What my baby taught me about crying
My baby girl, Aria, was born four months ago in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium. I’ve been a father to a newborn for little time, and this situation came with many doubts and surprises. Crying is one topic that has made me question everything I thought I knew about it. Aria, indeed, cries sometimes throughout the day and night, like every baby out there, right?
Unlike at the beginning, most of her cries are short-lived, and we fairly quickly understand what she needs. However, there are times in which all her basic needs are met, and yet she cries uncontrollably. “What am I doing wrong?” comes to my mind, but then I realize it is not about me, and I ask something different: “What can I do for her?”
When this happens, I do my best to create an environment where my daughter can feel safe and loved so she can cry to her will. Let me illustrate how it usually all unfolds.
Her crying and our “little routine.”
Disclaimer. What I am about to describe is not a script, and it doesn’t happen all the time exactly so. However, it has occurred more often than not, and that is why I can share it with you.
While she cries, I carry and hold her close to my chest facing me, surrounding her with my arms in a non-repressive way. She gets enough physical freedom to move if she wants to. My arms will adapt to her movements accordingly. My right arm is usually supporting her bottom. I tuck my left arm under her right armpit, so she has a crying shoulder available.
I gently place my left hand on her head, offering physical support if she moves away from me, and also showing her that I am there for her. I tend to approach my face close to her head when possible, so she feels the air coming out of my nose — potentially indicating that her dad is aware of what’s happening.
At this point, she could be crying very strongly, sobbing and whining without stopping, only pausing to grasp new air and continue. She shows her strength and frustrations with her wild movements and twitches, she shakes her head to both sides, and most of the time cries on my shoulder. Sometimes it feels like she wants to get inside of me by pushing her head through my shoulder.
I, on the other hand, am calm, stand still, and not doing anything to try to soothe her. I do not rock her, sing to her, talk to her, shake her, or move in synchronized ways to try to calm her down. Instead, I remain calm throughout the whole process and show her my support by holding her.
Eventually, she calms down a bit and breathes heavily, almost like sighing. I use these gaps to talk to her as if we would be in a conversation. What I mean is that I try not to interrupt her or get on top of her voice. If she breathes, I use that moment to speak to her. If she cries, I gently stop talking and let her continue.
In these micro conversations, what I say may not be so important to her, but rather how and when I say it. I whisper to her in a very calm and loving way that her daddy is there for her. That she is safe and can cry all she wants and needs. I tell her that she can let it all out and that nobody has a problem with that.
Most of the time, our conversations carry on for minutes in this back and forth of crying and whispering, crying, and whispering. Sometimes though, Aria hears my voice, and her response is a louder and stronger cry. She increases the intensity, and it feels like she’s screaming at the top of her lungs. For me, it is the climax moment, as there’s nothing more intense than this precise instant. It can last a couple of minutes.
I fear she’s going to remain without air or that she’s somehow severely hurt, and I am unaware of her discomfort. Then my brain starts wondering about what’s happening, and I question myself and the situation. Have I been misreading her signs? Perhaps she’s in physical pain? I wish she could tell me how she feels.
Then, all of a sudden, she calms down, lays on my shoulder once again, and it’s deadly silent. The twitches and movements are gone. The cries stopped, and she’s there, laying down, calm as ever in my shoulder. Her breathing goes back to a peaceful state, and then she falls asleep.
I remain baffled and confused. I know what the outcome is going to be, yet it still perplexes me and keeps me on edge, trying to figure out if there’s something I am not understanding.
Empathy towards my baby daughter
So, what happened?
Let me start by stating the obvious. I am not my daughter, so I cannot speak for her or pretend I know what she feels or not. However, my analysis is the following. Aria needed a good cry to steam out something that was bugging her. That’s it.
Let’s try to be empathetic and pretend we are a baby quickly growing up and experiencing an insane amount of new things. Our brain is developing at a fast pace, and the whole situation is overwhelming. We do not comprehend exactly everything that’s going on around us, and we are continually being handled around by giants that emit noises. We can barely control our bodies, and worst of all, we do not understand our feelings, and we are unable to speak our minds. It all sounds terrifying, frustrating, and stressful.
How would you react to such difficulties? Would you ignore it and carry on? Would you cry of despair instead? Regardless of your approach, a typical and known response by babies would be to cry.
Again, if we try to be empathetic with babies, the least we can do is to be non-judgmental about how they feel. For example, if they are frustrated, we shouldn’t tell them not to be frustrated.
How would you react if every time you are happy, someone would tell you not to be? If every time you are sad, someone would come and tell you not to be? Would you simply accept this command and stop feeling the way you do? Has anyone ever told you while you are crying not to cry? I have, and it is not appreciated.
We should instead support them when they are, and offer them a safe place to express their emotions. If they cannot feel safe with their parents, how are they going to find a safe environment for them to show their feelings?
Disclaimer. It happens many times that she doesn’t calm down at all after crying for a while. Then, however, she would show signs of hunger/thirst, and mom will come to satisfy her basic needs. Other times, mom comes to carry her and see how she reacts, which may or may not end the crying.
Where I come from
I was born in a society where crying was highly discouraged from an early age. The adults and other children throughout my childhood and adolescence would always tell me the typical sentence: “Boys don’t cry,” and shame me if I would. Crying was never really accepted and was seen as a sign of weakness. It wasn’t against boys necessarily, so everyone was a target. Crying was weak. Feelings were weak.
Where I come from, it is common to believe that babies are manipulative machines with evil plans to control their parents. Succumbing to your children’s cries is a sign of weakness, and it only means you haven’t taught them some discipline. A child should know who the boss is, and that is the parents. If they even attempt breaking that power, that means trouble. Crying is unacceptable. Parents who are in real control do not allow their babies to cry. If they do, they must be left alone, so they learn that crying leads nowhere. Otherwise, they receive threats with “real” reasons to cry.
I remember very well the feeling of holding up a tear and a good cry for fear of being laughed at, ridiculed, or being targeted as soft amongst my peers. I got too used to it all. I mocked others and myself for crying.
The mind shift
My wife, Sarah, has a 10-year-old boy, Matteo, who lives with us for a week, and then goes to his dad. Sarah and Matteo accepted me in their lives and introduced me to fatherhood. Seeing Matteo grow and encounter difficulties in his childhood has made me realize how much pressure I used to have as a child not to cry.
Matteo often cries for several reasons, be it anger, frustration, fear, regret, pain. My old brain would usually think: “Don’t cry! Boys don’t cry! Chin up and take it”, and feel almost disappointed that he was crying. My new brain, however, encourages him to cry when he feels like it. I offer my support when necessary and show him that I am there for him if he needs me.
My wife becoming pregnant with my wife was the pivotal moment in my life in which I saw crying entirely differently. I no longer judge myself or anyone for crying, and I am so glad about my mind-shift.
My wife introduced me to the work of Aletha J. Solter, a developmental psychologist, who is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. Solter is the founder of The Aware Parenting Institute and has written many books about the subject. I cite from her website:
Her goal is to help create a nonviolent world in which all children are allowed to attain their full potential. With the tools of Aware Parenting, she is confident that parents can raise their children to be competent, compassionate, nonviolent, and drug free.
I got interested in her teachings, and after reading The Aware Baby, one of her books, I decided to be more aware of the feelings of my daughter. Empathy, instinct, and common sense towards Aria are my guides. Also, the practical tips of Solter in her book indeed helped me in my path.
I am not an expert in this subject, nor I advocate the work of Solter as the only possible way of raising your children. However, her work and research have opened my eyes to how I see and understand the act of crying, especially in babies.
Crying to release stress
One of the things I ignored before knowing her work was how crying could have benefits to our health by helping us releasing stress. Crying has a self-soothing effect, can release pain, and improve our mood. Cortisol and adrenaline, both stress hormones, are released via our tears when crying.
Since I have repressed crying so much in my life, I ignored all of these positive effects and lived many years in suppressed anger. Now, I have been more prone to cry since I discovered these benefits, embracing and accepting my feelings instead of hiding them.
Have you had a good cry in your life and felt better afterward? I am sure we all have cried, even if we do not want to admit it, and potentially felt better because of it. How about crying while having the support of someone being close to us? I do not know about you, but the few times I have cried, having someone close to me, supporting me has undoubtedly helped.
Now, let’s translate that information to our babies, and see if we could change or at least question the way we think about their cries. Babies express their needs with many cues, and sometimes crying is one of them, albeit when they cry, it could be the last signal they give to satisfy their needs. Crying could mean that we are too late to understand what they want.
Another option, and only after their basic needs have been met, is that they could be stressed, upset, or frustrated. If this is the case, wouldn’t it make sense that we make ourselves available by providing them with a safe and empathetic environment for them to cry and hence, release their stress?
The instinctual response
From a natural standpoint, I recognize that carrying my baby while she cries to release stress is something that feels somehow counter-intuitive. There’s a more natural response that arises when she cries, and it is to distract her quickly, so she stops crying. The distraction can take many shapes, from making faces and noises, offering a toy, removing her from what she’s doing, rocking her, feeding her, singing to her, and many other techniques.
By offering a distraction when she cries, I may be stopping her from expressing herself as a human being. At the same time, I may be indicating to her that crying is not acknowledged and rather discouraged and that her feelings need to be shut down and suppressed.
I cannot deny the feelings of stress and frustration when she cries. However, I have learned that I need to be aware of my daughter’s feelings and try to understand what she wants. If all her basic needs have been met yet she cries, there is a chance she may need a good cry to release stress. Then, I am more than happy to provide her with the appropriate environment for her to let it all out.
What has helped me make this shift and not jump into the more “natural” response of shutting her up, is to take the time to analyze what’s happening and acknowledge her feelings as a human being in a respectful way. I try to put myself in her place as much as I can and think about what she needs, instead of putting my old cultural dogmas in front of me.
Aria is a human being continually evolving and changing. Every day we see small steps of growth manifesting in a myriad of ways. When we think we understand her cues and signs, we realize she has changed once again, exhibiting new forms of expression.
As she grows, we have to comprehend and adapt to her new ways. There is no script in being a parent, and no amount of books or articles are going to prepare you adequately to a crying baby, but they can give you a fresh perspective and mind shift. We are continually adapting, trying to understand better her personality one step at a time. It is a long journey that I am sure seasoned parents recognize.
Ultimately, it is my purpose to be there for my daughter when she needs a safe environment to cry. I will encourage her cries and will do my best to comprehend her needs, so she feels listened to, cared for, and loved.
I have no association with the authors mentioned in this article. I have researched the topic of crying and have found this to be what works best for us. I encourage you to find your path to the complex subject of crying.