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 dsd? 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)
As adults, we’re able to express what we’re feeling with language. Yet even so, we still have authentic feelings behind what we say that need to come out sooner or later. What you may not have not thought about before is that babies come fully equipped with all the same emotions we have as adults–and the same need to release! They just don’t communicate what’s wrong in the same ways we’ve become accustomed to, so it’s up to us to learn how to recognize their cues.
If the word “stress” stresses you out, take a deep breath. All babies experience some sooner or later, even the healthiest ones. It does not mean you’re a bad parent.
Some people assume that babies don’t feel or remember anything (beyond basic needs). And I often hear parents wondering how much stress can a baby really accumulate?
Truth! Babies Feel. And they are thankfully still really good at expressing it—they haven’t lost touch yet with their emotions or with their beautiful healing instincts!
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) releases stress and heals. This crying or raging is the expression of the emotion itself.
But sometimes Baby will show signs of stress, yet without crying. Some of these actions and behaviors can be misinterpreted as ‘the way babies always are,’ cute, discipline problems, manipulation, or look like tiredness or teething. Once you learn to identify these cues, you’ll know when Baby might need to have a good cry in your arms to release some of that stress.
Watch for the following stress signs:
- Grabbing or tense holding of objects
- Clingy (beyond a typical desire to be held)
- Hitting, biting, head banging
- Playing fast, busy, hyper—moving quickly from one thing to the next
- Chewing on objects nervously
- Asking for milk constantly or when not hungry
- Sleep difficulties or resistance
- 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 as a stress signal is not “mouthing,” but an action that holds back emotion (“if Baby didn’t do this, he’d cry”).
- Baby seems higher-toned than usual (“high strung”)—not as peaceful even if being active
- Sucking his/her thumb
- Not letting go of a particular toy or blanket–sometimes called a “lovey” or “security item”
- Baby looks checked out, vacant, or disassociated
- General fussiness
- Pacifiers. Sucking (thumb or pacifier) can also indicate Baby is trying to self-adjust cranial bones, in which case some gentle Craniosacral Therapy can be very helpful. But usually there are some big feelings behind the pacifier!
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.
- If Baby/Toddler is hitting, provide a boundary. Keep everyone safe and say, “I don’t want you to hit, but I’ll 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 typically either sleep better or stay awake very serene and content.
Your baby is a wonderful communicator, and communication requires relationship. Growing 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.
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.
© Eliza Parker 2014, All Rights Reserved. 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 trained Feldenkrais® Practitioner.