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?
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)
Baby 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.
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)
- 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 look
- 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”).
- Baby seems higher-toned than usual—not as peaceful while being active (by tone, I mean the “firmness” of muscle, actions, or comportment)
- Hanging onto a particular toy or blanket–sometimes called a “lovey” or “security item”
- Baby looks “checked out” or vacant
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:
- Get 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.
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.