends and/or family with whom we can talk and share our feelings with.  A community of Aware Parenting folk is also really helpful.  The more we have a sense of support, and a place where we can cry and talk about the challenges of parenting, the more we will be able to parent in a calm, loving and present way.  Let me know at awpsupport@iinet.net.au if you want to join the online Aware Parenting community, or find an Aware Parenting empathy partner.

How can a parent tell when a baby has an immediate need, or needs to express his feelings?

This is something you can learn more about through reading The Aware Baby.  I would not recommend trying to do this unless you have done further reading, or have talked to other parents practising Aware Parenting.  My article called “Reading the Cues” http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=903 will also help.  It is certainly a learning process for most parents, since we did not learn this from our own parents or from watching other parents.

Why do some babies NOT cry?

The way I see it, babies come into the world with two basic needs – to be most truly themselves (which means expressing their unique feelings, and releasing stress so that they can return to their true selves), and to fit into the family and culture that they are born into.  Their lives are about how they reconcile these two.  

Babies are constantly learning from their parents.  They are acutely aware of the tiniest details of our reactions to them, and this is how they learn about themselves.  Most fundamentally, they learn about feelings from us.  They learn how to relate to their feelings from seeing how we respond to their feelings, and from watching how we are with our own feelings.  

So, for example, if we tend to eat when we are upset, we are likely to feed out baby whenever he is upset, and he will soon learn that the way to deal with feelings is to eat.  He will soon learn to ask for food whenever he is upset.  

There are several common ways that parents stop their baby from crying.  These are:

Sucking (breast or bottle feeding for comfort, sucking on a dummy);

Movement (rocking, jiggling, pushing back and forward in a swing seat or pram, moving in a carrier, or movement in a car);

Distraction (singing, looking at toys, putting on music)

Each of these ways helps a baby disconnect, or dissociate from, his feelings.  Some of these ways we as parents choose to do to our baby (like feeding for comfort, or pushing in a stroller, or giving a dummy), other times a baby chooses it himself, when he is feeling upset and has learnt to not express his feelings (like sucking a thumb, or sucking on a toy or blanket).

These repeated reactions to feelings are called control patterns.  You can read more about these in this article on “Presence, and Understanding Control Patterns”: http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=2686

Stress accumulates in a baby’s body

As parents, we do these things to our babies with the most loving of intentions, because we want our baby to feel comfortable and happy.  However, the thing with feelings is, although they go away, the associated stress does not go away.  The stress is put away to be expressed another time.  And each time the feelings are not expressed, they get stored up in a baby’s body.  Each time he feels scared or confused or overwhelmed or sad, and he does not get to express that, and be heard, another chunk of stress gets stored in his body.

At first, this might not be noticeable, unless the baby has experienced a lot of trauma early on, when it might be almost impossible to stop him from expressing the feelings.  

However, over time, babies experience more and more stress, even if it is just the minor daily stresses – such as over-stimulation, developmental frustration, occasional unmet needs, and occasional parental stress.  

The stress accumulates in his body and starts showing up.  You can see it in various forms:
- avoiding eye contact (because like adults, when a baby is upset and sees the love in the eyes of another, he cannot help but let the feelings out);
- tension in muscles;
- less smiling;
- taking more time to go to sleep (because he needs to feel relaxed to go to sleep);
- waking up more frequently (because the stress feels uncomfortable, and he wants to get it out);
- moving a lot whilst asleep;
- seeming more “whiny” and less happy in general;
- waking up crying;
- feeding for long periods and still being upset afterwards;
- seeming to need constant entertainment.  

When the stress accumulates in a baby’s body like that, then whatever control patterns he has learnt from us, he will ask for more.  So, when he is upset, he will “ask” to be fed, or rocked, or entertained, or jiggled, and he may want it more and more frequently.

Crying, control patterns, tiredness, and sleep

This is why many babies start sleeping for shorter periods of time at night, even though their stomach has grown and can hold more.  It is often when babies start taking longer and longer to go to sleep, or wake up more frequently, or get more and more agitated at night; that parents start to get desperate.  Many start looking into controlled crying – which is often seen as the only option to help the parents get the sleep they are longing for.  I would highly recommend NOT ever leaving your baby to cry alone, even for a short period.  Babies have no concept of time, so when they are left alone when they are upset, they do not have a sense that someone will come to them.  All they know is the desperate terror of being left alone.  

The Aware Parenting approach is a compassionate alternative – a way for a baby’s needs for closeness and secure attachment to be met, whilst giving parents more sleep, especially from about six months onwards.  To find out more about how feelings and sleep are intimately related, you might want to read my articles, “Help a Baby Sleep; The Aware Parenting Approach, at http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=904
And “A Securely Attached Baby and a Restful Night’s Sleep – Just a Dream? at: http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=905

From an Aware Parenting perspective, babies do not need to be fed, rocked, jiggled, or have other things done to them to get to sleep.  They do need closeness when they are going to sleep.  The more opportunity they have to express their feelings, and thus release tension from their bodies, the more easily they can go to sleep, the more peacefully they sleep.  

Babies are most connected to their feelings when they are tired (like us!) and so are most likely to cry at the end of a day, especially at the end of a busy day, when they have more stress to release.  So you can expect your baby to cry more if you have been out in busy places, have had new experiences, or if you have been stressed that day. Most babies, if they are held and given loving presence at the end of the day, will cry in our arms.  

What happens when babies are given regular opportunity to cry in arms?

When a parent is able to distinguish between a baby’s immediate needs, and his needs to release stress, and regularly holds her baby in her arms whilst he cries for the latter reason, a baby releases stress hormones from his body.  Research shows that tears related to upset feelings contain stress hormones.  The tears release the hormones, and the physical movement releases physical tension.  A baby who expresses his feelings fully in the arms of his parent, expresses a full chunk of feelings, and emerges, calm, relaxed, making aware eye contact, with a relaxed but alert body.  He sleeps more calmly, he smiles more, he is alert and engaged in what he is doing.  He goes to sleep when he is tired, and sleeps with relaxed muscles.  When parents practice Aware Parenting, they can clearly see these kinds of things.  I suggest that parents don’t just believe in Aware Parenting just because they’ve read the book – but rather, believe it when they see that their baby is more relaxed, makes more eye contact, smiles more, and sleeps more peacefully.

Aware Parenting – is it for you?

It is certainly not an approach that appeals to everyone.  It is most likely to appeal to you if you have experienced the benefits of crying and expressing your feelings to someone who offers you loving empathy.  Perhaps you have been held whilst you cry, and then found that afterwards you were more relaxed, alert, and aware, able to see colours morebrightly, think more clearly, and were more joyful and vibrant.

It is not an easy way of parenting, because it requires repeatedly bringing awareness to the ways we have of repressing our feelings, and to how much we are willing to meet our own needs for connection, nurturance, and healing.  

It requires us to keep learning and growing as our child does, because his emotional needs and the way he expresses his feelings and heals from stress (including laughter, therapeutic play, and tantrums) will keep on changing, often just as we got familiar with the old way!  

It requires us to keep considering and questioning our beliefs about what babies and children need and feel and experience, and what we can to do be the most aware parent that we can be.  

It asks us to be fully with our child’s painful feelings, as well as his joyful ones.

Aware Parenting has immense gifts – the gifts of deep intimacy with our baby and child, the sense that he is growing up connected to his feelings and his needs, relatively free from the limitations of control patterns and behaviours caused by pent-up stress, and connected to his true presence, and the joy of contributing, connecting, cooperating, and caring.

If Aware Parenting speaks to your heart, I encourage you to keep learning about it.  

If it doesn’t, I trust that you will find a way that is the most authentic way for you as a parent.  

Most of all, remember to enjoy your baby, and all the gifts that s/he brings you!

Warmly, and with love,

Marion Badenoch Rose
BSc PhD DipCouns Dip Psych GSPP FPCF FPCC
Certified Aware Parenting Instructor
www.parentingwithpresence.net
awpsupport@iinet.net.au
July 2010