by Angela Jernigan
My six year old tells me from the back seat of the car, “Mom, babies are really very smart, it’s just that they don’t speak like bigger people.” She is looking at me earnestly in the rear view mirror with her serious blue eyes, “If only grown ups could learn to speak baby, they’d know: babies have lots to say.”
I think my daughter knows exactly what she’s talking about. She was, after all, a baby who had a lot to say.
Even from our very first long night together after she was born, my daughter cried a lot. Until dawn she fussed and squawked, wriggled and writhed, her belly against my chest, my body exhausted from giving birth and aching for rest.
But the rest never came. After a few weeks, I began to face it: I had a fussy, sometimes inconsolable, baby. It was harrowing. My husband and I called on doctors, lactation consultants, baby massage teachers, cranial sacral practitioners. No one could find a problem, yet my daughter still could not find peace. She cried so much, my little one, while I work anxiously doing whatever I could think of to stop the crying: bouncing, walking, sound machines, sh-shing, standing in the backyard in the middle of the night, sobbing to myself.
By the time she was four months old, I was desperate and utterly exhausted.
And then I learned about a a way of listening to babies and children called Parenting by Connection from a woman named Patty Wipfler, and everything in our life slowly began to change.
If you have a baby who is fussy and cries a lot, believe me, I know that everything about being a new mama will feel hard. But this time really won’t last forever, and there is much you can do to support your baby and yourself through this time.
You can prepare yourself for your child’s arrival with these five things to keep in mind when your baby is fussy or inconsolable. My hope is that you will be able to integrate and practice them before you find yourself in that place of despair and exhaustion.
1. Your baby’s crying does not mean you have done anything wrong. Your baby is expressing something important, and the best thing you can do is to take a deep breath, relax and tune your attention into your little one. In these early weeks, you and your baby are getting to know one another.
It’s okay if you don’t understand what your baby is trying to express every time he cries. Just tune in, and soon his crying will begin to make sense to you: you’ll be able to tell the difference between his hungry cry, his tired or wet cry, his “hold me!” cry. You don’t have to have it all figured out yet, you are just getting to know one another. It can take some time, and that’s okay.
2. When you don’t know what your baby is trying to tell you, first check to see if she is expressing a specific physical need: offer to nurse, check to see if she is wet or needs to be changed, burp her, feel her fingers and toes to see if she is cold, check the back of her neck to see if she is sweaty and too hot, and hold her close in case she is needing the physical reassurance of your touch. Sudden and piercing cries can indicate a gas pain, and it will soon pass.
Hold your baby close and speak reassuringly in a warm tone, saying: “Something doesn’t feel right, but you are okay, sweetie, I’m right here and I want to know all about it.” If the crying continues, you may want to make a doctor’s appointment just to confirm that there isn’t a medical reason for her crying.
3. When all other needs have been met, and when no medical problem has been identified, if your baby is still inconsolable, he may be crying simply because he needs to cry. Your little one has had quite a journey getting to this moment. Even births without complications are quite an adventure for a sensitive little person who doesn’t understand what’s happening. If there were complications during the birth, or medical interventions necessary after the birth, your baby has even more to process. And however it happened, in leaving the womb and in experiencing life in the world for the first time, every minute is a rich, full, and perhaps overwhelming dose of life experience to take in and process.
His crying is an important part of his process of digesting his life experiences. This is how he tells you his story, how he makes sense of everything he has gone through, and how he releases any remaining stress or tension he may have accumulated along the way. When you offer eye contact and listen lovingly, your relaxed, organized and fully developed adult brain is helping his baby brain to unwind and regulate again.
4. Your child has a rich and complex inner life that is supported by your loving, tuned in attention. If you notice closely, you will see that many different expressions cross your baby’s face when you listen to her cry. We have been trained in our society to think of babies as “cute,” but we distance ourselves from their humanity when we say things like, “Oh, look how sweet she is when she frowns like that!”
Try to look past the cuteness and see on a human level what your baby’s expression is revealing about what is going on inside. Even if she is not crying, to slow down and tune into what your child is experiencing in this way–offering eye contact and speaking warmly–is a gift to her growing mind and to your relationship with her. You don’t need to pay this kind of attention constantly, but set aside a little chunk of time–say fifteen minutes twice a day–to slow down and simply notice your child’s experience.
5. It can be hard to tune into your baby when you are chock full of your own experience; you may need someone caring to listen while you tell your story, and maybe even cry yourself. With pregnancy, birth, and becoming a new mother, you have had quite an adventure of your own! While it can feel as a new mom you need to focus on your baby every moment, it can be hard to really tune in, listen, and get to know your baby when brimming with your own thoughts and feelings.
Asking someone who you feel safe with to simply listen without judgment, and without giving advice, can be an important part of processing your own experience. You can tell the story of your baby’s birth, what the days and weeks afterward have been like for you: what you’ve loved and what’s been hard.
Let yourself cry if you need to. Sometimes big feelings from our own babyhood will rear up and feel overwhelming. Sometimes hormones intensify these feelings. Whatever you feel, your listener doesn’t need to “fix” anything.
Your brain and body need the caring attention of another adult so that you can process this big life experience. You will feel more and more spacious in listening to your baby if someone has warmly, spaciously, lovingly listened to you.
Finding people to listen to us, and tuning in and listening to our babies, are gifts we can give our baby to support her developing brain. Your child is becoming savvy about life, about emotions and relationships, and how this wild world she’s entered works. This is how life experience translates into wisdom. And soon enough, you will find yourself driving in the car, and this baby will now be six and in the backseat, telling you some bits of wisdom she’s figured out along the way.
Angela Jernigan is a parent educator and coach living in Berkeley, California. In July 2014, we will be co-teaching a class about listening to babies, called What Babies Want: A Course for Mamas and Doulas, to learn more about the class and to register, go to parentconnecteastbay.com.