Your Baby's Unexplained Crying May Be a Form of Stress Relief

On the last night of the birth class I teach, I talk to my students about expectations for the first few weeks with a newborn. We talk about breastfeeding tips, we go over how to swaddle and we talk about recreating the womb to help soothe them. We also talk about how sometimes babies just cry and, as much as you may want to, you may never figure out the cause.

I suggest offering breastmilk first. (Always try milk, even if they just ate. Nursing offers so much more than food for them.) But if they are not wanting to nurse, are wearing a clean diaper, seem a comfortable temperature, do not seem happy inside, outside, bouncing or sitting -- parents may sometimes have to accept that this problem cannot be quickly resolved.

This can be disheartening to both new parents. For moms, we are so emotionally tethered to our babies that seeing them upset really upsets us. Especially when we feel like we cannot figure them out. Our body physically responds to the sound of our babies crying, our instinct is to meet their needs!

For dads, it can be tough because they are often driven by solving problems. They are hardwired to find the problem, figure out the solution and get to work. So when all the usual remedies are offered and baby is still upset, both parents can be left at a loss.

My advice in the past has been to try not to take it personally. Baby's only way to communicate is through crying and something is obviously troubling them -- we just cannot always figure it out.

I encourage parents to be patient and ask for help. It is okay to hand the baby off while you take a break or get some fresh air if you get overwhelmed.

But an article I read recently by Aletha Solther, PhD, a developmental psychologist and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute, shed some light on the cause of these unexplained crying spells.

According to her, psychotherapists believe that crying is a form of stress relief. Stress can build up from many experiences: health issues in pregnancy or a traumatic birth, over-stimulation, separation from the parents or frustration from trying to accomplish a new skill, among others. The crying spell at end of the day is a healthy way to process those experiences, if baby is allowed to do so while being comforted with touch and calming reassurance.

Solther does NOT advocate leaving babies to cry alone, which she says can compound an infant's stress response and do emotional damage.

Instead, she encourages parents to check that all of baby's needs are met and then accept that babies may cry for a time while being held, rocked and/or verbally reassured. The crying can then become productive by building trust, while allowing little ones to process big emotions in the only way they are capable.

This makes so much sense to me. There are certainly days that my frustration, disappointment or insecurity builds up and someone I trust (usually my husband or my mom -- sorry you two!) allows me to emotionally unload on them so I can get the stress off my chest.

I know often our culture is not comfortable with being vulnerable or displaying our emotions openly, but research shows suppressing those emotions is not healthy. I cannot imagine if my husband tried to push a pacifier in mouth and then got frustrated when I wouldn't be quiet. There are times I've even told him, "I don't need you to fix it, I just need you to listen."

I now imagine this is what our babies are trying to say. We can be confident that giving our infants this same support and attention is not spoiling them but building a firm foundation of trust and acceptance.

My new advice is to allow little ones a cleansing cry, if that is what they need. What an incredible benefit to allow babies to start out life with this kind of reassurance.

photo credit: Aurimas Mikalauskas