Category Archives: Crying & Behavior

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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Crying Is a Need Too

Yes, your baby is an amazing little miracle! We are born as self-healers: compassionate, communicative, confident, and empowered. This is largely accomplished by …crying!

[Crying? What!! Of all things… ]

Indeed! Crying-in-arms, to be specific. And, of course, a supportive, loving family and environment.

Anyone who’s been around babies knows they cry when they need something or are uncomfortable. The usual list contains hunger, to be held, diaper change, pain, and too hot/cold.

But there’s more: crying is a need in itself. Babies also cry to heal.

Crying is both physiologically and emotionally healing. When you’re upset, do you feel better after you “have a good cry”? Tears can release stress hormones that run through the body. When babies cry, they release emotions in-the-moment, rather than “stuffing” them for later (or never), like many of us grown-ups learned to do. How many of us are in need of therapy to unwind our childhood experiences?!

When basic needs have been met and Baby is still crying, he’s communicating with you. It’s often labeled “colic.” But what if we toss out that term completely? What if you perceive how your amazing little bundle is a self-healer and is able to express beautiful, pure, unsquelched emotion? How beautiful and empowering!

But how to meet this need–Baby’s need to cry? By holding and listening. Not by shushing, bouncing, pacifying, or even nursing–but by being present.

But what is there for such a tiny, loved being to cry so much about? Plenty! Our world can be a crazy place, even for some of us sensitive adults. Babies cry to understand and heal:

  • birth trauma
  • prenatal stresses
  • overstimulation (sometimes we big people don’t realize that something was overstimulating for a tiny new nervous system)
  • frustration (which, to some degree, is normal and healthy in natural development)
  • family stresses at home
  • separation from loved ones, especially Mama
  • startling experiences (including loud sounds, visual surprises, and being held and moved in ways that induce a startle response)
  • sometimes we don’t know why, and that is okay

Your loving arms, listening ears, and open acceptance will establish healthy ongoing communication–because Baby knows you will listen and that he is loved no matter what he feels. Rather than distracting, ignoring, or “waiting until he has words,” begin the journey together now. This process will keeps babies–people–whole. And present. It maintains their natural awareness, compassion, and confidence. Their sleep improves and they are peaceful truth-seekers.

And hey, babies help us heal too. You may need a good cry yourself!

For more information on crying in arms, as well as a look at both the “Cry-it-out” approach and Attachment Parenting, see Aletha Solter’s article, “Crying for Comfort: Distressed Babies Need to be Held.”

For in-depth support and background, see Aletha Solter’s books such as The Aware Baby and Tears and Tantrums.

© Eliza Parker 2012 and 2014, All Rights Reserved, links welcome

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®, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, Feldenkrais® Practitioner, and Spiritual Counselor.

Is It Really Okay When We Say “It’s Okay”?

“It’s okay” and “you’re okay” are common phrases. Most of us have heard and used them all our lives, especially for calming down upset children. But I like to take a serious look at the things we communicate to our children and to each other.

You and I have adult-sized brains and life experience, and we know that it often is “going to be okay.” But even so, in the moment we’re upset, we’re feeling whatever we’re feeling, and that feels real–right? If a baby is crying… then it really doesn’t feel okay to her. In other words, it’s really not okay. Babies are in-the-now, new to Earth’s realities, and they express their honest feelings–until they learn to squelch them.

If you find yourself saying “it’s okay, darling” (it’s a hard habit to break!), I encourage you to change it up a bit. Something like: “It’s okay to cry,” “that was scary for you,” “you sound angry,” “you bumped your head, did it hurt?”–an acknowledgement of feelings being felt or of what just happened, rather than just “it’s okay.”

This will help preserve her trust in her own feelings and intuition. For if Baby feels that it’s not okay, but we say it is okay, we have just created a conflict–a potentially confusing internal mismatch that eventually can lead to mistrust or denial of one’s feelings. Think of manipulative or abusive situations that could happen later in childhood or adulthood. We want to make sure our children stay safe, right? How do we truly empower them to know the difference between safe and unsafe situations? What if an abuser or kidnapper were to say “it’s okay, honey…”? What if the child gave in, bypassing her internal red flags because she’s used to adults knowing (and telling her) what’s okay and what’s not. We want her to trust her gut feelings that it’s really not okay.

So, in a counter-intuitive way, not saying “it’s okay” now, when we assume from our adult perspective that it really will be okay, builds trust and healthy communication skills for recognizing situations when someone with ‘power’ says “it’s okay” but it’s really not.

That’s an extreme, but extremes are all around us. On the loving-home front, this will support good stuff like self-trust, honest communication, and emotional literacy. The ability to identify our emotions is an important skill that many adults actually find very difficult. No wonder!

For another read on “It’s okay,” see this post by Good Job And Other Things You Shouldn’t Say Or Do.”

For more info about how to support a crying baby/child, without ignoring or distracting, see Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting books.

© Eliza Parker 2012, All Rights Reserved (Links are welcome. If you’d like to share my post 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®, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, Feldenkrais® Practitioner, and Spiritual Counselor.

Thumb-Sucking for Movement Integration or Emotional Comfort?

I’d like to look at an important distinction I observe about thumb-sucking. This comes from my experience so far both as an Infant Developmental Movement Educator and as Nanny using Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting.

I see two different arenas of so-labeled “thumb-sucking”: one offers benefits to physical health and the other offer challenges to emotional health. (But really, we are whole people!)

Sucking for Movement Integration

This sucking I will switch to calling “mouthing.” For typically-progressing children, it generally doesn’t extend beyond babyhood. It often involves all the fingers or fist; which means that it can involve the thumb alone–and here is where it can cross over into the sucking described below.

But back to mouthing: think of a young baby ‘mouthing’ her fist while snuggled in your arms or on her tummy. As she aims her hand to her mouth, she is also measuring–getting an internal sense of her own body in relation to itself. Sometimes she will squirm: mouthing can get the entire digestive system revving! This kind of mouthing is calming and grounding (it stimulates the inward, organ-monitoring Parasympathetic Nervous System rather than the outward sensing/motoring Sympathetic Nervous System).

Mouthing, along with efficient nursing, helps to organize the movement of the head, neck, and jaw. It also supports self-feeding later. And a fun fact: mouthing helps to stimulate the thumb’s journey out of the little tiny baby fist!

(See also my “Hand To Mouth” post for a related topic)

Sucking to Stop Emotion

Let’s look now at a very different sucking of thumb. This is the more classic image: Baby hangin’ out with his thumb, or perhaps Mama left for work and in the thumb goes.

This sucking does not tend to engage the whole body in a cellular wake-up dance like mouthing. It is more passive and is employed at times of upset or can become constant.

This is the emotion-stopper. This baby may seem calm or independent, but he is most likely feeling some recent or pent-up emotion and holding it in rather than expressing it. Crying is physically and emotionally healing! He may not feel safe to cry, so his thumb can allow him to repress what he is feeling. But please don’t pull his thumb out of his mouth! For much more in-depth information about supporting this baby, please see Aletha Solter’s books, including “The Aware Baby”).

Telling the Difference

Mouthing can indeed turn into emotion-stopping sucking. Here are some clues to begin deciphering them:

  • Does Baby’s sucking engage her whole body or seem automatic?
  • When something stressful happens, does Baby let out his cry or suck his thumb?
  • Does Baby seem engaged in sucking as an activity or does she have a blank look in her eyes? Does he focus on sucking or play with something else at the same time?
  • Does sucking involve just the thumb always, or at times the other fingers, fist, toys, or clothing?

There are some cases in which I feel extra sucking can be healing–in conjunction with an understanding of emotional support. For babies with “special needs” or medical needs, please consult with professionals.

© Elizabeth Parker 2011, All Rights Reserved (Links are welcome. If you’d like to share my post 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®, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, Feldenkrais® Practitioner, and Spiritual Counselor.

The Socially Acceptable Very Happy Baby

  • “Our baby is good-natured and not much of a crier.”

    VeryHappyBaby1

    Hey folks, read my shirt:
    “Very Happy Baby.” You might be, my friend! But it’s ok too if you need to cry.

  • “He is very happy, never cranky at all.”
  • “I need a nanny for my mild-mannered, happy baby”
  • “He’s happy, he never cries”
  • “She’s easy-going”
  • “He is very happy and he loves everyone.”
  • “You won’t have any problems with her, that’s how good she is.”

I often work as a Specialty Nanny for infants. While scanning posts by parents searching for nannies, I often–very often–read comments such as the above. How do you feel when you’re presenting your baby to the world? Many parents feel they are presenting themselves through their baby’s behavior. What if the posts said:

  • “Our baby cries a lot”
  • “Sometimes our baby is happy, but sometimes he needs to cry”
  • “Our toddler throws tantrums”
  • “She’s often quite colicky and fussy”

Would they attract the great nanny they’re hoping for? Would this choice of words make them look bad? I think this topic speaks volumes about cultural acceptance of emotions, perceptions of behavior, self image, and generations of habits and rules about what’s polite and socially acceptable.

When someone cries, there is often a general discomfort–with good intention, we try to console with “it’s okay!” (when really it’s not); or to stop the emotional outburst with “oh, don’t cry!”; or in public, we may ignore it as if it’s not happening and perhaps think the person is crazy. And anyway, who wants to be Nanny to a crying baby?

Crying in-arms with loving, listening attention is babies’ normal, healthy, wise, and beautiful way to communicate and heal.

Well, I do! Babies cry both to communicate and to heal. Emotion is a normal, beautiful, and healthy part of being alive. Why, then, is there a need to say that Baby is good-natured? This is unfortunate! It implies that it is socially unacceptable for a baby to be–or to have a baby that is–upset. Or that a family has less chance of attracting an excellent nanny if the baby is cranky; or that crying is “bad behavior;” or that ‘something is wrong with me’; or that a baby who’s happy all the time will cost less when hiring a nanny.

Are we happy all the time? What if our boundaries are encroached upon–do we stay happy and easy-going? What if a friend or family member dies? We need access to a wide range of feelings and expression for our well-being and survival. If we hold to the perception that baby should always be happy, it makes his normal and healthy moments of upset seem like a ‘problem.’

‘Easy-going’ may be a baby’s natural state, as also “happy.” Fantastic! It is nice for tired caregivers to have a happy, easy-going baby. However, it is human to experience different states of being, and it is healthy to be able to express them without bottling them up. I challenge you to see anger, grief, and frustration as “nice” also. How gigantically wonderful that your baby is able to express herself so fully, remain so connected to herself, and know what she needs! She will have fabulous relationships and a boatload of physical and emotional health if she keeps this up! And she trusts you enough to tell you how she feels! How perfectly “nice”!

If a baby really never cries or remains easy-going without experiencing moments of “umph” or frustration, these can be signals that Baby doesn’t feel safe enough to release his emotion or is not able to activate a needed reflex for movement. This is okay—it’s communication, not something to hide. I would like to see parents supported more, rather than shunned.

Many parenting articles present tips about distracting Baby when she gets cranky and maintaining control over babies’ behavior. I encourage all of us to be real with ourselves, what we expect of our babies, and the perceptions we guide our children into as they grow up.

Here’s to those parents whose babies cry, have “colic,” get frustrated, and are cranky! You are welcome in society and we love your babies.

For support with continued crying-in-arms after needs have been met and crying as healing, see Aletha Solter’s books, “The Aware Baby” and “Tears and Tantrums.”

© Elizabeth Parker 2011, All Rights Reserved (Links are welcome. If you’d like to share my post in your blog or materials, please ask permission.)

Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator®, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, Feldenkrais® Practitioner, and Spiritual Counselor. She also uses Aware Parenting.