In my work as a sleep consultant I talk a lot about crying.
Why, you may ask? Why would that ever come up as a topic of conversation when we are talking about babies and sleep?
*The back row rolls their eyes*
Babies cry. Adults really don’t like to hear it. And society is constantly reminding us that “good” babies don’t cry.
Let’s talk about that for a minute.
Good babies do cry. They do.
Have you ever met a “bad” baby?! Is that a thing? Babies are born beautiful little creatures who need us for their maturation, development and survival. They are not born manipulators, troublesome, or angry. They are human. And humans cry. We cry to feel. We cry to heal. And we cry when we just can’t get the words out.
What makes a baby any different?
The difference between adults and babies (besides a well-developed prefrontal cortex), is the ability to communicate and rationalize using words. Our infants do not have the luxury of words. The only way they know how to communicate with us about their wants and needs is to cry.
A baby’s cry is their language. The purpose of this cry is to inform their adult caregiver of a need to be fulfilled. This may be a surface level need or something you can see such as; the changing of a wet diaper, or hunger fulfilled. But it may also be a cry for touch, closeness, a physical change in temperature, or to exit a stimulating environment.
In sleep training parents are often told to “ignore” their baby’s cry. I was told this too. And I bought into it. I bought in hard. To have a “good” sleeper, you must leave your baby alone to cry. They have to learn to “self-soothe”, the less stimulation the better, the less presence the better, and they will learn to work-it-out independently.
Although walking out of the room where my baby was crying raised every fiber on the back of my neck, I did it. I needed sleep more than anything, and so I listened to the words I was given despite my heart feeling quite distraught about the choice I had made. There were no other options presented at the time. It was this, or a lifetime sentence of sleep deprivation (or so I thought).
Then came along my second baby. My village expanded (mostly on the Internet), and brilliant, caring, empathetic educators who knew more about parenting, infant development, and sleep than I ever thought I cared to know, surrounded me. And I began to listen – to open my heart to the possibility that perhaps things could be different this time around. And I began to listen to my baby’s cry. And with this came the exploration of gentler sleep practices. Not “no-cry” sleep practices, as you will read on about. But ways to help our babies through the big emotions they are feeling when they are learning to sleep in a new and different way.
As a first time mom I did almost anything and everything I could to stop my baby from crying. Crying = bad for this first time mom. Well, and for most of society. Quick – pop that soother in her mouth! Bounce her. Rock her. Shush her. Shake a rattle to distract her, or dance around in circles! We do not want a baby doing what it was biologically designed to do! No way, no how! Ha. I find this laughable now. And it’s a good thing to, or I might be feeling a lot of guilt around my first time through the parenting sea.
With this baby I listened. I listened to every cry I could. I thought of it as a guessing game. What is this baby trying to tell me? Is there a difference to how he is communicating with me? Is that particular cry paired with an emotion on his face, or a sensation I can see in his body? Is that the same cry I heard yesterday, or is that one different?
The Dunstan Baby Language was my first introduction to the idea that my baby could actually have distinct different cries, and it was a good starting off point for beginning this exploration. But becoming okay with actually hearing those cries; that was hard for me. But the more I did it, the more I felt confident about being present and listening to him express himself. The more I understood him as a baby – the better I was able to meet his needs. I felt more confident in helping him through the emotions he was feeling, which also resonated better with the parenting style I had hoped I might find the first time around, but never did.
Now the way I often relate this to the families I am working with; is as so. Thinking of our teeny tiny babies as teenagers is a scary thing, but, one day it is going to happen. Perhaps it is because I have an extensive background in working with teens that this is the example that works best for me.
But as our children grow and develop into more mature beings, we will have more complex conversations with them. As their language (and prefrontal cortex) develops, they are going to be able to express themselves in a number of different ways.
Some of what they have to say is going to be VERY hard for us to hear. “Mom – I’m drunk. Can you come pick me up.” Or, “Dad – I smoked pot for the first time yesterday.” Now these two things may be extremely difficult to hear as a parent. I would feel upset, angry, and likely distraught, over either of these two examples. But then I would feel a sense of calm in knowing that my child has built up enough faith, hope, and trust in me to care to share these words. Our attachment is strong. I have shown that I will always be there to listen to my child’s words, as difficult as they might be for me to hear, and for this very reason they have decided to continue to seek me. Not a teacher. Not a coach. Not their best friend. Although I love these people and hope they will seek them out if they are struggling, but I will know they have decided that I am worthy of a difficult conversation should I ever hear the words above.
I believe this begins in infancy. Continues through childhood, and adolescence. Responding to cries, builds trust.
If we want our children to continue to talk to us, we will be there to listen to them. We will hold the space, respect what they have to say, and hear them out before offering suggestions, reacting, or telling them to “be quiet”.
Now this is not written to guilt or shame any one who has “sleep trained” their baby. Surely many past clients of mine are reading this now thinking – but you told me to leave the room! I did. I know. It’s true. And in some cases I may still choose “controlled crying” as the best approach for a family. But this would be after careful thought, lots of discussion about alternatives, and an empowered voice as to why we believe this to be so. This wouldn’t be because I had the notes of “how to sleep train a baby in 5 easy steps” as printed off the Internet.
Our babies and toddlers feel many BIG emotions throughout the day. They feel intensely. They breathe deeply. They play HARD. And with bedtime comes a calm down, an exit from the busy day, and a slow down of the synapses they are continuously firing. If you are experiencing a lot of crying from your baby at bedtime you may want to consider this; have you given them the time to be heard today? What are they trying to tell us? Is this a release from a time I didn’t see? Emotional or physical stress from labour or the womb? As crazy as it might sound; studies do show that our relationship with our children does begin in pregnancy, and some of the crying you see can be healing from a traumatic time.
Now as a side note I want to say; this took me incredible courage to write and publish. I am not a perfect parent. I never will be. I will never pretend to be. And I have made tons of mistakes along the way and will continue to do so. But sometimes knowing more means doing better. And so, I am on a journey to parent a little bit better the day that follows the one before, and to be okay with the difficult conversation of crying.
Thank you for reading. And thank you Stacie Lynn Photography for the beautiful images here.