[Note: This post is relevant for babies of any age, plus toddlers and young children.]
It’s 2am and my 5 month old baby is awake. Considering he went to sleep at 6pm the night before, I happily give him a feed. He goes back to sleep, but is a bit wriggly.
1.5 hours later, he’s awake again, restless and looking for another breastfeed. I’m tired and figure the easiest thing to do is to feed him again so that he will go back to sleep, and so can I.
This time though, when he’s fed for quite a while, he’s incredibly restless and would clearly like to just latch on and never leave. When I do take him off, he’s squirming, and starting to cry. I try to settle him with a cuddle but he’s not having any of it. He wants the boob and that’s it!
I’m awake now and groggily start to realise that it’s not food he’s after any more. There’s something else he needs.
So what’s going on?
When babies are wanting to feed all the time, it’s generally an indication of pent up feelings. Yes it’s natural to want the comfort of a breastfeed, and yes it’s natural to want to be close and cuddled. But when a baby is so clearly agitated, restless and nothing will really satisfy them, then there is something else going on. If they are not ill and require medical attention, then it is highly likely that they need to release the pent up feelings and sensations that are causing them to be so agitated.
Do babies have feelings?! Surely they are too young and don’t know enough of what’s going on?
Babies have LOTS of feelings! From the time they are born, there is a huge assault on their senses – light, touch, hunger, cold, heat, funny rumblings in their tummies, loud noises, scary faces, etc. They also start to experience frustration – waiting to be fed, waiting to be picked up, being put in the car seat yet again, wanting to grab an object that’s just out of reach. And they can start to experience fear – people shouting, a dog barking close by, the fearful expression on their parent’s face.
There is huge brain activity as they are learning incredibly quickly about their body and the world around them.
So with all of this going on, they need a way to deal with it. And that is where crying comes in. Nature has provided this wonderful mechanism where babies (and all of us) can immediately and fully release the scary, frustrating, overwhelming sensations. Crying releases stress hormones which then helps to return our body to homeostasis – i.e. our natural, relaxed state.
How do we help our baby with that?
We lovingly say no to more feeding. We lovingly hold them in our arms. And we lovingly listen to them whilst they cry. We offer our eye contact, our touch and our safe presence. We allow them to experience and release their full range of emotions.
When they are little, our babies can just lie in our arms and freely cry. They may take short breaks where they look away as if to zone out but we continue to offer our loving eye gaze so that when they are ready to return, they will see us and feel safe to cry some more.
As they get older and bigger, they will start to squirm, arch their backs, scrunch up their eyes, maybe start to suck their thumb. We can hold them in our arms, or have them on the bed next to us. Anywhere where they can be close enough to feel our touch, see our eyes and know that they are safe with us. We can stroke their bodies, gently tell them that we love them, and just pour our love into them whilst they writhe, wriggle and cry.
But don’t we need to comfort them? To stop them from crying? I don’t want my baby to be upset.
It can be SO hard to see our beautiful, precious baby sad or upset. They are such tiny, vulnerable beings and we would do anything in the world to look after them. It can therefore be important to remember:
Our babies cry because they are upset. They are not upset because they are crying.
If we can remember that crying is natural, normal and useful. It is a way to communicate AND it is a way to release. As long as, and this is the really important bit(!), they cry in the presence of someone who is lovingly being present with them. Crying on their own is NOT the same – it is scary and will compound the emotions that caused them to start crying in the first place.
So we comfort them with our loving presence. We comfort them with our acceptance of their sadness, frustration, etc. We comfort with our loving caress and gentle words. And we comfort them by trusting that they are OK and will be free of whatever is the matter with them once they have finished with their cry.
Just think of how calm and relaxed you are after you’ve had a really good cry with your partner or friend who has loved you throughout.
So – back to us in the middle of the night….
I knew he wasn’t ill. I knew he had been fed. His nappy was fine. And I remembered that he hadn’t had a cry the day before. I also knew that to have him attached to me all night would not be useful for him or me.
So I just held him in my arms whilst he cried and cried. He cried for about 40 minutes and towards the end, he would pause and then cry and then pause again. His pauses became longer and he stopped crying altogether. His eyes closed and he calmly fell into a relaxed, deep sleep until about 8am.