elevating child care

Babies Crying – A Parent’s ‘Bad Day’ Survival Secret

Okay, right away I admit my title may be a little misleading. I don’t really have any magic tricks to relieve a parent’s bad day.  The old standby’s like massage, cocktails, sex (preferably with someone, like a spouse), chatting with an empathetic friend, exercise, or a shopping spree can work in a pinch, but they all require either time, money or energy –sometimes all three. 

Every parent experiences days from hell when a baby cries incessantly or a toddler has an interminable meltdown.  All we want is to calm our child by any means necessary, but it’s impossible. In that moment, it is difficult to feel like a successful parent.  My secret — perspective. (I know.  I hear your groan.  But stay with me here!) 

What I have learned is that these frustrating, demoralizing episodes are actually prime parenting days. When we allow a child to have tantrums and release feelings, we are not failing.  In fact, we are ‘knocking one out of the park.’ With a little perspective, it’s easier to see it that way.  

Crying may come from the chronic discomfort of infant colic, teething, or as the aftermath of an exhausting, over-stimulating day.  A toddler’s tantrum may seem to us like an overreaction when we say, for example, “I can’t let you play outside right now,” but that is because it carries the baggage of a host of toddler preverbal frustrations. Life can be stressful for all of us, and sometimes we all need a good cry. 

The expression of feelings is vital to emotional health. When we use rocking, bouncing, ‘shushing,’ pacifiers and other distractions to quiet a baby, and when we give in to a toddler’s demands or threaten to punish to discourage his outbursts, then the child does not have the opportunity to freely release his feelings. Worse, he receives the message in our well-meaning “don’t cries” that some of his feelings (parts of who he is) are unacceptable to us.  

When we are certain that a child’s basic needs have been met, all that is left for us to do when he cries is listen, acknowledge his feelings, and give calm support.   It is not easy, but it is the way a baby, toddler, teenager, spouse or dear friend would wish to be treated.  We don’t want our feelings to be ‘fixed.’  We want them to be heard.

One of my favorite Magda Gerber mantras was, “We are putting the therapists out of business.” When children cried in her classes, she often reassured the parent by saying, with a twinkle in her eyes, “Now they won’t have to go to primal scream therapy when they are older.” 

So, like Magda, when parents in my classes express alarm at a child’s tearful reaction to a bump or fall, the setting of limits, or a struggle to achieve a new skill, I gently remind them of all the future psychotherapy bills they may be avoiding.  And when, minutes later, the child finishes crying, leaves his parent’s arms and returns to exploring, refreshed and renewed, I congratulate the parent for weathering another storm.  

My magic secret for parents is the knowledge that our hardest days are also our most successful ones.  Bravely enduring our loved one’s cries to invest in his long-term emotional health is reason to celebrate.   And if it sometimes seems impossible to find cheer at the end of a fiercely bad day, never underestimate the benefit of a parent’s good, long cry. (And congratulate yourself for allowing it.)

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12 Responses to “Babies Crying – A Parent’s ‘Bad Day’ Survival Secret”

  1. avatar angela mancuso says:

    Janet, this one requires a bit more specificity. If I were a new parent reading this, I think I would be confused as to when to comfort and when not to. Comforting and telling children not to cry or express themselves are not the same thing, and at different ages, different rules apply.
    Being a parent who does not “coddle” her children, and allowed her now 23 year old free expression, my answer to him as he got older was “its good to cry, it means you have feelings”, but I also held him and comforted him.
    when we cry as adults, we look for comfort as well…..

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks Angela! I absolutely agree that comforting and telling a child not to cry are not the same thing, and I did not mean to insinuate that a parent should not comfort. Babies need to be held, and sometimes when babies cry, holding and talking to them soothingly will calm them. An older, mobile baby can let the parent know he needs comfort by going to the parent himself. When a child is hungry, tired, has pain, or just needs to be held, we can usually address those needs and ease the crying. But, sometimes a child cries when all his needs seem to have been met. This kind of crying can undo us as parents, and make us resort to all kinds of things to stop the crying, distractions, frantic rocking and jiggling, and telling a baby, “You’re okay” and “Don’t cry.” But the baby does not feel okay. The baby feels like crying.

      Of course you are right that adults need comfort when they are upset too! And we would not comfort the adults we love by trying to ‘fix’ them, distract them, stick something in their mouth, or tell them that they are okay and shouldn’t cry. We would hold them if they wanted us to, and simply listen to their feelings. Babies deserve that same level of comfort, and that same acknowledgement of their feelings.

      I’m sure you are right about my lack of clarity in the post. We also may be defining ‘comfort’ differently.

      Thank you so much, Angela, for sharing your thoughts! Please continue!

  2. avatar Ginger says:

    I think that i understand what you mean by comforting and caring for a child but still allowing them to express their feelings. I never discouraged my boys from crying when they needed to(although I’m sure that their peers did later on). Permission to feel and vent seems very necessary at any age. When my oldest son started college and was living in the dorm, he complained of stomache aches and nausea. I suggested that he visit student health because maybe the dorm food wasn’t agreeing with him. I was shocked when he told me that along with some stomache medicine, they gave him anti-anxiety medication! I asked him not to take it. Anxiety was a normal feeling to have when you are living away from home for the first time. Numbing him from those feelings was not the way to learn how to cope with them. Instead, we talked, and he yelled and maybe even shed a tear or two. I’m glad that he has the habit of expressing his feelings instead of holding it in or putting a pacifier in his mouth(the college version) when things get tough. Maybe allowing him to cry will keep him out of rehab as well as needless therapy.

    • avatar janet says:

      Well said, Ginger. Yes, college level pacifiers sound very scary indeed! You are wise and brave to encourage your boys to vent. So often boys are told to “brush it off” when they are hurt. Life we would be so much easier (but probably not nearly as rich) if we could just brush off feelings, wouldn’t it? Hmmm. I’m getting an idea for another post.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your insights!

  3. avatar Ed Stagg says:

    I agree with you Janet. A child’s management of their outbursts, whatever they may be, is a learned behavior just like any other. The more patient we are with them, the more effective we will be in tailoring those outbursts more appropriately.

    You mentioned in reply to another post that boys are often told to “brush it off.” Quite true, even so among adults who have lost their childlike qualities. I recall delivering my brother’s eulogy. Everyone wore dark glasses. I asked them all to remove them and look at the person next to them. Then I reminded them that emotion was God given and there was no better tribute to show one’s deepest emotion than to show it openly. I certainly hope someone cries at my funeral. Needless to say, everyone was crying and laughing and their real emotions were a sight my brother would have enjoyed. Perhaps if more people did not have their early emotions silenced, they would more freely express them later.

    I remember being told when I was young that “it’s okay, don’t cry.” Well, sometimes it’s not okay, and sometimes a good cry feels pretty good.

    I always enjoy reading you. Your children and parent students are lucky to have you.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks Ed! Wow! You handled your brother’s eulogy so exquisitely. Thank you for sharing your stories. Many will cry at your funeral (and it will be a very long time from now!)

      I completely agree with all you’ve said. And I thank you for your compliments!

  4. avatar Angela says:

    Hi Janet,
    My 15 month old tends to let out a high pitched scream and fling himself on the floor when I take away something he wants. The tantrum doesn’t last long but I don’t react to it negatively or positively. I just let him have it. I usually take the item away and tell him why I am taking it away. Sometimes I tell him firmly to stop the screaming but I am not sure what I ought to be doing. I sometimes distract him and other times he just gets over it and we continue as normal. Not sure how to approach the tantrums. Do you have any advice?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Angela,
      Yes, I have some thoughts for you! A high pitched scream and a fall on the floor sounds like a normal response for a toddler who does not get what he wants. I feel like doing that myself sometimes! But, seriously, you are right to allow him to have his tantrum, and not interfere. As you said, it passes quickly if you allow the feelings, then he can move on. It is best not to ask him to stop screaming, or distract him. Better to just be there, wait, and let him finish. I know it’s hard to hear the screams! But as long as he is not hurting you, all his feelings should be allowed.

      When he is done, you can acknowledge his feelings, saying something like, “You got very upset about that. You didn’t want me to take the toy away. I’m here, if you need a hug.”

      Toddlers are stuggling to communicate and sometimes feeling understood by us is all they need to be able to calm down. But, tantrums are often unavoidable! You also might think about giving your son warning about taking the object away, asking him to give it to you first. And it’s always helpful for both of you if he doesn’t have access to items that aren’t safe for him to play with.

      I hope that helps. Please keep me posted. And thank you so much for your question!
      Janet

  5. avatar Alicia says:

    You mention that babies scream for all kinds of reasons, including colic. But you then make it seem like a baby who has colic should be allowed to cry, that he needs to “express” himself. My baby has chronic colic, caused by terrible gas, and he is crying because he is uncomfortable. It seems a little odd to tell a parent not to do what it takes to stop that discomfort. This, by the way, includes bouncing and jiggling, which help relieve gas bubbles, distractions which help keep the baby’s mind off of the discomfort, and yes, a pacifier or fingertip in his mouth: sucking seems to help keep his mind off of the discomfort, and is sometimes the only thing that allows him to get any sleep. I think I would be a terrible parent if I let him cry all day without comforting him with some of these techniques which we have found to be helpful. That being said, I am also a stay-at-home mom, and the endless hours of comforting, nursing, and crying are enough to drive even the most loving parent a little bonkers, so sometimes I need to just put him down, even if he’s still crying, in order to eat something, take the dog out to pee or just regain my sanity for a moment. I may not be listening to him or present with him in these moments, but these moments are vital to my sanity as a parent and to my continued strength and support of him for the rest of the day.

    Of course we are working with his pediatrician to find a cause and solution for the colic – I have cut out cow’s milk and am experimenting with my diet, and we may need to use drops – but until then all we can do is work to relieve his discomfort other ways.

    I just think if you are going to mention colic in your article, it might be helpful to acknowledge that colic can be a world unto itself and doesn’t necessarily fit into the same “crying to express one’s self” category. Crying is not always a means of expressing one’s self, sometimes it is simply a natural response to pain and discomfort and should be dealt with accordingly. After all, if you were in the hospital crying out in pain and the nurses just sat by, holding your hand and listening to you cry instead of giving you the necessary treatments to stop the pain, you might be a little ticked off.

    • avatar janet says:

      Alicia,

      I totally empathize with what you are going through, because my son had colic, too. I tried cutting out certain foods, and even took him to a chiropractor. Nothing seemed to help until his system matured and he grew out of it. We spent many nights up for hours together while he cried and I attempted to soothe him. I was glad to have been taught that my baby’s cry was not my failure. It was my job to help him if I could, but not to keep him quiet when he needed to cry.

      I agree that we must do all we can to address the needs of a crying baby as soon we possibly can! We used to bend my son’s knees up while he was lying down to help with the gas. (In fact, we were laughing and reliving that last night, because he had a tummy ache.) I don’t recommend jiggling, or bouncing, because those practices can be dangerous, (and if you can imagine being bounced and jiggled from the baby’s point-of-view — seeing his world bounce up and down — it isn’t respectful.)

      I’m glad to hear that you put your baby down and take care of your needs sometimes for sanity’s sake. You should not feel guilty about that!

      Infant expert Magda Gerber used to tell the story of two mothers with crying babies. One was rocking, bouncing, and distracting the baby like crazy. The other held the baby, tried to stay calm and talked to him. Both babies continued to cry.

      Of course we do all we can to address our baby’s needs. Sometimes there is nothing we can do, but allow babies to cry. I don’t believe that we should tell babies not to cry or stuff their mouths when they feel like crying. If I have pain, and the pain relievers aren’t working, I would like it to be okay with everyone around me for me to let my feelings out and cry.

  6. avatar Garima says:

    My 2 yr 1 month old child would cry non stop, i am at times able to o fgure out the reason. even if we do what he had started crying for. his crying would continue for half an hr.

  7. avatar ISBN says:

    As a SAHM who happened to have a very messy evening, I’m finding that a lot of articles have wonderful ideas…if it’s just one kid. I have three under five, no family nearby, and not many close friends yet. There is a lot of crying in this house. Many times there are two kids crying. One of them specifically will cry on and off for hours when he’s in a mood. (He’s also an absolute snuggle who melts my heart daily). He will scream so loudly you can’t even talk to him. How can I sit and devote my whole evening to comforting him and being there for him when there are two children who are behaving well? Should I push them aside, not get them dinner, not listen to their little stories because one is still screaming because…his plate was the wrong color?

    And what about when two or more are crying and none of hen want me to comfort the other? Then what do you rexommend?

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