The basic idea is that sometimes children, even babies, need to cry — without being soothed or cajoled or fixed — just to let out those intense emotions.
As an attachment parent to a high-needs baby, I was dubious. Crying-in-arms sounded awfully similar to crying-it-out to me. Plus, I disliked Solter's implication that comfort nursing was damaging and would result in using food as (inappropriate) comfort as the child grew older or into adulthood. I believed then, and still firmly do, that that is one of the natural functions of breasts and has been used by many cultures, without detrimental effects.
I checked out the book and skimmed it but remained skeptical that I would be able to implement it in an attachment-acceptable manner. How could I let my baby cry and not be letting him cry it out? The idea is to meet any needs your baby has first, but then if crying continues, just be present with your baby — not bouncing or shushing, just gazing lovingly into his face. Hmm, I thought. I wasn't so sure about that. How could I know for certain that my baby didn't have needs still to fix? For instance, what if his need was for being bounced and soothed?
But, gradually, I read posts by people like Lisa of My World Edenwild, who explained to me that "Crying is not bad." And so I opened up to the idea a bit more. I still didn't do anything about it, but I kept thinking of it now and again.
Well, fast forward to our combination fourth-birthday party/meet-the-baby shindig for my two boys last month.
Alrik was the itty bitty star, of course, in his dapper old-man hat and H&M plaid shirt (I indulged). He got passed around, and around. And around. I held him a few times, to nurse, but then he was off to another set of arms. I relished it, though, this connection in community, this seeming tribe surrounding me and loving on my baby.
Mikko, too, was getting lots of positive attention, with one strange boy and one familiar one to share his toys and the playground space, as well as kind alloparents who came alongside them and showed them neat tricks like how to throw the paratroopers and how to catch a track ball. I, too, joined in the fun, and all three of us (Mikko, Alrik, and I) went down a tunnel slide together,1 despite a nearly overwhelming momentary claustrophobic certainty that we would not all fit.2
At some point, I started thinking: I should be holding Alrik more. Call it mother's intuition. But, well, he was popular, as I said, and I hated to spoil the fun.
That night, though, he was the crankiest he had been in a long while. And I just kept having this thought that he was cranky because of lack of connection throughout that day — that his little primate brain was signaling that he needed to feel reattached, certain of our bonding, and he was expressing it the only way a newborn knows how: by crying, inconsolably.
I checked that he was dry. I checked that he didn't need to pee. I checked that he had eaten, and burped, and eaten and burped again. I bounced. I walked. Sam did the honors as well. Nothing doing.
Finally, up in our bed, the two of us alone, mother and baby, with nothing to lose, I went online to refresh my memory of the procedure for aware, in-arms crying. Was I supposed to do something?
To implement the crying-in-arms approach, the first thing to do when your baby cries is to look for all possible needs. When all immediate needs are filled and your baby is still crying, even though you are holding her lovingly in your arms, a helpful response is to continue holding her while trying to relax. This is not the time to continue searching frantically for one remedy after another to stop the crying. Take your baby to a peaceful room and hold her calmly in a position that is comfortable for both of you. Look into her eyes and talk to her gently and reassuringly while expressing the deep love you have for her. Try to surrender to her need to release stress through crying, and listen respectfully to what she is "telling" you. Your baby will probably welcome the opportunity to have a good cry. ["Crying for Comfort"]
So: Just hold him and gaze lovingly into his face and tell him it was all right to cry? Well, ok, then. So I did.
And minutes later, maybe seconds, he calmed. He settled and snuggled into me and fell asleep.
I wasn't sure if it was just coincidence, but it felt good, and right, and like the best thing I could have done in that moment.
I read some more about the whys and wherefores of letting babies release tension in this way, and one of the stated benefits was that if children aren't allowed to be emotional when they need to be, all they do is store it up and release it over and over again, probably at an even more inopportune time. One thing I read suggested that if your child is frequently breaking down over "trivial" things (trivial to you as an adult, of course, not to the child), it might be because they're repressing emotion about something bigger and it's bleeding through in short bursts as they're unable to hold it all back.
Lisa sums up this phenomenon well in her post, so I'll let her:
Unfortunately, children are not always able to articulate what is stressing them out. Parents may think their child is overreacting to some small thing in order to manipulate them into getting their way. Or a more compassionate parent may view their child’s behavior as a reaction to a genuine need and try to fix it. Or they may just think their child is tired or hungry and deal with it that way. But having a tantrum over some small thing is what Solter refers to as the “broken cookie phenomenon.” Basically, when the child has reached her limit of stress, she will use anything she can to set the tears into motion. This might be something insignificant, like being given a broken cookie, and she will just have a tantrum over it. Not because she actually cares about the cookie being broken, but because she needs a premise from which to cry.
This all sounded somewhat frighteningly familiar. As Alrik was sleeping, I thought back to another event of the day: Mikko's balloon. Oh, dear.
Natalie had bought a bunch of balloons for the party, one of which was a mylar one with Happy Birthday printed on it. The whole bunch went home with us, but of course the shiny silver mylar was the favorite. Mikko insisted on having that balloon poke out of the open car window as he was getting into his car seat (having things go half-out the window is a new and frequent request). Our friend (the track-ball pro) was helping him maneuver it when he noticed a fraction of a second too late that the ribbon attaching it was loose. Our friend grabbed for it, but — no luck — the balloon floated merrily and quickly into the sky. I had no idea it would go quite so high, so very irretrievably away.
Mikko was despondent. For the first 10 minutes on the ride home, Sam and I were empathetic. For the next 10 minutes of sustained wailing, we were stoic. After that point, we were reasonable.3 "Your balloon is gone. Do you want a new balloon? We could go to the store if you want. No, we can't catch the same one — that one is too far away. There is no way we will catch up with it." After another 10 minutes where logic failed to have the desired effect of quieting our child, I grew sterner. "You need to stop crying about your balloon. It was just a balloon."
Newsflash: This did not stop the crying about the balloon.
So I was thinking over this scenario, and wondering what an "aware parent" would have done in the same situation.
Fortunately (?), I'm forever having opportunities to test this out, because Mikko breaks down in many instances where I, in my infinite adult wisdom, would never think to be upset.4
A day or two later, some triggering event happened. I don't even remember what it was, but it was the sort of four-year-old meltdown, like a broken cookie, that usually causes me to sigh and then attempt to reason, cajole, ignore, or coerce Mikko into knocking it off already.
This time, though, this time: I stopped in my tracks. I went over to where he was crying fitfully on the couch. I put my arm around him and hugged him close and said something amazingly insightful (not really) like, "You're really sad about that. I'm sorry."
And, I swear, about two seconds later? Mikko was like, "All right. I'm good." And he was ready to move on. (Almost before I was, truth be told! I had some more empathy in me to spend.)
So those are my two experiments lately with aware parenting — being present and non-judgmental during times of intense emotion.
Being aware and present forced me into considering my own discomfort with crying, my kneejerk reaction to "fix" whatever is causing the crying rather than simply allowing it with compassion and without judgment or drama. This relates to how I deal with my own strong emotions, and how ineffectual I feel when faced with other adults' strong emotions as well. I realized I don't want to pass on this stuntedness to my children. I want them to feel comfortable with emotions, and unashamed at being sensitive — personally and in relation to others.
So I am going to reread Solter's books — The Aware Baby and also Tears and Tantrums — to see what I want to take (and what I still want to leave — I'm all right with that as well).
And since it's been such a small sample size of personal experiences so far, I'd like to continue to experiment with these techniques. I don't, for instance, want to use being aware and present during crying jags as merely another tool to cut their crying short (as in, "The last two times, staring lovingly into your face made you stop crying within minutes — what gives this time that you're upset for longer?").
I think it's been a good thing for me to consider, however. I can see now that some of my initial resistance to the idea of crying in arms was a resistance to crying itself — a perception that crying is bad and must be stopped at any cost. I can sense now that crying is both a release (as, seemingly, in Alrik's need to fuss before falling into a peaceful sleep on that occasion) and a means of communication — as in Mikko's request for me to come alongside him in his upset, not attack his feelings with solutions or disdain but merely be there and sympathetic.
I think it will take some more practice, though!
What has been your experience with holding and being present with your children while they release emotions? Are you comfortable with the idea that children, even young babies, might need to cry?
1 Random side note here: Mikko calls that tunnel "the dark slide," which has led to many jokes about coming over to the dark slide.↩
2 We did, in fact, make it out alive.↩
3 This is possibly the worst method to use with a four-year-old. Or with anyone.↩
4 NB: I do not have infinite adult wisdom.↩