When parents first discover Hand in Hand Parenting, and the principle of staylistening, they often feel that they cannot apply it to young babies. It can seem too complicated or even dangerous, to try and figure out the times when a baby just needs to have his or her feelings listened to.
This is understandable; babies use crying as a way to communicated their needs, and since they can’t use words, there’s often a lot of trial and error involved, especially for first time parents. All of us tried our best, and had moments of confusion, or worry that we weren’t getting it right.
Most parents of infants, (and I did this too many times!), can fall into the trap of thinking that our babies only cry when they need something. So when a baby cries and we can’t figure out the need is, we start getting into the mindset that if there doesn’t seem to be a need we can identify then we just need to stop the crying. We may bounce them or pat them, or shhh them. We may try just about anything if it works to gets the crying to stop.
This is where it’s really important to distinguish between ‘needs’ crying, and ‘feelings’ crying, as psychotherapist Matthew Appleton refers to the two different ways babies use crying to communicate.
Babies are born with the emotional part of their brain fully developed at birth. This means that they need to express feelings, and have a good cry, for optimum health and wellbeing just like any other age human being does.
They may also be born with big feelings that they may need to process. This could be due to a mother having stress during pregnancy, or because of a difficult birth. In the first few weeks and months of their life, they will also need to cry to process coming into the world, or to calm down after overstimulation.
When a baby cries and we know all their needs are met, when we know they are fed, and physically comfortable, and aren’t unwell, then we don’t actually have to try to get the crying to stop. In fact it’s kinder not to stop the crying. We can hold our baby in our arms, look into the eyes, and just listen.
This is not about cry it out. Science tells us that when babies are left alone to cry, their system gets overwhelmed with high levels of stress hormones. This has led many parents to believe that the crying is harmful. But it is healing for babies, just as it would be for an older child and adult. In a study where babies were left alone to cry it out, they actually stopped crying, (but remained in a highly stressed state). This shows how it is the stress of being left alone that is the problem, rather than the crying.
When a baby cries in our warm loving presence, with us there to just hold them, give them warm loving eye contact, they sense that crying is okay. There are mirror neurons in our brain that reflect and recreate the moods of those around us, so when we are anxious and pacing, trying to stop the crying, our baby picks up on our mood and mirrors our emotional state.
Instead if we can be calm with crying, and understand when babies simply need to express feelings, they can attune to our calm relaxed brain, and know that all is well. Crying is actually vital to healthy brain development and for promoting secure attachments. A baby whose given the space to cry in the first few months of his life, knows that his feelings are welcome.
Figuring out when a baby just needs to express feelings, isn’t always easy. It’s always good to err on the side of caution, to trust our instincts, and to seek medical advice if you have any concerns. A listening partner is a vital part of this process. Often our reactions to our baby’s crying are so entwined with our unconscious memories of hurt from our infancy, that we need to process these before beginning the process of listening to our own baby.
For more information about how we can listen to babies feelings, check out Patty Wiplers’ new parent podcasts or my book Tears Heal: How to listen to our children which is focused on applying the Hand in Hand Parenting approach from birth to age 5.