Wow. It has been a hot minute since I sat down to write a blog post. The seasons are changing in my world, and I have found it difficult to juggle all of the hats I have had to juggle this past year. Running a business, raising two kiddos, and working through a masters degree, all while enduring a global pandemic has been a struggle! But alas, I have found some time, some quiet space, and some thoughts to share with the world.
In the last two calls I had with families the parents asked this question…
Is there a difference between tears cried together, and tears cried alone?
If my baby is going to cry regardless of if they’re in my arms, in my presence, or alone in their bed, what difference does it make? Perhaps it would be easier on everyone if we just put our baby in their bed and let them cry it out, right?
Wrong, friends. Wrong.
There is a difference. Allow me to explain.
Babies are born relationship seeking, and attachment seeking. They enter the world with a very underdeveloped brain, and therefore rely on their reptilian brain (or senses) to help them navigate the world. When they are cold, they cry. When they are hungry, they cry. When they are tired, they cry.
The tears our little ones cry are designed to establish relationships with the adults in their world who are meant to keep them safe.
The tears do not manipulate. Small babies are incapable of manipulation. When a baby’s cries are responded to by an attuned caregiver, their nervous system returns to a place of homeostasis, and their body and brain relax. The parent is called upon to help the child co-regulate, so that they can down-regulate, and this is something children are incapable of doing SOLO because their neocortex is so underdeveloped.
When a relationship happens as a result of tears being shed, the child learns they are safe.
Through establishing safety here, a secure attachment begins to form. Giving our children a safe and secure place to land is important for their future mental health, and it begins to be established here in infancy through tears cried at bedtime or in the middle of the night.
There is a saying in the child development world; neurons that fire together, wire together. When tears are responded to and the parasympathetic nervous system activated in the child, the relationship between parent and child is actually enhanced.
Therefore, tears attended to are NOT for nothing, they are for something.. And that something is relationship, attachment security, and a regulated nervous system.
Even if the tears do not stop in arms, the child knows you are there and you are trying to help. Interoception is the way we sense and feel things in our body. Interoception affects our procedural memory, and it is in place from the beginning of a child’s life. If a caregiver picks up on the baby’s cues, and the baby is attended to, the baby’s interoception will continue to develop in a healthy way, and this is important. We want this to happen!
So what happens when a child cries tears in isolation? Let’s talk about it a little bit… This is not meant to guilt or shame, but I think it is fair that parents who are considering leaving their child alone to cry in the name of sleep have an understanding of what takes place in the child’s brain, nervous system, and attachment relationship.
Because children are born attachment and relationship seeking at all costs, they will do anything to re-establish relationship when they are feeling threatened.
Let’s think about this by looking at something a slightly older child might do. Say a preschooler is crying because they are feeling sadness. They go to their “big person”, and the big person tells them to, “be a good kiddo and stop crying”. What has the child learned in this moment?
- To be in a relationship with this important big person, I have to quiet my tears.
- To be a good kid, I have to push away my sadness.
- Tears are not an appropriate response when I am feeling sad.
- Attaching to the caregiver is SO important, and in order for this to happen I must detach from the feelings I know to be true in myself.
Now, any logical person reading this will say – but tears are an appropriate response when you are feeling sad. But ask yourself, is this what the child has learned? They have learned that they cannot trust the response their nervous system is providing, and feel the feeling they truly have if they wish to maintain in relationship with this important big person. As a result the nervous system remains activated; typically in a fight, flight, or freeze, state. Or the child will move to a collapse response.. Whereby they have accepted their fate and modify their response to comply with the threat. Pre-verbal infants, young toddlers, and preschoolers, will not be able to articulate their feelings of threat verbally, and so.. They will cry, until they don’t.
A quiet child is not necessarily a regulated child.
There is evidence to suggest that a child’s sympathetic nervous system, the one that prepares us for fight or flight, remains activated long after they have stopped crying in isolation. This energy does remain in the body until it is expended.
Our basic sense of safety begins with interoception. It is impossible to feel safe when a basic need, such as the one for connection, is not met. If our interoception is tweaked in infancy and childhood, it can lead us to false interpretations such as; perceiving danger to be present, when it is not there. When our instincts lead us astray, our nervous system may be impacted and emotional dysregulation may take place as a result.
Together, our brain, body, and emotions work to help our nervous system function, and our nervous system plays a big part in how we understand our world and move through our emotions.
Being with your child in their sadness IS a positive thing. It can strengthen relationship, it can strengthen attachment, and it honours the cues the nervous system is sending and helps model future skills for emotional regulation.
If you are reading this, and you are feeling guilt, shame, or fear because you have already let your child cry-it-out, I have a few ideas for you as well. I was in this boat, and I felt guilty for many years after acquiring the knowledge I have today. But in my guilt, I learned…
- It is never TOO late to have a healthy childhood, your actions today in attuning to what your child needs to feel safe will help repair the rupture if one has taken place.
- Attachment is malleable through the lifespan, and there is evidence to suggest more attachment security will form once a safe relationship is established.
- Think about how many times your child cried in isolation, and then think of how many times you actually responded with loving attunement → I am sure you did far more of the latter, and that has likely already helped to repair some of what has taken place.
- Feel your feelings about this.. Your sadness, your despair, your regret, if you have any. Because only through feeling your own feelings can you truly put them behind you, move beyond them, and put them at rest.
I know this is a heavy topic, and honestly it is one that many folks don’t want to hear. But, I hope if you have found this today it was meant for you, and it will set you on a journey that leads to increased understanding, self-love, and compassion for one’s own self, and being present for your crying baby.