Annie Keeling: Cry, baby, cry — The importance of letting baby find her peace
We’ve had a real spring here in Nevada County. New growth — and babies — are everywhere.
With an infant in arms, an adventure begins — one that no adult can quite imagine before the baby arrives. Parents’ attitudes toward babies emerge, many formed by societies’ views or their own family systems.
Our Attitude about Baby
A prevailing response to the small helpless infant is pity and rescue. “Poor baby. You can’t do anything for yourself. I will do it all.”
We feel responsible for every aspect of her existence. When she is happy or calm, others comment: “What a good baby. What a quiet baby.”
When the child cries, nearby adults are distressed. Some may convey judgment or imply a call to action: “Can’t you do something about that crying!” This can increase parents’ already anxious reaction.
What if we took on a new point of view, one that is closer to that of a baby? We can cultivate reactions of calm curiosity and support by practicing three attitudes: Observation, Acceptance, and Cooperation.
Our role as caregiver is to make sure that baby’s basic needs are met. Put on your curious detective hat. As she lands on this new “planet,” what are her concerns? Do I feel safe? Am I warm? Can I move about? Where will they put me when I’m tired? Will I get enough to eat? What happens when I cry?
The cry is the language of the small child. There is always a reason for her cry, even though we don’t always know what that is. Sometimes she needs a response and sometimes she doesn’t.
Observation is key. Watch your baby closely when she is crying. Instead of quickly assuming, can you take a moment to assess the situation?
When you closely observe, you’ll better see what you need to do for her and what she can do for herself. In a culture of busy-ness, taking this time is a practice that requires patience.
Do less and observe more. This will encourage your child’s natural abilities and set her up for life-long internal learning.
It can be extremely painful to hear a child cry. Adults tend to overreact. The crying may stir up parents’ own difficult memories — perhaps of times when they were told not to cry or were distracted or scolded when they did.
Children need to know what our reaction will be when they cry. Are adults unruffled? Shocked, irritated, or bewildered? When a child is upset and an adult tells them, “Oh, you’re alright,” the dismissal may teach the child to be dishonest about his feelings. He may feel scared by his big emotions and try to stuff them away.
What if we had a society where the attitude about crying in the presence of a loving, attentive caregiver was acceptance and compassion? Acknowledge his cry and let him know you are trying to understand what he needs. Talk in a genuine and loving voice. “You’re crying. What’s the matter?”
While the crying is difficult to hear, we still need to listen. The baby notices every time you react with alarm or anxiety. Practice an attitude of calm curiosity and untriggered support. Children’s crying does not make you — the mature adult — fall apart. Your own self-talk might include these words: “I’m okay with your feelings, therefore, you can be okay with your feelings.”
Often parents will jiggle, bounce, rock, or swing as they try to quiet the baby. These motions may express our own anxiety because we are at a loss as to how to stop the crying. Babies can learn to calm down by getting used to whatever actions we present to them. Consider, though, that these stimulating activities may be the opposite of what he needs to calm or quiet himself. They may calm us more than the baby.
Instead, BE calm. Move slowly. Parents often have a lot to do and are moving quickly while they care for the infant. Slow way down. Speak softly or hold him gently. As you go slowly, enjoy the process.
Truly allowing your baby’s cry to be okay — without dismissing, stopping, or distracting — is a huge step toward growing an emotionally resilient adult.
If we waited to speak to our children until they could talk, that would be a long silence. When we wait to engage our children in cooperation of their own daily care and activities, we miss opportunities for them to be a participant. Even though the baby can’t lift his legs during a diaper change, you can ask for his help — “Can you lift your bottom?” — even as you do it for him until he can actually help. In this same way, you can engage him in feeding, clothing, and bathing.
Tell your baby what is going to happen next. “Your arm goes in the sleeve here.” “I’m going to place you in the warm water.” This creates a respectful connection from the start. As you trust your baby to grow and become involved, she increases trust for you and the environment. Increased involvement in self-care will lessen crying by encouraging connection and decreasing frustration.
Enjoy these precious first years with an attitude of a keen observer who accepts feelings and encourages cooperation. Your attitude is a powerful parenting tool for calming your child.
Annie Keeling of Grass Valley teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-210-1100.
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