My Son Still Cries
One thing I hear a lot about as a sleep consultant is crying. It’s been on my mind today as my son had a bad start and I had to listen to him wailing (yes, wailing). My son is almost 9 now (that’s 9 years not months), but even as a baby he was very vocal and cried A LOT! He’s still a sensitive soul, and he still cries. Crying upsets parents, understandably, so should we be trying to stop it?
CRYING HURTS – THE PARENTS
When your baby cries and you don’t know why, it can bring up feelings of anxiety, helplessness, frustration and incompetence (and even anger and hostility at times). When my son was young, I didn’t know why he was crying and it stressed me out. I felt like such a useless mum!
Crying makes you feel like you aren’t doing something right. It’s easy to lose confidence and feel incompetent when your baby cries. And heaven forbid if an older mum or grandparent hears your child cry. This can make you feel even more inadequate, as well as judged.
As a parent you naturally want your child to be happy, and if he’s crying he’s not happy, right? Surely you should stop your child crying so you can make him happy again. I’ll come back to this, but first let’s look briefly at crying it out (it may not be what you think).
CRY IT OUT – WHAT EVERYONE THINKS OF SLEEP CONSULTANTS
Sleep consultants have got a bad name because of the old fashioned means of sleep training; the “cry it out” method. EVERYONE has heard of “cry it out”, but what exactly does it mean?
In the past, to cry it out meant just that – your child cried themselves out. They cried until they stopped crying and went to sleep; although that in itself can be a misnomer, because if you’ve got a child that gets MORE worked up when they cry you’ll know they’re likely to fall asleep and still be HEAVING WITH SOBS AS THEY SLEEP. My daughter does this.
To be honest, I don’t know of ANY sleep consultants that recommend you leave a child to truly cry it out. Yet there are still articles and media reports and mum groups that continually talk about the cry it out method. What those articles are often referring to is what the sleep community calls “graduated extinction”. Yes, that means you let your child cry, but not continuously until they fall asleep. With graduated extinction you gradually increase the amount time of time you let your child cry before you check on them, or comfort them.
DISCLAIMER: just to let you know, I do NOT offer a graduated extinction method when I teach good sleep habits. I follow a much gentler approach that lets you support and comfort your child if they cry.
But back to graduated extinction. This method of sleep training can work for SOME children. Studies have found that it is NOT harmful, and indeed has significant sleep benefits with no adverse stress results (as did the other sleep intervention used in this study) And note that we are not talking about newborns (aged 0-3 months) here, as that’s a different story (and a different technique).
YOU’RE NOT HARDWIRED TO ENJOY IT
Your parental brain is not “wired” to listen to the hysterical crying of your child without doing something to comfort him or her, whatever your child’s age. With my son I tried comfort. I was told to go away. I know from past experience he means it. He was angry, he was upset and he was overtired (he had a late night during the school week; even a sleep consultant breaks the rules sometimes) and he needed to de-stress.
It hurt to be turned away. But I can’t blame or judge him, because I sometimes go into my room and cry, alone. It makes me feel better, and it made my son feel better. I let him know that I was there. I checked in on him until he (finally) stopped crying, accepted a hug and we moved on. He even thanked me later because he knew I was there for him, and I had respected his request to leave him alone.
I’ve said that as a baby my son cried a lot. But even when he was little he would often cry harder when I picked him up and held him. He settled quicker and easier when put back down and left to his own devices. At the time I realised he was over stimulated and needed less, not more, stimulation. But he still cried, and it was heart-wrenching.
WHY DOES YOUR BABY CRY?
There are two established reasons that babies cry. The first is well known. They cry to communicate a need or discomfort. And although it can sometimes be hard (very hard) to figure out what they need, once you address the need, or remove the discomfort, they stop crying.
The second reason your baby may cry is less understood and still rarely talked about. A lot of babies continue to cry even after all of their basic needs, including the need to be held, are met. And it’s at this stage you should consider the emotional reasons for crying.
Babies and children cry for a lot of emotional reasons. Even the happiest baby will cry at times. As a parent it’s important that we listen to what they are telling us. If they are clean, dry, fed and healthy they may be feeling frustrated, tired or angry. These emotions may be felt more strongly by some children than others. Should we be curbing these emotions and trying to stop their expression of them? I don’t believe so.
CRYING EASES TENSION – FOR SOME
There is more written on this elsewhere, so I’ll try and keep it brief; babies that feel emotion strongly sometimes cry to release tension. These children have previously been labelled “tension decreasers”, as their tension or stress DECREASES when they cry.
These babies often cry or fuss when they’re put down. Their tension effectively decreases as they allow themselves to feel their feelings (of sadness, anxiety or overtiredness). They feel and release them, instead of holding them in. These children (whatever their age) feel better and are more relaxed after a good cry (and sleep comes much more quickly and easily when you’re relaxed).
In direct comparison are the children who can be labelled “tension increasers”. Like my daughter. These children find crying alone to be almost unbearably stressful and once they’ve started they have a hard time stopping. In fact my daughter often “ju just c ca can’t stop [crying]”. If you have one of these children their tension INCREASES if left alone to cry. If this is your child, they will eagerly accept your comfort and will appreciate your touch; not push you away.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR CHILD?
As a parent I believe it is important you know what type of child you have. If your child releases tension with a good cry, rushing in to comfort or intervene at the first sounds of crying/fussing will only make things worse. In contrast, leaving children that need more comfort to cry alone for longer than five minutes or so will possibly impede progress for children who just can’t stop.
If you have a young baby or child in the process of learning to sleep well, you might need to make peace with the fact that they will probably cry at times. After all, babies can’t say things like “Hey, I actually preferred it when you were nursing me to sleep six times a night…” Instead, they cry! Please note that this is NOT A “CRY-IT-OUT” APPROACH. There is a huge difference between leaving a baby to cry alone and being there for your child and lovingly providing comfort and support.
What if you’re not sure of your child’s preference? If it’s your first child, how would you even know there was another side to the story? If you want to find out, at some point you will need to let them cry a little. This is crying at a time you know they are safe and clean and fed and healthy. If you have a baby that cries, you’ll know these times and it’ll likely be when you’ve reached YOUR limit and YOU need a break. Leaving them alone at this point is OK.
For most children, 10 minutes seems to be the magic number. It’s at this 10-15 minute mark that you should be able to tell whether the crying is hyping them up or settling them down. In my experience, most children will start calming down around this point.
If you let your baby cry for 10 minutes (which can seem like an eternity I know), you will notice that a tension releaser will be quietening down or at least starting to wind down; not crying harder. In comparison, a tension increaser will be ramping up with the screaming, and getting louder and angrier at this point. If you’ve ever done it, you’ll probably have an idea of your child’s preference.
SHOULD WE TRY AND STOP THE CRYING?
Prevention is better than a cure; but let’s be real – life happens, and sometimes it hurts our feelings.
Yes, you can and should take preventative measures to reduce negative feelings and increase happiness. You can do this by attempting to reduce frustration, disappointment and overstimulation. It’s a well known fact that a child who is hungry or tired has a lower tolerance level. Some babies and children are much more sensitive to overstimulation and change, and for these children a calm, predictable and gentle approach can lessen the crying. But it’s not possible to stop ALL crying.
I believe children need to know that we love them at all times, not only when they are happy. They need to know that we are willing to listen to them. It’s important to understand that crying itself may be a need. At those times the most loving thing to do is to be there for them.
As a parent this isn’t easy. Of course you would remove your child’s pain and make things easier if you could. But sometimes you need to let them deal with things in their own way, and if they’d rather you leave them be, respect that. And if they need you to be there – be there – and comfort them as much as you can.
You may feel ineffective if your baby cries when you’re holding her, but if you’ve checked off “the list” of needs and they are met, know that you are providing her with much-needed emotional support while she is releasing stress in this way.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT FROM ME
If you work with me, you will not be told to leave your child alone to cry. I may ask you to wait a few minutes to give your child the opportunity to settle first (don’t be a helicopter parent). But if you need to go in and comfort your child, do this as best you can, while respecting their personality and letting them learn what works best for them.
If you’d like to discuss my gentle methods of teaching your baby to sleep well (using a plan customised for your child) – book a free 15 minute call. Because as well as a needing a good cry sometimes, everyone needs a good night’s sleep.
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Gradisar M, Jackson K, et al: Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatrics. 2016 Jun;137(6). pii: e20151486. doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-1486.
Aletha Solter (PhD): https://www.awareparenting.com/tantrums.htm Understanding tears and tantrums