Babe in Arms, Crying to Heal
More than a quarter of a century ago, Aletha Solter, Ph.D., developed a form of attachment parenting known as Aware Parenting, yet many parents and professionals remain unaware of the significant contributions she has to offer. Aware Parenting encompasses practices which establish secure attachment, such as: natural birth; breast-feeding on demand; co-sleeping; and carrying baby in a sling.
Where Aware Parenting differs from many other attachment parenting styles is in its understanding of crying as a way to release tension and trauma. Using this approach I have come to understand that attachment is not just about holding a baby close and being sensitive to his needs, but also about accepting and empathising with all of his feelings.
Aletha Solter’s pioneering work has taught a generation of parents how they can support their babies and children to heal from the effects of frustrating and frightening experiences through crying, raging, laughing, and symbolic play. Her work is highly recommended by important figures such as Dr. Thomas Gordon (author of Parent Effectiveness Training), and Jeannine Parvati Baker (midwife and author of Prenatal Yoga and Natural Birth).
Since the ground-breaking studies in attachment by Dr. John Bowlby in the 1950’s, there has been increasing recognition that babies need frequent physical closeness, prompt responsiveness, and continuity of carers. A crucial aspect of secure attachment is acceptance of all of the feelings of babies and children, (rather than distraction from them). Insecure attachment, characterised by aggression to parents, continual clinging or whining, and avoidance of closeness, disappears when parents learn to welcome crying. A parent’s nurturing responsiveness to her child’s full range of emotions leads to an engaging and joyful intimacy between them.
I came across Aware Parenting when I was pregnant with my now three year old daughter. I had spent the previous 14 years studying the mother-infant relationship, in part inspired by my own experience of being in an incubator for the first five weeks of my life. Aware Parenting fitted all that I had previously learnt. What I found most inspiring was the knowledge that I could give my daughter every opportunity to heal from hurts as they occurred, rather than her waiting 20 or 30 years to do so! I am so grateful for the way in which Aware Parenting has helped create intimacy, clarity and ease in my relationship with my daughter. Her behaviour indicates to me that she has benefited from it immensely.
In writing this article, I asked a friend what she most appreciates about Aware Parenting. She said, “Helping my son release his feelings helps me feel more connected and attached to him. I think that Aware Parenting enhances all the other attachment parenting principles; it gives attachment a depth that you don’t know of until you do it.”
Aware Parenting recognises two types of crying in babies. The first signals an immediate need, such as for closeness, food, stimulation, or relief from discomfort. The second type of crying serves to heal the baby - from birth trauma and prenatal stress, as well as the daily stresses of babyhood, such as overstimulation, frightening events, misattunement to their needs, and developmental frustration.
So if a crying baby is physically well and all of her immediate needs have been met, the chances are that she has some emotional tension to release. In harmony with all attachment parenting, Aware Parenting advocates that a crying baby is never left alone. But if she is crying to heal, her parents can hold her, without jiggling, rocking, singing, walking, or feeding her, since these only serve to distract her and create life long patterns for repressing feelings from awareness. Being lovingly present and gently talking to the baby will give her the acceptance and safety she needs to let out her feelings. She may writhe and kick, since babies cry through their whole bodies, particularly when they are releasing birth trauma. At this point a parent may worry that surely the baby is hungry or physically uncomfortable, but as long as all of the baby’s immediate needs have been met and she is physically well, this crescendo can be welcomed. When she has expressed all that she needs to, she will become calmer, moving into a very alert state where she makes eye contact, or otherwise she will fall into a deep and tranquil sleep. If she falls asleep in the middle of the intense crying phase, she will awaken ready to finish the session.
For the first three months of my daughter’s life I fed her as soon as she woke up, and many times a day, even though she “threw up” so often that we owned about 50 bibs! I fed her constantly through the evening despite the fact that she frequently came on and off the breast and turned her head away. I would jiggle her, walk her in the sling, and do anything to keep her from crying. By the time she was three months old, I decided that I wanted to distinguish between when she was hungry and when she was needing to express her upset feelings. Around dinner time she would seem agitated rather than hungry, and I held her whilst she cried for the first time. (Before this she had hardly cried at all). Afterwards I felt really upset, thinking that maybe I had damaged her. I tried again the next day, and I felt really anxious that she might be hungry, even though she had just finished a long feed. But as I saw how much calmer she was and how she made eye contact after that cry, I felt more confident. My husband was at first concerned, until he held her crying for the first time. The peaceful presence and gazing that they shared after that cry moved him deeply and ever since he has been more than happy to hold her whilst she cries.
Once children can talk, they can express their hurt feelings through words. However, they still need to let out their emotional pain through crying, raging, symbolic play, and laughter (the latter helps release anxiety and fear). As with infants, children also sweat, tremble, and yawn to release stress hormones. Children need to know they are in an emotionally safe environment where expressing feelings is welcomed and where their needs for closeness, empathy, autonomy and respect are met. Aware Parenting helps us understand the behaviour of children that might otherwise be called “misbehaviour;” children act in ways which parents don’t enjoy either because: their needs are not being met; they are too young to understand; or they have emotional tension which requires release.
Understanding the behaviour of babies and children
Aware Parenting results in interpretations of babies’ and children’s behaviour that differ markedly to most other parenting styles. Where others may label a child’s behaviour as spirited, spoilt, naughty, or manipulative, Aware Parenting shows us that many behaviours can be understood in terms of unexpressed emotions which are held in the child’s body as physical and emotional tension. Aware Parenting explains that a child who experiences only loving kindness but not supported emotional release may still exhibit “violent” and “oppositional” behaviour, and may avoid intimacy, because he doesn’t know how else to express all the feelings he is holding inside.
An inability to sleep even when tired, frequent night waking after six months, and very early waking in older children may all indicate tension caused by unexpressed feelings. Babies and children cry when they are tired because their ability to repress their feelings is reduced at these times; being held as they cry allows them to fall into a restful sleep. “Fussiness”and agitation in the evening also indicates a build up of the stimulation of the day which can be released through supported crying. So-called “high need” babies may simply be babies who have experienced stress in utero or a traumatic birth and thus have a lot of feelings to be expressed.
Frequently asking for the breast when not hungry, or when physically or emotionally hurt may mean that the baby has already learnt a way to keep her feelings at bay. Coming on and off the breast for long periods, “spacing out,” and frequently being sick may also indicate that a baby needs to let out tension in her body rather than feed more.
“Whining”, asking for things which she then doesn’t want, biting, kicking, pulling hair and hyperactivity all indicate that a child is trying to deal with the agitation she feels. Tantrums are a means for emotional release and healing and occur when strong feelings can no longer be held in. A baby or toddler who cries when she is picked up probably does so because the closeness helps her connect to the hurt feelings she has inside. Babies and children who avoid eye contact and connection are protecting themselves from their emotional pain.
Recently, a friend of mine was telling me how confused she was about her daughter’s behaviour. “I don’t understand, how come she hits me and other children, and is so rough with our cats, when I carried her constantly when she was a baby?” Another parent expressed her concern over her son’s high activity level, saying he often seemed agitated; she was particularly upset that he rarely made eye contact with her and often pushed her away.
A friend who practises Aware Parenting told me about her three and a half year old son’s behaviour one morning, “He was agitated, running around and yelling, and didn’t want to eat breakfast or any other food we offered him. He was playing with his dad and getting frustrated and hitting him. I told him that I wanted to help him let his feelings out, and I held him in the bedroom whilst he cried. Afterwards he ate plenty of food, was calm and present, and had a bath with his dad; they were close and intimate and enjoyed each other’s company.”
I find that when my daughter and I are not connected, it means that either she or I have hurt feelings that need expression. When a child or adult is holding onto upset feelings, true connection is difficult.
What are the benefits?
When a parent responds promptly and precisely to her baby’s signals, and distinguishes between his need for emotional healing and his needs for food, sleep and stimulation, he displays specific behaviours. He is calm and alert, and his body is relaxed. He goes to sleep when he is tired (with physical closeness), without needing feeding, rocking or routines, and sleeps soundly. He is happy and enjoys closeness but is also content to entertain himself at times.
He is able to concentrate for long periods, learns easily, and enjoys cooperating, as his attention is free from stored painful feelings. He does not bite or hit other children, animals, or his parents, but generally plays harmoniously and with sensitivity to his own body and those of others. As an adult, he has a deep level of acceptance of himself, and is comfortable with the strong feelings of others. He has intimate connections with others and the natural world. He does not need to use food, distraction, TV, alcohol or drugs to numb himself from his pain but cries when he needs to.
Being with our own feelings
With all this knowledge available, why is Aware Parenting still practiced by so few? A misunderstanding about the meaning and purpose of crying and raging is a major reason. Lack of support for this kind of parenting in our society, as well as a cultural fear of feelings in general, is another. But also because when our baby cries or our child cries and rages, it stimulates the feelings we are protecting ourselves from. Holding our crying three month old might connect us to our own grief from when we were left to cry alone. Holding our raging three year old may stimulate fear connected with our own memories of birth, or powerlessness from when we were punished for crying. To practice Aware Parenting entails getting enough support to express the pain that is stimulated in us as we parent our children empathically. We may also choose to challenge the ways we habitually deal with our own feelings, such as by eating, excessive activity, or muscle tension. It is never too late to start supporting our children to heal using the mechanism they were born with, or to seek help to get our own needs for empathy and emotional support met.
I still encourage and support my daughter to have a cry most days. I notice that when she has not had a cry for a while, she is more agitated, more likely to wake in the night, more easily frustrated, and concentrates less. When I’m upset, I’m not truly present and empathic with my daughter’s feelings, and sometimes behave in ways I later regret. So when I get agitated or upset I try to get empathy from a friend, or cry in my husband’s arms after my daughter has gone to bed.
I hope to see more widespread understanding about the needs of babies and children in our society. I look forward to the day when, rather than distracting, punishing or ignoring an upset child, his crying and raging are welcomed, his parents are given plenty of emotional support, and the benefits become so well known that every supermarket provides a crying room!
For more information about emotional release in babies and children,
See Aletha Solter’s website at www.Awareparenting.com
and Patty Wipfler’s at www.parentleadershipinstitute.com
and John Breeding’s at www.wildestcolts.com
Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby (revised edition) Shining Star Press
Solter, A. (1998) Tears and Tantrums What to Do When Babies and Children Cry
Shining Star Press ISBN: 0-9613073-6-6
Solter, A. (1989) Helping Young Children Flourish (Two to eight years of age)
Shining Star Press ISBN: 0-9613073-1-5
This article was first published in Natural Parenting Magazine www.naturalparenting.com.au in 2004
A reader's response:
I only just found this article, Marion, and I wanted to say how inspiring it is. I'm not a parent yet, although I hope to be one day. I'm training to become a licensed psychotherapist, and this approach to supporting children makes a lot of sense to me, and reminds me of Carl Rogers' "person-centered" approach to psychotherapy, where emphasis is placed on the power and importance of offering the other person warmth and "unconditional positive regard", regardless of their emotional state.
Even as an adult, I find such relief in raging and sobbing, either alone or with fully accepting support from someone able to hold that space. Afterwards I experience deep tranquility. No intellectual solutions are needed, no comforting words ... Just the space to release.
I hope this school of thought receives serious attention.