When our babies are born most of us have in our mind that parenting will go something like this: our babies will cry, we’ll figure out what they need and then they’ll stop crying. And we’ll know we’re getting this parenting thing right when we have a smiley happy baby that hardly ever cries, right?
Many of us start off with this mindset and then we have babies that cry for hours, or cry what seems like no apparent reason. We can be left feeling worried, or as if we’ve failed at parents.
The full story of why our baby’s cry is a bit more complicated. In Aletha’ Solter’s book The Aware Baby she explains the science behind our tears, and why babies cry for two reasons, one is to get their needs met and two; to heal and recover from stress and tension.
Dr. William Frey is a biologist that investigated the chemical make-up of tears. He found that they actually contain cortisol, the stress hormone, so that when we cry we are literally releasing stress from our bodies. Tears also contain Manganese a hormone that is important for balancing mood, and other toxins.
Dr. Deanna Minich says, ‘’crying is a form of detox in which we let go of our stored emotions and inner pain. It also literally eliminates inflammatory compounds, cytokines and chemokines. People who cry easily in response to emotion might even have fewer symptoms and better health than those who restrain their tears.’’
It has been estimated that stress causes between 75%-90% of all physical illnesses, so reducing stress is absolutely key to our children’s future emotional wellbeing and physical health.
But what would our babies be stressed about we may ask ourselves? They’ve only just come into the world, and life as a baby is not exactly hard work is it?!
Well actually it is. A baby’s emotional brain is fully developed before birth so that means that their emotional lives are just as complex as our own. During pregnancy all of the mother’s emotions and stress will effect her baby. It has been found that mothers who feel anxious or worry a lot during pregnancy have babies who cry for longer.
Birth is another life event that can trigger distress for our babies. Psychotherapist Michael Appleton says that we have a cultural blind-spot when it comes to acknowledging that birth can be painful and traumatic for babies.
Even if pregnancy and birth go smoothly babies do need to cry to process their birth, and their daily experiences in a brand- new, stimulating world. This crying is healthy and good, and it means that even if we or our babies experience difficulties, they have a natural inborn healing mechanism to help them recover. (and it works for us too!)
Because there is not much awareness of the ‘other’ reason babies cry, we tend to go on automatic pilot, treating their healing crying as crying about a need. So when we have met all our baby’s needs and still can’t get them to stop we often resort to what Aletha Solter calls ‘control patterns.’ So we bounce a baby or shhh them, feed them when they are not hungry, or we take them for a long walk, or even resort to a car journey. We tend to jump from ‘meeting needs mode’, to simply ‘stopping the crying by whatever means possible mode.’ It is an unconscious jump that almost all parents, (including myself!) have done.
I know that when I did this, I was thinking about helping my daughter to feel happy again, but as the message of Aletha Solter’s book began to sink in, I realised that what I was actually doing was stopping my daughter from expressing her emotions. As Dr. Deborah Macnamara says, ‘crying is not the hurt, but the process of becoming unhurt.
When our baby’s needs have been met and we stop their crying, we are actually interrupting their vital healing process, and giving the the message that crying is not okay. This can have detrimental effects on their future wellbeing and their behaviour. As we understand more about how the brain works, it’s becoming clearer that children’s misbehaviour is caused by emotional upset, so we cannot fix our child’s behaviour in the long run with sticker charts or time out. We need to help them process their emotions.
The fact that we do try to stop our baby’s from crying is not our fault. It happens first because of a lack of understanding of the healing power of tears. Most of us intuitively sense the benefits of having a ‘good cry’ but there isn’t much information out there about helping our babies or older children to do the same.
There is also a much deeper reason. When we were children, our parents reacted like this to our tears. And sometimes they would have reacted in much harsher ways. Leaving a baby alone to cry it out, or ignoring or punishing a toddler for tantrumming.
We have so much unconscious hurt and pain, about how our own tears were dealt with that we automatically try to stop the tears, without giving it much conscious thought. In Parenting From The Inside Out psychiatrist and parenting expert Dr. Daniel Siegel explains how when we have not processed our own emotions, and created a ‘coherent story’ of our own childhood we tend to act in similar ways to how our parents did.
Our story about tears is far from coherent. We are born with a natural healing process that is barely acknowledged or respected in our society. The cycle continues with our response to tears being automatic. Without thinking or bringing this healing process into awareness, it has remained parenting’s best kept secret. Our instincts are tangled up with our own pain that we have yet to heal. This is the hidden reason that makes tears, and tantrums hard for parents to handle. It’s not about our children’s emotions, but about us..
Dr. William Frey found that 85% of women, and 73% of men, felt less sad after crying, and what seems to be key for crying to heal is that there is another person there to offer emotional support. Bylsma conducted research which showed that people were more likely to feel better after crying if they had a close friend with them. When babies are left alone to ‘cry-it-out’ they give up expressing their feelings, but remain in a stressed state with high cortisol levels. It’s essential that we stay with our babies or toddlers when they cry.
I wrote my book Tears Heal: How to listen to our children to support parents through the process of beginning to listen to their baby, or children’s tears. Because of our complicated history with crying, it can be hard to stay there in the moment, and be calm and patient but this is what our children need. There are mirror neurons in the brain, that reflect and recreate the moods of the people around us. When we are able to be a calm and patient listener, our our child can release their feelings with us, they can attune to our emotional state and will feel better.
When we stop fighting against our child’s nature to naturally heal by expressing emotions, we will see transformative results in their wellbeing, sleep patterns and behaviour. To find out more check out my blog archives, or pre-order my book Tears Heal: How To LIsten To Our Children today!