Crying and Emotional Release in Babies
Aware Parenting is a term coined by Aletha Solter, a developmental psychologist who studied with Dr. Jean Piaget in Switzerland before gaining her Ph.D. at the University of California. She is the founder and director of The Aware Parenting Institute (www.aware parenting.com), an international organization with certified instructors in ten different countries. She is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment and non-punitive discipline. Her books, “The Aware Baby”, “Tears and Tantrums”, and “Helping Young Children Flourish”, have been translated into several languages.
What is Aware Parenting?
Aware Parenting is based on attachment-style parenting, non-punitive discipline, and acceptance of emotional release.
Like other attachment parenting methods, Aware Parenting advocates:
natural childbirth and early bonding, plenty of physical contact, breast-feeding, prompt responsiveness to crying, and sensitive attunement.
Solter also recommends non-punitive discipline, including no punishments of any kind (including "time-out" and artificial "consequences"), no rewards or bribes, the search for underlying needs and feelings, Nonviolent Communication, and peaceful conflict-resolution (family meetings, etc.)
However, Aware Parenting is different to some other attachment parenting styles in its approach to crying and emotional release, which is the focus of this article.
Solter’s approach advocates healing of babies’ and children’s stress and trauma through crying and raging in the context of a loving parent/child relationship. Respectful, empathic listening and acceptance of babies’ and children's emotions is central to this way of parenting.
Why does your baby cry?
Aware Parenting proposes that when your baby cries, she is either crying to communicate, or crying to heal. These two reasons for crying ask for very different responses.
When your baby cries to communicate, she needs something immediately, such as holding, food, stimulation, warmth, etc. Here, your role is to fulfill her need as accurately and promptly as possible.
If your baby is still crying after you have checked her immediate needs, she is probably crying to heal. There is a general lack of recognition about this type of crying. Babies cry to heal from emotional or physical hurts or an accumulation of stresses. Here, your role is to lovingly hold your baby, allowing her to continue crying until she has released her stressful feelings.
When parents do not realise that their baby is crying to heal, they try to stop her crying by bouncing, jiggling, rocking, and walking her, feeding her for comfort, (breast, bottle or solids), giving her a dummy, or distracting her. Her stressful feelings get stored up for another time, and she will keep trying to release that tension at every opportunity - especially when she is tired, when she is frustrated, or when she is lovingly held.
Babies who are prevented from crying to heal may appear contented, but may sometimes have a spaced out expression indicating that they are holding in painful feelings. They might whine, be hyperactive, wake up frequently, bite, hit, or cry intensely to a seemingly small event.
Aware Parenting is very different from controlled crying or crying-it-out, where parents aim to stop their baby crying by leaving her to cry alone. Solter suggests that crying alone is a terrifying experience for a baby, which leads to a loss of trust. She repeatedly states that babies should never be left alone to cry. If a baby is left to cry, she may develop thumb sucking, spacing out, or over-attachment to a blanket or stuffed animal to help her numb her distressed feelings.
Sources of stress for infants
Solter recommends aiming to keep stress to a minimum for babies.
There are several sources of stresses for babies, which fit in the following six categories: prenatal stress; birth trauma; unfilled needs (eg. to be held); overstimulation (eg. new experiences); developmental frustrations (eg. wanting to be competent at a new skill); physical pain; and frightening events (eg. separation from parents).
Stress and trauma are seen as primary causes of many behavioural and emotional problems if supported release does not occur. Solter reassures us that it is never too late to help our babies and children heal from stressful events through allowing them to cry and rage with us.
How to respond to a crying baby
First, check your baby’s immediate needs. In “The Aware Baby”, Solter gives guidelines for distinguishing between a need to cry and other needs. Medical problems, allergies, and physical discomfort also need to be ruled out.
If your baby is still crying, you can assume that he is releasing tensions caused by past hurts or stresses. Hold your baby calmly and lovingly whilst he cries, without bouncing or jiggling. Look into his eyes, talk to him, (eg. “I’m here with you.”), and listen to him. This gives him emotional safety. Allow him to continue crying for as long as he needs. Solter recommends never holding your baby for punishment, revenge, or to create submission. Don’t ever let him cry alone.
After crying to release stresses, babies are often relaxed, calm, alert, and happy, or may fall into a peaceful sleep.
The physiology of stress and crying
Solter postulates that crying and raging after emotional stress may have evolved to reduce the negative side effects of the fight or flight response. A biochemist called William Frey has detected certain hormones and neurotransmitters (such as ACT and catecholamines) in tears. These help the body prepare for fight or flight in situations of danger. Afterwards, the remains of these chemicals keep the body in a state of tension and arousal. Frey suggests that shedding tears when crying stops these chemicals from accumulating, thus preventing deleterious physical and emotional effects.
The benefits of supported crying
The empathy and unconditional acceptance communicated when you hold your crying baby fosters her healthy attachment, self-esteem, and self-acceptance.
Babies who regularly release stresses are generally calm, content, cooperative, and alert, with little whining or fussing. They often sleep at night for longer periods than other babies.
Fears and phobias may be prevented when a baby is allowed to cry in a supported manner soon after a frightening or traumatic event.
Allow your baby to heal from early stresses and traumas and she will probably have more attention for learning. On the other hand if there is a high level of accumulated tensions in her body, it may be harder for her to concentrate, learn new things and think clearly.
Allowing your baby to express her feelings freely whilst holding and supporting her may also lead to later emotional and physical wellbeing, and an intact ability to heal from stresses throughout her whole life.
When a baby is repeatedly prevented from crying to heal, he learns to repress his strong emotions and crying with this same method. This behaviour becomes repetitive or compulsive, and is known as a control pattern. Control patterns are usually well-established by six months of age.
Control patterns include frequent feeding for comfort rather than hunger, dummy sucking, thumb sucking, excessive clinging, attachment to a special blanket or toy, constant demands for entertainment or distraction, hyperactivity, self-rocking, and head-banging.
These methods only postpone the crying, putting the baby into a kind of trance-like state, where he dissociates from, or numbs, the feelings, but does not release them.
Once a control pattern is in place, responding accurately to a baby’s needs becomes more complex. For example, if a baby is given the bottle every time he cries, he will soon learn to ask for the bottle when he is upset, as well as when he is hungry. His request for the bottle seems like a need for milk every time. This control pattern can lead to frequent feeding and night-waking in older babies.
Control patterns become hard to change unless the parents or caretakers lovingly allow and accept their baby’s crying. Then the control patterns can disappear, often quite quickly.
Alternatively, these control patterns continue into adulthood, for example when we avoid our feelings by eating, drinking, smoking, or watching TV. When control patterns are used to protect ourselves from traumatic feelings, they are possibly the precursors of addictions to food, alcohol, and drugs.
We often pass on our own control patterns to our children. For example, if we tend to eat to repress our feelings, we are likely to feed our baby every time he cries.
How to help your baby sleep through the night (without ignoring them)
When a baby is tired she has less energy to repress her feelings and so will cry more readily. Encouraging her to continue this release is the recipe for a restful night’s sleep. If she has already released her tensions during the day, she will fall asleep simply by being held.
A baby who has pent up feelings finds it difficult to fall asleep even when she is tired. She resorts to control patterns to distract her from her tension long enough to fall asleep. Chances are that she will not sleep well because the emotions are still lurking just below the surface.
Young babies commonly wake up hungry more than once during the night. However, frequent night waking in babies over six months old is most likely caused not by hunger, but by the need to relieve stress with a cry.
Solter recommends not using a control pattern to put your baby to sleep, ie. not feeding, rocking, singing, jiggling, or using distractions. Instead, you can hold your baby lovingly, reassure her, and give her your full attention so that she can cry if she needs to. After crying, she will relax and fall into a comfortable sleep in your arms. She will also learn to distinguish between when she is tired, hungry, or feeling upset.
If your baby over six months old wakes for a second time in the night, you can hold her and offer her a drink or snack rather than the breast or bottle. If she is not hungry, thirsty, or simply needing closeness, she needs to release. Hold her in your loving arms. She will cry out her remaining tensions and fall into a deep satisfying sleep.
My experience with Aware Parenting
I researched alternative sites for birthing and parenting, and found many references to Solter’s work. I felt intrigued, especially reading reviews of her books, such as:
"This book is so important, for the health of our children and our society, that ... I am recommending it to every professional and parent that I know."
William R. Emerson, Ph.D. (Pioneer in infant and child psychotherapy)
“... Tears and Tantrums. This book needs to be in every library... The information therein will free families of emotional trauma in order to journey through life's challenges together in trust."
Jeannie Parvati Baker (Midwife and author of Prenatal Yoga and Natural Birth)
After reading and rereading Solter’s books and practising her methods, I feel as passionate about Aware Parenting as these authors do!
I read “Tears and Tantrums” whilst I was pregnant, yet for the first 3 months after my daughter Lana was born I never let her cry. Whenever she began to cry my own feelings of distress would get triggered, and I would feed her immediately. When I look back I see that I fed her even when she needed to cry to release stored feelings. I fed her for hours in the evening, even though she fussed, repeatedly came on and off the breast and frequently threw up. These are the kind of signals that a baby may give when she is needing to release accumulated tensions.
When Lana was 3 months old, I started letting her cry in my arms when I thought she needed to heal from daily stresses. The first few times I felt really worried that she might be hungry, even if she had recently had a long feed.
However, I soon felt comfortable when the beneficial effects became clear. Before crying she was tense and avoided eye contact, and afterwards she was deeply relaxed and would gaze blissfully into our eyes. After a cry she was more content and slept more peacefully and for longer periods. She would have a cry every evening for between 15 minutes and an hour. However, I still sometimes felt confused about distinguishing her hunger from her need to cry, and so feeding was still a control pattern for her.
When she was seven months old, I reread The Aware Baby and took Solter’s advice about breast feeding on both sides at each feed. Lana started going for longer between each feed, and then I felt more confident differentiating between when she was hungry and when she needed to cry. She stopped being sick and only woke up once during the night. A few months later she began sleeping all the way through.
Lana is now 18 months old and has a cry most days, often before she goes to sleep. She sometimes goes for a few days without crying, such as when we go out a lot. At those times she shows an accumulation of tensions - at night she becomes unsettled and fidgety, sometimes waking up, and during the day she is less contented and more frustrated.
I joined an Aware Parenting web list when Lana was about 8 months old, and a month later I started a local weekly support group for other mums who were putting Aletha Solter’s methods into practice.
Finding out more
If you feel interested in this way of parenting, I recommend reading one of Solter’s books first. See the reviews below to find out which one would suit you the most. I also suggest reading one of her books before joining the web group. You can join by going to www.awareparenting.com and following the links.
Frey, II, W.H. and Lang Seth, M. (1985) Crying: The Mystery of Tears Winston Press.
Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby (revised edition) Shining Star Press
I recommend this book for pregnant mums (and dads) and parents of young babies, as it has chapters on pregnancy, birth, and attachment, as well as feeding, sleeping, crying and playing.
Solter, A. (1998) Tears and Tantrums What to Do When Babies and Children Cry
Shining Star Press ISBN: 0-9613073-6-6
Describes the purpose of crying and raging from birth to eight years of age, and how best to respond. It includes: helping babies sleep better (without ignoring them); helping children heal from stress and trauma; increasing children’s attention span and intelligence; improving children’s self-esteem and emotional health; reducing children’s violent behaviour and hyperactivity; and strengthening the parent/child bond.
Solter, A. (1989) Helping Young Children Flourish (Two to eight years of age)
Shining Star Press ISBN: 0-9613073-1-5
Focuses on the emotional needs of children from two to eight years. It provides insights to help you understand your child, maintain a close, loving relationship, and cope with day-to-day problems. It includes chapters on tears and tantrums, fears, learning, playing, conflicts, friendships, and eating.