Why does my baby or child cry?
The importance of crying in babies, children, and adults…
- Are you struggling to cope with your baby crying?
- Does it feel like they cry often for no apparent reason?
- Are you feeling like there might be something really wrong with your baby and yet they don’t appear to be ill or have any other apparent immediate need?
Maybe you feel desperate after sitting with your crying baby for a long time. When your baby cries maybe you feel like you might be doing something wrong. Maybe you feel terrified that something may be wrong with your baby and you don’t know what it is. Many parents can feel helpless, useless, ashamed, or alone when their children cry or tantrum.
In the modern Western world expressing feelings is often not well accepted, especially in children and babies. I remember as a young mother being asked countless times whether I had a good baby. This question really seemed to be asking whether my baby cried a lot. I imagine for parents whose baby does need to cry a lot, that this question could leave a parent feeling either they or their baby is not good. The other message that comes through this seemingly harmless question is that crying is bad.
I would like to share some information that may be helpful in understanding the importance of crying as a process for releasing fears, frustrations, and emotional pain.
I wonder if before I start you can write down the answers to some of the questions below. Try and hold the answers as you continue to read through the rest of the article. I encourage you to be very gentle with yourself when you read this information and remember it is never too late to heal. You may also need to find someone to do some processing with afterward around how your emotions were held when you were young. You can also come and share your experience on the Facebook page.
I wonder if you can remember a time when you were really upset about something and had a really big cry. What was it like and how did you feel afterward? Maybe you can’t remember such a time because you have not been able to cry. Do you have any thoughts or feelings about crying? What would it mean to you to have a big cry with someone? What do you imagine someone might think about you if you cried? Can you remember a time when you had something really important to share or had some big feeling and for some reason, someone was not able to respond to you or worse maybe they made you feel bad for having them? How did you feel? What did you think about yourself?
If you stay in touch for a moment with these feelings and thoughts from that time I wonder how you would have liked to have been responded to? What would you have liked someone to say? What would you have loved them to do? Babies and children are no different from us. When they have big emotions they need us to respond to them in the same way we would like someone to respond to us – with empathy and compassion.
The process of being seen and heard when expressing emotions creates safety around emotional expression and is fundamental to a developing human being. It will also ensure, when children have grown up, they will become emotionally intelligent adults.
Crying in babies happens for two reasons. One is to meet a physical need and the other is to release from emotional stress. It is very important to meet a baby’s physical needs and respond quickly and appropriately. A parent who is well attuned to their baby’s physical needs will teach their baby that it is safe to have needs and as they grow into adults that these needs can be met. If a baby cries excessively one day or has a very high-pitched cry it may be necessary to seek medical attention.
When you are sure that all your baby’s physical needs are met and there is no medical problem, and yet your baby continues to cry, then you can lovingly hold them in your arms while they cry. I always encourage parents to notice what their baby is like after they have had a cry in the loving arms of a parent. Are they more peaceful, more connected, can they sleep more easily?
Research by William Frey, who studied the biochemistry of tears, found that tears contain a hormone known as ACTH. This hormone is responsible for stimulating the pituitary gland to produce cortisol. When someone becomes stressed this hormone increases in the body. He deduced that if this hormone was released in tears then this would reduce the amount of ACTH in the body thereby sending a signal to the brain saying the body could now return to homeostasis. As well as the chemical release through crying there is also an emotionally energetic release that takes place after crying.
In 1973 D.H. Stott wrote that babies in Western societies cry on average for two hours a night for no apparent reason. Researchers in London found that persistent crying in babies occurred despite them receiving a high-level of maternal care.
These research studies, along with the psychotherapeutic understanding around the emotional release and the healing nature of crying, provides the understanding that babies, like adults, have the same emotional needs and release emotions through crying. When babies cry they are not doing something wrong or rejecting their mother in some way; they are doing something that is completely natural, and in fact necessary, for healthy connected development.
Some mothers may say that their baby’s world is calm and there is nothing to upset them. While I agree that the removal of external stimulation from a young baby is important, in my experience there are still many things that may happen in a baby’s life from which they may need to release emotions:
- A baby may need to heal and cry from prenatal stress such as moving house, relationship or work difficulties, financial stress and other issues.
- There many be a need to heal from a difficult birth particularly if the baby was separated from the mother early on, or if it went on for a long time, required various types of intervention, or simply the bright light or cold of coming out of the womb.
- A baby may have unfulfilled needs around being picked up, held and touched.
- A baby may also become over-stimulated or frightened by loud noises, which can so easily happen in our busy world.
- Your baby may be feeling frustrated about trying to reach their next developmental milestone.
- Sometimes it may be nothing huge. You might simply be in the middle of playing with your baby and your phone rings and you jump up and grab it. To your baby, this might be confusing and distressing, with them not understanding why you have suddenly left and stopped playing.
- Your baby may also need to release emotions around painful physical experiences.
If a parent is not able to be with a baby when they cry for some reason a baby may start to repress their own emotions through either doing what was done to them when they cried or doing something to themselves such as sucking their thumb or holding on to a comforter. Control patterns are so often passed from generation to generation and it’s likely that the way you were responded to as a child when you needed to cry, will be the way you will respond to your child. It is even how you may respond to yourself now as an adult. These suppression processes are called control patterns in Aware Parenting.
Emotions can be suppressed in many ways. These ways are often passed down through the generations. Some mothers will move their babies when they cry by jiggling them, bouncing them or swinging them. Babies who have experienced movement can become self-rockers and as older children constantly need to move and as adults engage in excessive sports. If a baby is nursed for comfort rather than hunger, they may want to nurse frequently when upset, and as an adult turn to food to suppress their emotions later in life. If distracted with toys, books, music, or games a baby could become very demanding and need constant attention, and as adults may use Facebook scrolling or other forms of distraction to avoid their emotions.
When emotions around fears, frustrations, and painful experiences cannot be released through crying in childhood it may result in frequent overreactions to similar situations in adulthood. This process is called unfinished business in Gestalt Psychotherapy. This unfinished business occurs when a painful memory in the past is brought into the present due to its similarity to a past situation. The adult then responds emotionally not just to what is happening in the present but also to the mirrored situation from the past. When something isn’t healed in the past it will continue to resurface in adulthood until it can be healed.
Fortunately, there are many therapies available for adults where they can heal from early trauma. Though I wonder wouldn’t it be wonderful to help our children heal from their hurts in childhood rather than carry them into adulthood? I always want to remind parents that it’s never too late to heal from past hurts. I know many parents when they first hear about Aware Parenting wish they had done things differently. If this is the case I really encourage you to be gentle with yourself as you read through this information. You were doing the best you could with the information you had. I believe that past feelings will always come up again and again in life to be heard and healed so there is always another opportunity.
Also, on some days we simply don’t have the resources to listen to our babies crying or we may be able to listen to some and not all their emotions. This is absolutely fine. Just tell your baby or child that you know they need to cry more but Mommy or Daddy just can’t listen to more today and will be able to do it another time. It is absolutely okay to then do what you would normally do to stop your child from crying until you are again able to listen. The emotion will always be there until it can be heard in full so there is always another opportunity and another day.
Sitting with our children’s pain may at times be hard. It can touch on all the times we weren’t heard or seen as children. I encourage you to find someone who can listen to your emotions around these times so that these can be released.
Learning to embrace your own and your child’s emotions will enable them to feel their emotions as they pass through them so that they can become peaceful and connected afterward. Supporting them in their experience will help them become emotionally intelligent adults that value their emotions. Listening to your child now will help them develop a deep trust that will keep them talking to you when life becomes more complicated as they get older. Children whose emotions are unconditionally accepted by their parents are less likely to be impacted by peer pressure around drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to know what they want and are clearer on what interests them. Your child is more likely to be happier, more confident, kind, and self-assured.
I wonder as you have read through this what stands out for you. Do you notice that you may need to do certain things when you are upset and are these similar to what you may believe your baby needs when they are upset? Be gentle with yourself if you now notice you have certain control patterns. These patterns have helped you survive into adulthood. Simply trying to stop one will only result in another one coming and sometimes it may be hard to identify how it has shifted.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me. I provide online courses and also one-on-one sessions. I also have a recommended list of books, which includes all of Dr. Solter’s books and more. You may also find it helpful visiting Dr. Aletha Solters website www.awareparenting.com.