We live in a fast food, fear-based, instant gratification society; as a consequence, many mothers are induced before their due date or during labor to get the baby out quickly. They are encouraged to get an epidural, terrorized by the stories of unbearable pain during labor, and once that baby is born, parents are taught to quickly shush and soothe a crying baby because a baby cry needs to be “fixed.”
In my work as a postpartum doula, I notice that sometimes when babies cry they just need to tell you something. Of course I encourage to always attend to a baby crying. In fact, I am not a big supporter of anyone who tells you to let you baby cry to self-soothe or sleep on her own. But when I respond to a baby who is crying instead of shushing or bouncing him on a ball to quickly quiet him, I rather approach the crib, or chair and simply empathize. I say something like, “I hear you, I am here, tell me more. Did you wake up scared?” “You seem very upset. Tell me how you feel.” Invariably the baby hearing and feeling empathy calms down even before I pick him up and the cry changes its pitch and quality. Sometimes I envision the baby saying to himself, “Wow finally someone is listening!”
By empathizing, we give respect and acknowledgement to the baby’s feelings. Sometimes babies cry when they want to tell you the stories of their birth, or they want to tell you they just had a scary dream. Maybe they just want to let you know that when they fall asleep on your breast and then wake up in the crib alone, they get scared. Picking up a baby who cries using words such as, “Don’t cry, there is nothing wrong. Shushhhh,” is denying his feelings. Think about it, how would you feel if your loved one used these words when you were crying? Of course sometimes babies are simply hungry, have a dirty diaper, are overtired, or need to be burped, but once you have checked that their bodily needs are met, allow them to tell you their thoughts and feelings. If this crying happens in the middle of the night it is ok to give yourself a time limit; you can tell your child, “I hear you, I’ll listen to what you have to say for awhile, then we’ll go back to sleep.” After you have allowed the baby to express himself, go ahead and use the gentle shushing, swaddling, and all the other techniques to help your baby go back to sleep.
Remember that as much as your child has a right to his feelings, so do you. It is okay to tell your baby: “When you cry, I also feel frustrated because I wish I could understand you better.” But, beware of boundaries, one thing is empathizing; another is crying with him. When you answer to a baby cry (as the wonderful book CALMS by Carrie Contey and Debby Takikawa suggests), first check in with yourself and settle your feelings, only then can you truly help another.
The second Basic Human Right is the right to feel. We have a right to our feelings, and we hope that those around us will allow us to express them and empathize. Your baby is not different.
Feelings Shared (excerpt from Painless Childbirth)
One common way we protect ourselves and others is by minimizing or hiding what we really feel. Some of us have been taught that our feelings are wrong and were told: “Stop crying. There is nothing to cry about! Stop that silly laugh! Wipe that grin off your face right now, young lady! I don’t appreciate that tone of voice, it is just not lady-like!”
Another defensive strategy is just the opposite: maximizing. People who employ this tactic let everyone know how they feel with unbridled self-expression. They yell, rant, or simply pout to show how indignant and angry they are. These people will tell you, are no pushovers. However, if they take an honest look at themselves, they’ll find out that even those flamboyant emotions hide their true feelings. No matter what your strategy for survival has been, take a good look at it. It was created a long time ago by someone who was little, immature, and had few resources at their disposal. It was created by your child-self.
Honor your true feelings by giving them a safe space to be expressed. In choosing the right person to share your feelings ask yourself: Can I trust this person to understand what I feel without giving me unsolicited advice? Can I trust this person not to take what I say personally and get hurt by my words?
Many of my clients love to share all their emotions with their partners and get frustrated if they don’t get the reaction they want. A partner cannot fulfill all of your needs, and expecting them to is asking the impossible. Search for a trusted friend, a counselor, or spiritual guide to share some of your feelings. Remember, you also have pen and paper, and your Higher Power who will always be there to listen.
As you are beginning to understand and work on your right to be here, for you have chosen to come into this world, and your right to have the birthing experience you desire, same or different from your cultural or familial indoctrination, you begin to understand how your feelings play a big part in your well-being. When we feel good about ourselves and our ability to make the right choices, even if they differ from the norm, we can focus on what it is we really want.