Staylistening With An Infant – A guest post by Brooke March

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My sweet amazing baby had a scary thing happen 2 days ago and she is still processing it. It can feel so odd and confusing with a small baby but now I know this work and understand how healing it is for our babes to cry hard while we listen to them. I know this is what they NEED to do in order for the healing to happen. It is so clear this time around, her diaper is dry, she has a full belly, I hear the difference in her cry between being tired and needing to get some things out. I saw her get scared today a couple of times, things startle her, how can they not? She is so new and working hard to figure out this new world.

What is fascinating to me is most times she looks me right in the eye as she cries and then….after some time…she is done. She looks at me, she smiles, her way of thanking me for giving her the gift of full expression, and she often drifts off. More times then not, it is at the end of the day, like right now that she needs a big cry before bed. She has been a pretty great sleeper since the beginning and on the day she fell, she woke up over and over and over all night needing to cry hard. I would listen for a few minutes and then nurse her and help her get back to sleep. I knew she was not “done” that the feelings were still in there, but I also knew we needed to get some sleep. Her feelings would continue to wake her up until they were all gone, I knew this too, but it is hard to do this work in the middle of the night and I didn’t want our son to be woken up. So I just followed her lead, she would wake, I would listen for a little while, then we would go back to sleep, over and over and over. Every time helping her to chip away a little bit more of the fear.

With our son, we did everything we could to STOP the crying- we were “the happiest baby on the block” parents- opps!! The crying will stop once the hurt is healed and it gets healed through crying, crying releases a stress hormone in the body and helps it return to it’s natural healthy state. No baby cries for no reason, there is much to cry about for some. It is a delicate dance for infants and we always want to lean on the side of nurturance, but we also need to listen and tune in rather then offering the breast right away. Our loving arms, ears and presence is often what they are really needing and with our help, everything can heal. I am so happy to have these tools from day one this time around, the difference is profound and it has only been 3.5 months.

Further Resources

Sleeping Through The NIght  – Blog post on babies, sleep and emotional healing.

Helping Your Child Sleep – online self study course from Hand in Hand parenting

* Staylistening is the process of listening to our child’s emotional upsets, allowing them to cry freely until they feel better. You can read more stories about the healing power of staylistening here

Brooke March is a Parenting by Connection instructor based in Santa Cruz. Follow her on Facebook here where she shares wonderful anecdotes about life as a mother of two, all about staylistening with an infant, and how she helped her son adapt to having a sibling. 

 

Healing Aggression Through Laughter and Tears

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It was a shock when my one year old daughter learnt to bite me. She seemed to find it so amusing. I tried saying ‘ow’! loudly, or ignoring it, but that didn’t stop her. She’d often bite me when I was busy, and distracted, if I was holding her while trying to write an email, or in a rush trying to get ready to go out.

I knew through my understanding of Parenting by Connection, that biting is really a sign of fear. There was nothing intrinsically fearful about me paying attention to something else for a short moment, but somehow this small disconnection was triggering a bigger fear.

All children experience fear, from everyday situations such as falling over, or being separated from a parent for a short time. Then there are bigger more stressful events such as medical intervention, or a traumatic birth. Our children can recover from these stress or upsets, by crying, but they don’t always tell us about their fears in a straightforward way! When something stressful has happened they often need an extra big dose of connection with us, before they can release their feelings.

The biting wasn’t so bad, as usually I could deflect her teeth from chomping down on me. However one morning when I was busy getting ready she bit down on my arm and wouldn’t let go of me. We stared at each other like wild animals for about thirty seconds. I couldn’t do anything to make her let go!  For the first time I felt intense anger. I knew then that I needed to do something. So far it was only me that she bit, but I didn’t want her to start doing it to other children.

I decided to give my daughter some Special Time. This is when we listen to what our child wants to do, and follow their lead for a timed period. I had to ignore the thoughts in my head, that my daughter didn’t ‘deserve’ special time, and remember that was just me being triggered. I had to remember that the biting is a sign of fear. She didn’t mean to hurt me, she was trying to tell me how she was feeling in the only way she knew how. As I got down on the floor and began to play ball with her, I reflected upon what must have scared her. My pregnancy had been easy and straightforward. We had relatively stress free, happy lives. However her birth had been difficult. A long induction that ended in a vacuum extraction. I thought of the book, Birth without Violence, by Michel Odent, and felt so sad that she had experienced violence as such a tiny baby. I no longer felt angry, and began to cry suddenly feeling such empathy for her.

Later I experimented with using some playlistening to help her release some of the fear. When she tried to bite me, I would scream and try to crawl away. We had a few giggles as she chased me around the bed. I also gave her a pillow to bite which she enjoyed attacking! We had fun playing this game. My daughter seemed to enjoy the chance to play in a way we hadn’t before. To be given permission to express her power in play. It reminded me of the way kittens play, biting and scratching gently not wanting to cause pain, but just playing for fun. I began to understand that if I gave her opportunities to play in this way, then perhaps she wouldn’t feel the need to bite at other times.

My daughter would also scratch my face, particularly when she was tired. One afternoon when I was cradling her in my arms before sleep, she started scratching me. I moved her hands away and then began to initiate a game. I would say in a playful tone,

‘’you are my lovely sweet baby, so sweet and gentle,’’ and I would look into her eyes, and gently stroke her face or her foot. Then she would attack me with her arms grabbing or her legs kicking. I would respond by moving in close and giving her a hug to ‘protect’ myself. This elicited a lot of giggles. She really got into this game, and understood that my words and gentle stroking where a signal for her to attack! She was laughing much more than with our earlier playlistening games, and I could see her becoming more and more relaxed as we continued. She was peaceful and joyful. We were making a lot of eye contact. I felt like I had finally found the right game to help her release tension. It was a beautiful moment of connection where she could bring her up her aggressive feelings, and I could respond with affection and love. We finished the game and she fell asleep within seconds. That is a rarity!

The next day when we were getting ready to go out, my daughter bit me. I did not have time to play games, so without thinking I gently set a limit. I picked her up and told her ‘’please don’t bite me.’’ She started to cry, very suddenly and powerfully. I sat on the floor, as I cradled her in my arms. After that day my daughter stopped biting completely! I also began to see other signs, that she was discovering her natural confidence. Whereas before she would often be clingy and wanting to be picked up all the time, she now plays independently, at least some of the time. And I feel more at ease and accepting of what’s happened. Her birth may have not been what I wanted, but she can recover from this early trauma, using the natural healing process of laughter and tears. I’m letting go of my regrets about her birth because that was a time when I didn’t have many choices. As she grows up, I can make the choice of how I parent her, ensuring that she will grow up without violence, only love.

Need more help with aggression? Check out my 20 Fun Playlistening Games for Healing Aggression. Hand in Hand parenting also have an online self study course, No More Hitting.

Sleeping Through the Night

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When my 6 month old daughter didn’t sleep through the night, I wasn’t really looking for a solution, I didn’t like the concept of sleep training. We co-slept so when she woke it was easy simply to just feed her and then fall back to sleep. I was still getting my full eight hours with a few short interruptions. I assumed that she would sleep through the night eventually.

But after eight months, nothing was changing. I started to wonder why she was waking more than she did as a newborn. When I fed her she didn’t seem that hungry, and just sucked for a minute or two before falling asleep again. I read about sleep cycles, and how a baby needed a way to soothe herself back to sleep. It made sense that other babies were self-soothing back to sleep with their thumbs or a dummy, whereas I was my daughter’s comfort mechanism. But I thought that this couldn’t be the full story. My daughter had on occasion slept in four hour stretches. She also always woke half an hour after falling asleep; I knew that had nothing to do with being hungry, or transitioning through sleep cycles.

Before my daughter was born, I’d read a book called The Aware Baby. The author Aletha Solter explains that in the first three months of life, all babies spend some time each day crying ‘for no apparent reason.’ She explains that this kind of crying has a healing function. In a study conducted by Dr. William Frey, he compared real ‘emotional’ tears with those caused by chopping onions. He found that emotional tears contained stress hormones such as cortisol and other toxins. Crying is a way that we can literally release stress and tension out of the body.

All babies inevitably experience stressful events, such as a difficult birth, medical interventions, or just the daily stress of getting to know their new stimulating world. The understanding that crying was healing made sense to me. I’d gone through a difficult period in my life in my mid-twenties, when I’d felt depressed and physically exhausted. I’d written for therapy, done yoga, meditation, and also deep tissue massage. I often found that these modalities took me deeper into my sadness, and I would release my feelings through crying. I always felt much better afterwards, and eventually my depression lifted, and I felt a renewed sense of self and happiness.

Knowing about the healing function of crying helped me through the early colicy days of my daughter’s life. There were times when I didn’t bounce my daughter, pace the room or feed her. There were times, when nothing much worked but to listen. And what I found were those were the times when I’d had the deepest connection with her. By witnessing this pain that she felt, I felt connected to her deepest self. It was heartbreaking that she needed to cry so much, that she had so much suffering inside of her. But it also felt wonderful that she had this way to heal. Her birth had been difficult, but now I was able to cuddle her close to me, and tell her she was safe now as she expressed these strong feelings.

During the first few months of my daughter’s life, I fed her whenever she cried. As I didn’t use a dummy or, put her to sleep by herself, it seemed natural that eating and sleeping became intertwined. I fed her to sleep, but after a couple of months, that stopped working easily, so I would pace the room until she was more sleepy, and then try to feed her to sleep again. It took me a while to realise that these were what Aletha Solter, calls ‘control patterns;’ things to stop the crying that become habits that the baby comes to rely upon. I had thought I was helping her to sleep, but then I began to think, maybe what I was actually doing was repressing the feelings that she wanted to let out before she slept.

So next time my daughter needed to take a nap, I sat on the bed, and held her. She made some slow tired cries, and I watched her face look visibly more and more relaxed.

She looked so peaceful, as if she had been doing some baby yoga or meditation! She fell asleep much more easily than if I was pacing the room. I did this a few times, but I still felt some confusion about whether it was really okay just to let her cry. Sometimes she would ask to breastfeed, and then I would feed her. It wasn’t long before the habit of feeding to sleep had crept back. Yet occasionally I thought to myself, that she probably wasn’t hungry, and was just asking out of habit, because if we were out, then she would just fall asleep in her buggy without needing milk.

When my daughter was eight months old, I realised she was hardly crying at all. I still believed in the idea that crying was healing. And I missed that deep connection that I had with her when she cried. I noticed that when I fed her to sleep at night, she seemed to wriggle around a lot and have a lot of tension in her body. Feeding her to sleep wasn’t helping her relax. I reread The Aware Baby and realised that I’d forgotten most of its contents since my daughter had been born! My daughter was feeding every two hours, which I had always been puzzled by. All of the other babies I knew went 3 or 4 hours between feeds. Aletha Solter, explains that breastfeeding every two hours can be a sign that it has become a ‘control pattern.’ Other babies might have been using pacifiers or movement as their control patterns, but for us it was breastfeeding. I also realised that because breastfeeding was a control pattern, then she would ask for the breast out of habit even when she wasn’t hungry.

Aletha Solter also says that all healthy babies over six months of age are able to sleep through the night. She explains that babies above this age wake because of emotional tension. Just like adults, babies who have stress and tension, have trouble with sleep. I decided to try again, and let my daughter fall asleep without breastfeeding. This time the cries were powerful. I sometimes doubted whether I was doing the right thing, but then I’d look at her face, when she’d just fallen asleep after a big cry. She would smile and even giggle sometimes as she fell into dreams. It was clear that she’d cried away her upset and felt peaceful again.

I felt more certain that listening to her cry was the most loving thing I could do, and started looking for more resources to support me. The idea seemed so different to what I read and heard everywhere that I needed to know there were other parent educators and thinkers out there who understood the healing nature of crying. I returned to a website I’d looked at before called Hand in Hand parenting. I read some articles, and was relieved to hear Patty Wipfler’s compassionate advice, that it’s natural that in the close breastfeeding relationship children often come to depend on the breast for comfort. I downloaded a podcast from Hand in Hand, called ‘Helping your child sleep.’ These ideas, along with Aletha Solter’s, helped me to figure out what I needed to do to help my daughter sleep.

I started with the first time she woke up, at 9pm. Instead of feeding her I held her instead. She cried for just a few minutes and then fell back to sleep. I fed her as normal for the rest of the night. The next night, she slept right through the time of her first waking the night before, and didn’t wake up till 11pm. When she woke I repeated the process of holding her instead of feeding her. The next night she slept right the way through till 1am!

Sometimes when she woke, I could just hug her, and that would be enough for her to fall asleep. Other times she would have a big cry. Within a couple weeks she was sleeping through the night, and she now sleeps through the night, all of the time, apart from the occasional illness or emotional upset. She has become more relaxed and confident, as a result of being able to release her feelings through crying. And I feel so much closer to her, now that I’ve learnt how to listen to her more closely, rather than simply trying to stop her from crying.

In all the debate about baby’s sleep the experts divide into two factions. On the one side, there are those that think we should leave a baby to cry it out, so that they learn to sleep on their own. On the other side are the ones that think we should do whatever we need to do to stop our children from crying. But there is a third way that involves a deeper understanding about the nature of crying. That we don’t have to leave our children alone when they cry, that we can hold them and support them, and help them heal, so that they naturally sleep better.

We as parents often seem compelled to stop our children from crying. We think of this as parental instinct. But what feels like an instinct is actually a learnt behaviour that comes from our own childhoods. As psychiatrist Dan Siegal says, ‘we learn to parent, when we ourselves are being parented.’ Very few of us were listened to fully when we had upsets. Our parents might have thought it kindest to just stop the crying as quickly as possible. They may have told us to stop crying, ignored us, or said things such as ‘don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about.’

When we take the time to listen to our own children it can trigger the strong feelings of not being listened to as children. This and the common cultural idea that crying is a negative behaviour we must stop as quickly as possible makes it hard for us to listen to our children cry.

Now when my daughter cries, I don’t actually think of it as a ‘bad’ thing. Of course I’d rather she was happy and smiling, but when she cries, I know she’s doing the most intelligent thing she can, healing from her hurts and upsets. When we listen to our children when they have upset feelings, they can heal from the stress and tension that cause off-track behaviour such as aggression. Our children use ‘misbehaviour’ as a red flag to tell us they’re not feeling good. Listening allows our children to express their feelings through crying so they don’t have to resort to more indirect ways to tell us how they’re feeling.

Listening to our children cry is not easy, particularly if we weren’t listened to as children. In order to listen to our children well, we need to be listened to ourselves. Hand in Hand parenting has a wonderful (and completely free!) listening partnership scheme where parents can get together and exchange listening time with each other. This helps us to work through some of our difficulties, and to find our sense of well-being again. I’m always amazed at how spending ten minutes talking about my feelings after an exhausting day with my daughter, gives me such a sense of renewed energy that I can delight in being with her again.

Adults do not cry as easily as children, and this is partly because our feelings were suppressed when we were young. Through my listening partnerships I’m rediscovering my ability to cry easily, and learning first hand about just how healing crying can be. What I’ve learnt is that it’s never too late to find ways to heal, and change and develop as a person. Throughout my life I’ve met many people like me, looking for ways to shed that baggage they have carried throughout their lives. What a wonderful gift it is to give our children, to help them heal while they are still young, before the baggage gets too heavy. They can grow up retaining the lightness they have as children.

Are sleep struggles with your child leaving you exhausted? Hand in Hand Parenting offers an online self study course. Click here for more details. 

This article was previously published in Juno Magazine, issue 34.

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Listening Heals Connection to Dad, By Stephanie Parker

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Thanks to Stephanie Parker, Parenting by Connection Instructor in the UK for this guest post, about how the way we set limits with our children can be a wonderful way to heal connections.

When Innes was four she was going through a period of not connecting so well with her Dad. In the past they’d had a brilliant relationship but for a number of reasons it had not been that way for a while.

Innes enjoyed putting our cutlery on the table at breakfast time. However she always pulled out the camping spoon for Jim to eat his breakfast with. It wasn’t a particularly nice spoon but she was adamant that was the spoon Daddy was going to have. We always seemed to be in a rush in the morning so there was no time to set a limit and listen to her feelings.

After a few days I realised that I needed to do something about this as I could see how much tension Innes was carrying about it.

The next morning I made sure there was plenty of time to set a limit around it as we had breakfast slightly earlier. As usual Innes went to get the camping spoon out of the draw to give to daddy. I moved right in close to her and prevented her from picking this spoon up. I said ‘today we’re going to give daddy a different spoon, not this one’. ‘No’ she shouted ‘this is daddy’s spoon’. I continued to set the limit and repeat what I’d already said. It’s best to keep things simple here and not go into a big explanation as to why I wasn’t letting her give daddy this spoon.

Innes started to cry very loudly, she was also angry that I wouldn’t let her give daddy that spoon and kept running away from me into another room. I followed her as I want her to know I am there for her when she’s having strong feelings, I don’t want her to be on her own with them. I gently asked her to come and eat her breakfast but for a while she wouldn’t and kept crying and screaming at me.

She finally sat up at the table but tried to pull her chair right up to me and away from her Dad. I set another limit by stopping her from moving her chair and I gently said ‘we are going to leave your chair where it is’. She started to cry again and I listened and told her I loved her and daddy loves her and that she’s safe. After a few minutes of tears she ate her breakfast and then we had to leave for kindy.

When she got home from kindy she was in a very happy mood, much happier than she’d been in a while and she stayed like this for the next few days. She was also much more connected to her dad and they were back to their close and loving relationship. She didn’t try and give her dad the camping spoon again but happily gave him the same spoon as me.

Connect with Stephanie, on Facebook, or at on through her Hand in Hand Parenting.

It’ll all end in tears

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You know the old saying, ‘it’ll all end in tears,’ the warning our parents gave us when our play got giggly, wild and ‘out of control’? I gained a different perspective on this old saying when I discovered the Parenting by Connection approach from Hand In Hand Parenting.

Laughter is one of the ways that we release stress and tension from our bodies. For instance when we feel embarrassed it’s natural to giggle nervously, and we can probably all remember times as children when we tried to suppress are giggles when we got told off by a grown up.

Laughter also builds connection with our children, as they run, chase, and have fun with us, safety builds so they are able to tell us how they are feeling. After they release some ‘lighter’ tensions through giggling, this may mean that deep hurts rise to the surface. It might be that our child falls down, and has a big cry over what looks like a small hurt, because the are actually not just crying about the present moment, but releasing some feelings from past upsets that they didn’t cry about at the time.

I’ve sensed that my daughter has been feeling a bit ‘off-track’ recently. Three months ago, my grandmother died, and I felt devastated and exhausted. While I was grieving it was hard to give my daughter the deep sense of connection, that she craves. As we all know our children seem to need an almost infinite amount of attention! I took care of her basic needs, but there wasn’t much fun and laughter in our house for a while. I took every opportunity I could to let her dad take over so I could rest.

About a month ago, as I started to get more energy, my daughter’s behaviour started getting more challenging. It was as if she could sense that I was more emotionally available than I had been, and she started ‘telling’ me how she had felt when I didn’t have attention for her, by saying no to lots of things. Getting her dressed, or brushing her hair, were like invitations for her to run away. We didn’t always have time or I didn’t have the energy to chase her for half an hour, to get these things done! She also became really clingy, saying, ”I want my mummy’ all the time in a very screechy voice, that really pushed my buttons. And I noticed her showing fear of things that she had done confidentially before like going down a slide in the park. I had been trying to encourage her by waiting at the bottom of the slide, and telling her I would catch her.

Yesterday evening, I had some great listening time with my partners. I was able to talk about how disconnected my daughter and I were from each other and how I needed to reconnect but wasn’t sure how. I was able to vent all of my frustration about her constantly demanding my attention.

After that I felt full of energy, and all of the irritation I’d felt had vanished. I went to clean her teeth, and then she started running away from me, I chased her around the house, grabbing hold of her clothes, but always letting her get away, so she could feel powerful, and have fun. After laughing for a bit she happily cleaned her teeth, and then found more fun things to do, such as opening the bedroom door and run away giggling with delight, when she escaped me again. She laughed and laughed, and got to release all her excess energy from the day. We ended up ‘wrestling’ on our bed, with me pretending to sleep and her jumping on me saying ”ride ride donkey,” a game we play where I say that I am not a donkey but a mummy and I need to sleep. She laughed for a good hour before going to sleep.

Now I’ve practised Parenting by Connection long enough to learn that after so much laughter, tears will come. It might not be immediately, but in the next hour or day. It’s like a weather pattern, that after laughter, there will be tears.

This morning she woke up crying really suddenly, a bit earlier than usual. She sounded scared as if she’d had a bad dream. I went into the bedroom and held her. She cried for a few mins, and I was careful just to hold her, not say too much, and just be there. Then she said ”mummy dropped me.”

I realised that she was recounting something that happened a few days ago at the swimming pool. She had jumped into the pool and I was ready to catch her, but for a split second she had slipped through my hands, and went under the water, before I did catch her.  I recounted the story to her, saying I had dropped her for a second, but she was safe now, and I would always keep her safe. She cried even harder as I said I would keep her safe. When her crying died down again I sensed she was still upset so I told her the story again to reassure her, and each time I got to the part where I said I would always keep her safe she cried.

After crying for a while she was back to laughter again. We lay in bed, and did her favourite thing of the moment, where she makes up funny words like, ”poka and ”tanny” and then I repeat them exclaiming with surprise, and she laughs.

After that she was in a great mood. She happily got dressed and let me brush her hair with no need for any chasing! Then we went to the park. She played a game, where I pushed one of her babies down the slide, and she caught them. And then she left a baby at the bottom of the slide to catch her, and she went down herself!

With connection, laughter and tears, she could overcome the upset, that had happened when I couldn’t be completely there for her. If I had tried to distract or cheer her up, if I’d had said, you’re okay, said it’s just a bad dream and rushed to get on with the day, I might not have heard the story of why she was upset, or helped hwith her sense of disconnection and fears.

When our children get our connection, and can laugh with us, it might all end in tears, but that is natural. When our children can fully shed their sadness and fear, they get to that deeper happiness, that greater confidence beyond. And when that happens they don’t need to tell us anymore, through challenging behaviour just how bad they felt. All is well again. So don’t hold back on the laughter, because you’re getting nervous that tears might follow, just remember it’s all part of the natural cycle of human emotions. Just be sure to get some support for the challenging work we all do as parents, riding the storm of our children’s feelings!