Reading the Cues - How to Respond to Baby's Cries.
Parenting with empathy is a recent phenomenon. Psychohistorian Lloyd deMause traced the evolution of parenting from antiquity through to the late twentieth century, and found that only in the middle of the twentieth century did parents start to empathise with their children. (1) However, it was not until the late 1970’s that a developmental psychologist, Aletha Solter, Ph.D., found that babies could heal from stress and trauma through crying whilst being given aware attention in loving arms. Dr. Solter’s approach is based on the understanding that there are two different reasons for a baby’s crying - crying to communicate an immediate need such as closeness, food, stimulation etc., and crying to heal from past stress or trauma. This article elucidates the difference between crying to indicate an immediate need and crying to heal.
Dr. Solter says, “Many people are baffled by infant crying because they assume that crying is always caused by an immediate need or discomfort.“ (2)
According to Aware Parenting, despite the most attentive parenting and continual closeness, all babies need to express their feelings and release accumulated stress.
The value of stress-release crying is supported by William Sears, who coined the term Attachment Parenting. He says, “Ever have an occasion when your baby or child is crying and nothing works to stop her? Take heart! It’s not your fault she is crying; nor is it your urgent responsibility to stop the cry. In fact, research has shown that crying is an important part of the recovery process - a physiologic aid to releasing stored stress. Tears produced to wash away irritants in the eye and those secreted as an emotional outlet have different chemical compositions. Emotional tears contain breakdown products not found in irritant tears, namely stress hormones, which increase during painful experiences. These fascinating findings indicate there may be a physiologic basis for the expression ‘have a good cry.’ Grief and hurt may be released through tears. Why be so quick to get babies and children to hold back their tears? Frantic hushing ... trains children to stifle pent-up emotions that, by a good cry, could be carried down the river of tears. Lucky is the child who feels the freedom to cry without rebuke. Wise is the parent who gives a supportive presence. There is a big difference between allowing your baby to cry (without panic on your part!) and leaving her to cry alone and uncomforted. Give your child the message, “It’s okay to cry; I’m here to help you.” (3)
When a parent does not know that all babies regularly need to cry in loving arms to heal, she will assume that he is crying to communicate an immediate need. Thinking he is hungry, she will feed him, thinking he is tired, she will rock and jiggle him, or thinking he is bored, she will offer games and toys. Aware Parenting understands that when a parent repeatedly responds in particular ways to her baby’s need for stress-release crying, he soon learns to respond to his upset feelings in that same way. For example, if she feeds him every time he is upset, he will “ask” for food when he is upset. This becomes a “control pattern,” a habit that the baby uses to hold his feelings inside. Control patterns are often in place by the age of six months, which is why responding to the cues of babies and children may get more complicated as they get older.
But if a parent understands that all babies need to express their feelings and release any stresses or traumas that they have experienced, she can observe her baby’s cues. She can meet his immediate needs when that is what he is asking for. When he is crying to heal, she can simply hold him with her loving attention whilst he cries. Resisting the urge to rock, jiggle, or bounce him, she gives him the opportunity to release tension and learn that feelings are his friends.
So how do we tell when a baby is crying to communicate an immediate need and when he is crying to heal? Below are some suggestions summarised from “The Aware Baby.”
Meeting immediate needs
One of babies’ most important needs is be touched and held. Babies enjoy having physical closeness day and night, and this kind of connection is essential for secure attachment. Co-sleeping and being carried in a baby carrier or sling during the day meet babies’ needs the most, as do caressing, massaging and breast feeding.
Connection and attunement
Babies also need connection and attunement for secure attachment. They invite connection through gaze, movement, vocalising, and later, smiling. Attunement is when a baby expresses a feeling and the parent express it back. For the first nine months, parents generally express the feeling back in the same way, for example the baby smiles and the parent smiles back with the same level of excitation. This is crucial to help babies know that their feelings are shared and acceptable. (4)
Reducing over-stimulation and stress
Premature babies, newborns, and more sensitive babies are especially vulnerable to overstimulation but all babies experience it. This includes noise from televisions and stereos, and visual stimulation from shopping trips and lots of people. If a parent chooses to take her baby to a place where there is lots of stimulation, she can help protect him by carrying him close to her body in a sling or baby carrier. A baby will not be overstimulated by being touched and held all day long.
“Much of the crying that occurs in the early months may be due to overstimulation, As a general guideline, the younger the baby, the easier he is to overstimulate.” (5).
Many things can be frightening for babies, including loud noises, long separations, conflict between parents, and parents being angry or depressed.
“Babies are extremely sensitive and vulnerable. Strive to keep their stress level to a minimum and reduce their need to cry.” (6)
Reducing stressful events for a baby will reduce the amount of time he needs to cry, but there will always be some tension that he needs to release.
What to do when a baby cries
Parents can check if he has any immediate needs such as closeness, food, warmth, etc. Read below for how to distinguish between these needs. If the crying sounds different to usual or is high pitched, they check out his physical health. If their baby is healthy and has no medical or physical problems, and all his immediate needs have been met, then he is probably crying to release tension from past stresses. Then they can hold their baby as he cries, for as long as he cries, and give him empathy, reassurance, and love. This is part of the attunement process and tells their baby that his feelings are understood and accepted. When he has finished he will either be very alert or fall into a peaceful sleep.
Once a baby can crawl, holding and crying changes. If he is crying to heal and his parents are not holding him, they can stay close to him, give him loving attention, and let him choose whether he wants to be held.
How to tell if a baby needs to cry to heal
The easiest ways to tell when a baby needs to cry are if he is sucking his thumb or a dummy, or clinging to a special blanket or toy - these are control patterns and not immediate needs. When a behaviour can be both an immediate need and a control pattern (for example feeding), there are other cues, for example:
* If a baby asks for something when he is obviously upset
* If the cry is sudden and loudly full blown
* If he looks “spaced out”
If he has been recently fed and changed and is physically comfortable and still crying, then just holding him calmly will determine whether he needs to cry -
if he continues to cry then he may be needing to release some stresses.
How much does a baby need to cry to heal?
This depends on how much stress he has experienced, particularly birth complications, prenatal stress, or early separations. Also, babies differ in their sensitivity levels and this will affect how much they need to cry. Some babies will only need a few minutes a day, others several hours a day. The amount will increase if there are major changes going on, family stresses, and before developmental milestones (like learning to crawl).
For the first few days after birth, babies spend most of their time feeding and sleeping. After this period, they begin to need to cry to release stress. If control patterns are not used, crying peaks around six weeks and decreases after three months. From about six weeks on, it is common for a baby to have one crying session a day, for an hour or more, usually in the late afternoon or evening. If a baby has had a difficult birth, he may tend to cry every day at the same time of his birth.
Distinguishing between a need for movement and a need for healing
When a baby is alert and happy she will enjoy gentle movement such as rocking, swinging, dancing and bouncing. When a baby is fussy or crying she is saying that she has different needs, which could be immediate (such as feeding), or a need to release past stresses. Babies do not cry to express a need for movement.
If jiggling, rocking or movement become control patterns, the baby will learn to move whenever she is upset. This leads to behaviours such as self-rocking, head-banging, and hyperactivity.
Distinguishing between a need for food and a need for healing
Newborn babies’ reflexes mean they turn their heads and suck on anything that touches their cheeks, whether they are hungry or not. For the first week or two, a mother can feed her baby every time her baby grunts, fusses or cries in order to establish the milk supply. After then, she can look for cues for when her baby needs to cry to release tension and stress.
If a baby is fed when she is not hungry but needs to release stress, feeding temporarily calms her, ensuring that she does not regurgitate milk. But the feelings are only postponed and soon they resurface and she becomes fussy again. She seems to need feeding many times throughout the day and night. Actually, she is repeatedly trying to release her stress through crying.
When a baby is repeatedly fed when she needs to cry, she learns to ask to feed when she is upset. Behaviours such as feeding every two hours or more after six months, or when hurt or frustrated, and frequent night waking also occur. After weaning, she will do lots of crying and have tantrums as she lets out the feelings that the breast feeding has been holding down (unless new control patterns are developed). As she gets older, she may eat or be addicted to sweet things to repress her feelings.
“Many mothers confuse food with love, thinking that offering their breast is the only way to show love to their babies. There are many ways of responding to your baby and showing love without offering your breast. One of them is by holding and listening.” (7)
There are several guidelines to help read a baby’s hunger cues.
Type of crying
* Hunger builds up gradually and is communicated by grunts of discomfort or a whine which develops into a full blown cry if a baby is not fed.
* A sudden full blown cry is more likely to indicate stress release.
* If she is hungry, a baby will latch on eagerly and feed calmly (unless there is a lot of noise or distraction).
* If she needs to cry to heal she will latch on reluctantly, will suck but start crying again soon, will squirm, grunt or bite, or will suck sporadically and irregularly. If she does any of these, her parents could simply hold her lovingly to see if she needs to release stress.
** (Check out other reasons for crying after starting feeding, such as too much milk, milk not coming, or a stuffed up nose).
* If a baby has fed from both breasts and has a full feed and if she cries less than two and a half hours since the beginning of the previous feed, it is not likely to be hunger.
* As a baby grows, the interval between feedings usually increases as her stomach can hold more milk. If a baby starts crying more frequently as she gets older, it may indicate that she has some crying to catch up on.
** (Check out other reasons, such as hot weather, illness, a growth spurt, insufficient milk, or being ready for solids).
One mother wrote about her experiences with her six week old daughter after reading “The Aware Baby,” “At that time she was beginning to have crying spells which I did not understand, and I was beginning to get frantic. Perhaps some of this crying was due to colic. I went off dairy products and the cramped, painful crying practically disappeared. On the other hand ... I was offering her my breast every time she cried, or walking her to sleep. She was nursing fitfully every hour or so during the day, and I was beginning to notice that she seemed kind of “zoned out.” The first week when I encouraged her to cry was really rough. For the first three days she did almost nothing but cry, and my family went around holding their ears and trying not to interfere. Just as I was losing my nerve, my family became supportive. Now I am the proud Mama of a seven-month-old baby who everyone says is so alert. .......Perhaps, as she won’t be carrying so much past hurt around with her, she will always be in touch with the person she is now:......so fresh, so intelligent.” (8)
Cues for introducing solids
A baby will indicate when she is ready to start solids, for example, if she tries to take her parents’ food, or if she still seems hungry after breast feeding, or if she is feeding more frequently and is dissatisfied (and she is doing enough crying in arms).
If a parent trusts his baby and offers her a variety of healthy foods, she will choose what her body needs. He can refrain from praising, rewarding, or encouraging foods or making her eat more than she wants to. She will learn to trust her body and her appetite. She will tell him if she wants the food he offers her by opening her mouth or moving his hand towards her mouth. If she doesn’t want it, she will keep her mouth closed or will push it away or turn her head.
Distinguishing between a need for sleep and a need for healing
Babies’ sleepiness cues include drooping eyes, rubbing eyes, lying down, or clinging.
When a baby is simply sleepy, and has done enough crying in arms, he looks tired and relaxed and will spontaneously fall asleep with physical closeness. He does not need anything to be done to him to fall asleep.
Behaviours usually interpreted as tiredness, such as fussing, whining, fidgeting, or hyperactivity are actually cues for a need to cry. When a baby is tired, he cannot repress his feelings as easily, which is why babies often fuss or cry at the end of the day.
A baby who is fussing and who has not cried in arms won’t fall asleep unless he has a control pattern to repress his feelings long enough for him to fall asleep. These control patterns include sucking his thumb or a dummy, clutching a blanket or soft toy, breast or bottle feeding for comfort, or being rocked, walked, bounced, jiggled, or driven in a car. These control patterns make the baby “spaced out” so that he temporarily relaxes enough to fall asleep.
However, if a baby is put to sleep this way, his feelings will emerge again soon, perhaps as he enters a state of light sleep, or if he is put down. Then he wakes up ready to release his stress. Parents usually then repeat the control pattern, which leads to frequent night waking as the baby continues to wake to release the tension held in his body.
For the first few months babies will usually wake up once or more during the night because they are hungry and need feeding. By the time they are six months old, most healthy babies can sleep through, although some may need one night feeding. If a baby is six months old or more and wakes up more than once, it is probably not from hunger.
Reasons for night waking include hunger (less likely after six months), a need for physical closeness, pain, sickness, or discomfort, feeling scared or having a nightmare, or needing to release stress by crying in arms.
“The most likely cause for night awakenings in older babies is a need to release accumulated stress by crying (while being held). Perhaps your baby does not have sufficient opportunities to cry during the day and at bedtime.” (9)
Instead of using control patterns in the daytime and to get their baby to sleep, parents can watch for stress release cues and lovingly hold their baby whilst he cries. The more a baby releases tension during the day, the less likely he needs to cry at night. Before sleeping, parents can allow their baby to release any remaining stress in their arms, so that he falls asleep peacefully and sleeps soundly.
Distinguishing between a need for stimulation and a need for healing
If a parent frequently offers toys and stimulation when his baby needs to cry, she will learn to repress her feelings this way. She will then “ask” to be entertained when she is upset. A baby with this control pattern will seem to “constantly demand attention.” In fact, she simply needs loving attention without distraction so that she can release stress.
If a parent has offered his baby entertainment and she is still agitated, he can first check that she is not hungry or uncomfortable. If none of these apply, then she is probably needing to cry in his arms.
“If nothing seems to make your baby happy for very long, you can hold her but refrain from distracting her, and see what happens. Speak gently to her and let he know that you are willing to listen. If she needs to cry, she will then do so. If not, she will probably find a way to entertain herself while being held.... After she has cried, she may be ready for stimulation, and you can then play with her in whatever manner she requests. Many parents find, however, that babies who have cried enough do not demand any further attention after crying, and are able to entertain themselves for longer stretches of time.” (10)
The value of healing during infancy and childhood
Healing from childhood pain as an adult is often lengthy and difficult. That is why I love encouraging parents to help their babies and children heal as they grow. When a baby’s parents respond to his cues and are present with him as he cries to heal, he develops a deep inner sense that all of his being is loved and acceptable. Not only that, but he grows into an adult who has already healed from the difficult experiences in his life, free from patterns of repression, and comfortable with his feelings. He develops from an aware baby into an aware adult, ready to contribute his unique gifts to the world.
1. deMause, L., ed. (1974) The History of Childhood: The Untold Story of Child Abuse. New York. Peter Bedrick Books.
2. Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby (revised edition) Shining Star Press, p.39
3. Sears, W. and Sears, M. (1993) The Baby Book. Little, Brown and Co., p.349.
4. Stern, Daniel. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant New York Basic Books.
5. Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby, p.131
6. Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby, p.49
7. Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby, p.79
8. in Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby, p.127-8
9. Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby, p.113
10. Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby, p.133-134
For more information about emotional release in babies and children,
See Aletha Solter’s website at www.awareparenting.com