Signs of Emotional Stress: How to Recognize When Baby Might Need to Have a Good Cry

I’m reposting this because I have some really helpful new pics, and I think this topic is super important! 

Your partner seems tense. Your best friend seems agitated. What do you do?

from wernative.com

Check in with “Are you okay?” Or offer some help or a kind word? Would you rather avoid him/her? Or maybe you freak out yourself too, or maybe feel you don’t know what to do.

What about when you’re angry, sad, frightened, anxious, or frustrated? Or even when you don’t know what’s bothering you. Or you’re just having a hard day…

Let’s really look at how we can tell—it will be useful regarding Baby in a moment!

  • Do you (or can you see your friend) hold your breath?
  • Feel those certain tense spots (i.e., shoulders)
  • Clench your jaw or tighten your lips
  • Grip objects tightly
  • Throw something (or feel like it)
  • “Check out”—become vague, depressed, low on energy, spaced out
  • Speak to others in ways you wouldn’t otherwise
  • Start rushing or feel hyper
  • Become irritable

These are signs and symptoms of being stressed, not expression of the emotion itself.

Consider babies (and toddlers)

Pensive sadBaby comes equipped with the full set of human emotions! A baby is just as much a “person” as we are. Some people assume that babies “don’t feel anything” (beyond wanting milk, mama, or a toy). I often hear parents wondering, “how much stress can a baby really accumulate (especially one in a loving home)?”

It’s true. Babies Feel. The difference is, they are thankfully still really good at expressing it—they haven’t yet lost touch with their emotions or with their beautiful healing instincts!

(If the word “stress” as applied to your baby worries you, please take a deep breath. All babies experience some sooner or later, even the healthiest ones. It does not mean you’re a ‘bad’ parent.)

Do you ever experience times when Baby cries even after all her immediate needs have been met, and you don’t know the reason? Crying (with loving attention) is healing. You may or may not already be familiar with how to support this need to cry in-arms (for more info, and why Baby might be stressed, see my blog posts). This crying or raging is the expression of the emotion itself.

Emot stress3

But sometimes Baby will show signs of feeling strong emotions, yet won’t be crying. Some of these actions and behaviors can be misinterpreted as ‘the way babies always are,’ ‘cute,’ ‘discipline problems, or manipulation. but you can learn to read when they mean Baby might need to have a good cry in your arms.

Watch for the following signs that potentially signify emotional stress:

  • Grabbing more often or holding objects more tightly than usual
  • Clingy (beyond a typical desire to be held)
  • Hitting
  • Playing fast—moving quickly from one thing to the next
  • Chewing on objects almost nervously
  • Constantly asking for milk
  • Putting fist, fingers, or toy in mouth repeatedly, may or may not also have a vacant or worried lookEmot stress-trepidation, finger in mouth
    • Note, “mouthing” is a very healthy activity for young babies. Mouthing (hands or toys) tends to be accompanied by attentiveness, curiosity, contentment, and/or deep rest, and often whole-body digestive tube wriggling. What I mean above is not “mouthing,” but an action that holds back emotion (“if Baby didn’t do it, he’d cry”).
Compare the expression on this baby's face with the one above. This baby was playfully focused on 'mouthing' Sophie until the camera also became interesting, and he has a growing smile.

Compare the expression on this baby’s face with the one above. This baby was playfully focused on ‘mouthing’ Sophie until the camera also became interesting, and he has a growing smile.

Here's another view of 'mouthing'--note how his whole body, as well as his attention, is involved in the activity. Stress-related sucking typically has less whole-self involvement and interest, with either blankness or concern.

Here’s another view of ‘mouthing’–note how his whole body, as well as his attention, is involved in the activity. Stress-related sucking typically has less whole-self involvement and interest, with either blankness or concern.

  • Baby seems higher-toned than usual—not as peaceful while being active (by tone, I mean the “firmness” of muscle, actions, or comportment)
Thumb-sucking (See note above about mouthing. Mouthing the thumb is one way the hand develops from fist to functional fingers.) Thumb sucking can also be used to stop emotion from flowing, and can be accompanied by a vacant, concerned, or un-confident look.

Thumb-sucking (See note above about mouthing. Mouthing the thumb is one way the hand develops from fist to functional fingers.) Thumb sucking can also be used to stop emotion from flowing, and can be accompanied by a vacant, concerned, or un-confident look.

  • Hanging onto a particular toy or blanket–sometimes called a “lovey” or “security item”
  • Baby looks “checked out” or vacant
General fussiness is often an indication

General fussiness is often an indication

A pacifier seems to be the only way to “keep baby calm”

A pacifier seems to be the only way to “keep baby calm”

Healer-Baby: what to do about that “stress”

Now, how can Baby release that tension? Crying can be a release of the above “symptoms.” Laughing, yawning, and coughing also release tensions, but I find that sometimes the fullest release comes through a good cry.

This is their wise and wonderful way of feeling better. They feel what they’re feeling, express it through crying and get it out, and then they go on with their day.

When you think Baby seems stressed, do one of those “check ins” with her that you might do with your best friend. She’ll let you know if she wants to cry. Here are some ideas:

  • High chair talk 12mo cropGet down on her level or pick her up, look in her eyes, and ask “how are you, are you okay?” Pause and truly wait for her response.
  • Before a nap or bed, hold her and ask, “How are you, do you need to cry? It’s okay to cry if you need to.” Pause and observe. If you and Baby aren’t used to doing this, it may take several invitations for each of you to trust the process.
  • Find a way to meet her intensity playfully and/or verbally. Such as, if Baby tosses something strongly with a shout, respond lovingly (not aggressively or angrily) with a vocal expression of similar intensity: “OOPH! I saw you toss that!!” I find that if Baby’s toss/shout came out of a need to express strong emotion, this “meeting” her in similar intensity  lets her know I’m tuned in, I understand her, and she may start crying or laughing right then.
  • If Baby/Toddler is hitting, provide a firm boundary. Keep everyone safe, and say, “I’m not going to let you hit, but I will listen if you need to cry.”
  • If Baby is chewing nervously, sucking on a pacifier, or hanging onto a security item, you could pick her up (without the toy/item) and tell her you see her, inviting her to cry if she needs to. She may frantically search for the pacifier or item—another common sign that Baby is feeling something that she’s not yet expressing. Try again later.

Crying upright

Babies don’t cry for no reason, so you can trust that if she’s crying, she needs to. After a good cry with listening attention, which releases stress, babies will often either sleep very well or stay awake very peaceful and content.

Note, some of these symptoms and behaviors, as well as repeated prolonged crying, can signal serious physical or emotional problems. The above is based on an assumption that Baby is healthy internally and externally. Please see a doctor if you have a concern.

Your baby is a wonderful communicator, and communication requires relationship. Growing in your ability to read subtle signs can deepen your bond with Baby and build a fantastic foundation for the trust that you can share in each other throughout life.

Please see Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting website for more information about crying in arms.

© Eliza Parker 2014, All Rights Reserved (Links are welcome. If you’d like to share my writing in your blog or materials, please ask permission.)

Much of my work comes from Infant Developmental Movement Education®, part of the Body-Mind Centering® Approach to Somatic Education, and Dr. Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting. I am a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator®, Aware Parenting Instructor, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and Feldenkrais® Practitioner.

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5 responses to “Signs of Emotional Stress: How to Recognize When Baby Might Need to Have a Good Cry

  1. Here are the comments from my previous post (same post):

    Submitted on 2014/01/21 at 10:54 pm
    ELiza – so good to read this post. My now 3.25 year old who never sucked his thumb has been chewing his finger nails and putting his entire hand in his mouth. He still nurses, but minimally — when we wake in the morning for maybe 5 to 10 mins and (lately) before sleep for about 5 mins. I keep thinking he’s doing the hand thing because he might want to nurse but is holding back because his moving on (at least trying to). I’m going to try your suggestions below and grateful for any other gems you might have. Thanks again for your wonderful posts. Great to get a new one! Best, jai nee

    Submitted on 2014/01/21 at 11:08 pm | In reply to Jainee McCarroll.
    Jainee, I’m glad this was helpful! There may be other reasons, but definitely try those ideas and see what happens. I’ve learned many times over again to trust my instincts when I have a hunch what the signal might be related to. Perhaps ask him directly, if you haven’t already, while you’re trying those ideas. Other thoughts: is there anything new in his life; does anyone else close to you do this. Take care~

    Submitted on 2014/01/22 at 5:11 pm
    oh Eliza, are a delight to me. I love reading your posts. THey make me feel less alone…because I agree with everything you say!
    love!
    naomi sparrow

    Submitted on 2014/02/02 at 6:49 am
    Love this article — it makes it so clear why some babies may ‘need’ to cry in our loving arms, and why it is so important not to try to stop them, but to be fully present with them while they cry.

  2. I have loved these articles about crying, mouthing and ‘stress’. They apply to me as an adult too and help me in my relationship with myself and others. Thank you for sharing them.

  3. Hi Eliza!
    Small question. If I realize that my baby suck his thumb, because he have stress, should I let him do it or should I take his thumb out ? I realize he do it every time that he wants to sleep, If I take it of he start to be aggressive or cry a little bid…

    • Hi Maria, great question. I would recommend at first verbally inviting him to cry while you’re holding him, rather than taking his thumb out. He may not take his thumb out, but it’s important for him to start building trust and understanding that you want to hear him. (You could say things like, “I see that you might need to cry, you can cry, it’s okay to cry, I’m listening, I love you”) See if he’ll take you up on the invitation on his own. If not, it’s up to you (and I’d want to talk with you more in a consultation to understand all the factors at play in order to support you best). If you do take it out, do it with awareness and communication: tell him specifically what you’re doing and that you want to hear what he has to say, and be prepared for potentially a good bit of crying. At the same time, avoid forcing him, and keep inviting him later (that is, if you take his thumb out, see if he will cry voluntarily, but please avoid forcefully holding his hand away from his mouth). And always make sure he’s in your arms when crying (or if older and mobile, he may crawl out of your arms, but stay nearby). Best to you~

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