For new parents, crying can be one of the most stressful aspects of parenting, and it’s all too easy to judge the success of our parenting, by how much our baby cries.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I learned a surprising fact about babies and crying. I came across a book called The Aware Baby by psychologist Aletha Solter Ph.D. which explained that crying isn’t how babies get their needs met; it’s also a healing process to recover from stress and upset.
“it is important to distinguish two main functions of crying. The primary function is to communicate immediate needs and discomforts...such as feeding, holding, a diaper change... or an extra blanket. The secondary function is that of the stress-release mechanism. Infants sometimes cry for long stretches of time even though they have no immediate need other than to be held and loved. They are releasing pent-up tensions through crying, and this helps them relax.”
Tears have been found to contain cortisol, the stress hormone, and research shows that crying lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Crying also activates the parasympathetic nervous system which acts as a self-soothing mechanism.
The idea that a baby could be ‘stressed’ can seem strange at first. However for babies, everything is new, and even things like having a shirt pulled over their head or going in a car seat can be stressful. Babies are just getting used to being in the world, and crying is one of the ways in which they process events and recover from overstimulation.
There are also other bigger reasons why a baby might cry. Psychotherapist Michael Appleton says that we have a cultural blind spot about the effect of birth on babies and that it can be hard for them just as it can be for mothers.
There may be other factors such as early medical interventions that can be distressing for babies and could cause them to cry more. Research has shown that mothers who were stressed in pregnancy have babies that cry more.
None of these reasons are the fault of the parent, or to do with their parenting skills, and yet because this information is not widely known, many parents are left distraught and blaming themselves.
Erin says, ‘’I was not at all prepared for my son's long bouts of crying and had absorbed the idea during pregnancy that crying actually harmed him. So the fact that he was inconsolable for hours mixed with my anxiety, and the thought that I was failing him, was the perfect recipe for postpartum depression. I was worried that his crying would completely sever our bond and that because I couldn't soothe him, I wasn't fit to be his mom.
“It wasn't until I was able to frame his crying differently (not always distress, his way to communicate, babies just cry, etc.) that I began to feel better. Thank god I learned how that crying would not harm him, and when I stepped back and stopped trying to interfere with his attempts to work out his frustrations on his own, we both got a lot happier.’’
I was lucky to have read Solter’s book because when my daughter cried, I knew that it wasn’t my parenting skills that were to blame. She’d had a difficult start with an induction and vacuum extraction. I had my own grief about that, but I also made peace with it, because I knew, that just being there with my daughter helped her heal and recover. There were times when all her needs were met—then I would just hold her in my arms and listen.
I noticed that by being still and simply being there, we actually felt closer together. She was more relaxed and at peace, sometimes after a big cry, she would even fall asleep with a smile on her face.
What’s key to notice is if your baby feels better after crying. If they are crying excessively, and don’t seem more content after crying, then it could be that the crying is a sign of a physical problem like an allergy or digestive issue.
When our babies cry, we should always go through our checklist of needs. If we are sure all our baby’s needs are met, and they are still crying, then we can hold them in our arms, and just be there to listen, and reassure them that although they may experience big feelings, that they are safe, and loved in the presence.
The good news about crying is it’s a way of healing and recovery. It’s how we lighten the load of our emotion. We don’t have to be perfect parents—we just need to be there when our children want to express how they feel.
I’m a Hand in Hand parenting instructor, and author of Tears Heal: How To Listen To Children. Originally from the UK I now live in Basel, Switzerland, with my husband, author Toni Davidson, and our four year old daughter Ruby.