Tuesday, April 14

my aware baby

I wanted to share with you all a little update on our crying experiment and some thoughts on the The Aware Baby by Aletha J. Solter. I haven't read it all yet though, so I'm just looking at the first part.

Since the last update, things have continued to move forward.

Those first times of crying were tough. It was like floodgates were opened and it seemed she would never stop crying. And there was so much rage! Which is why I took her onto our bed to thrash it out safely.

Yet since then she's only had a couple of biggish crying sessions and there hasn't been any raging. She did have one 'tantrum'-like episode. And that was our next big moment. I was at that junction that every parent finds themselves - where little baby is now suddenly showing pre-toddler tendencies. Yikes!

She wanted something that I didn't allow her to have. She was a little whiney and tired. And she burst out in tears and had little yells and went very red in the face with anger.

I held her lovingly.

It didn't last long. She had her cry and then cuddled me and soon fell asleep.

I couldn't help but feel that if we hadn't had our initial crying experiences it would have been much more intense. Because she would have had to release the immediate stress as well as pent up stress. And without the knowledge of allowing her to cry, I would have exacerbated the situation and caused her to feel even more frustrated.

I feel content knowing that we'll be entering toddlerhood with some idea of how to deal with tantrums. Which are afterall an extension of baby crying - expressing frustration and releasing stress.

So reading The Aware Baby has been interesting and has confirmed all that I've tried and experienced, and made a few things clearer.

Firstly, Solter tries to make clear the two different types of crying. The primary function is to elicit a response to immediate basic needs (hunger, cold, touch, etc), and the other to release stress. In other words - communication and healing.

In the first, our role as parents is not so much to stop the crying, as it is to fill the basic need, which in itself stops crying. I think that because we equate met needs with no crying, we (especially AP inspired parets) tend to view crying as a bad bad thing that we should not hear if we are being 'good' parents. Our focus turns to stopping the crying. And that's where the confusion sets in. As Solter indicates, many current theories talk about soothing, comforting and settling baby, all at the total exclusion of allowing the release of stress through crying.

According to Solter, our role to facilitate the second function, healing, is to eliminate the hurt, reduce stress, and then to hold the baby lovingly and allow the crying to continue.

Apparently, cortisol levels are high in newborns, which greatly reduces over time. So newborns are very stressed by default. Other stresses are:

prenatal stress
birth trauma
unfilled needs
developmental frustrations
physical pain
frightening events (loud noises, parental stress, etc)

That's a whole bunch of stress that no matter how amazing we are as parents, we cannot possibly ever reduce or eliminate them all.

Some of the ways we are told to sooth a baby is through movement (jiggling, rocking, patting, bouncing, going for car rides), oral things such as nursing or pacifiers, noise (singing, shushing sounds), or distraction (toys, etc).

Nursing is the controversial one, because many mothers adhere to the philosophy that nursng for comfort is a legitimate need. Now, I'm not saying it isn't, and neither is Solter, I think. However, what Solter says is that doing any of the above (including nursing for comfort) when the baby needs to cry to release stress, is not beneficial to the baby at all.

Makes perfect sense. The baby needs A and we offer B, C, D and E. One of our methods might stop the crying, and thereby trick us into thinking we have successfully met the baby's needs. But if the need is to cry?

So she says that a baby can become dependent on any of the above methods. Most importantly, if these methods work what's actually happening is that the baby is learning how to suppress his emotions.

Of course!

This confirmed for me something I did shortly after we started this experiment. I took away her favourite soft toy for bed time. Two things happened. She cried a little more, which was of course good to release any stress before trying to sleep. Secondly, she came to me for more cuddles. The latter was difficult for me, in that I got even less sleep! But felt that for her sake it was better. She was coming to a real person for comfort and security.

Solter calls any behaviour that suppresses crying a 'control pattern' (and from some forums I've visited I see that some mothers have misinterpreted the word 'control'). All she means is that a baby learns that his emotions are not acceptable. Any behaviour done frequently enough (like giving a pacifier for crying) can easily become a dependent behaviour. So the baby learns to suppress crying.

So I guess if we shifted our perspective and thought of these methods not as soothing methods but rather suppression methods, we would feel very differently about applying them.

Thumb sucking is a common control pattern. The Wildflower sucked her thumb for a few months after we stopped breastfeeding and I saw the obvious connection. She mostly did it just before falling asleep, and I think that with so much of my attention she soon gave it up. I don't think she ever used it to stop crying. but many babies and children do.

The last bit I want to share with you for now is Solter's theories on babies and their control patterns.

Movement (jiggling, swinging, rocking)
- baby could become overly demanding
- baby could become a self-rocker, head-banger, or hyperactive toddler

Nursing for comfort (rather than for hunger)
- baby could become overweight
- baby wants to nurse frequently when upset
- baby could become addicted to sweets later on (and I would add simply, baby could learn to use food as comfort)

Giving pacifier or bottle
- baby could become addicted to pacifier or bottle (and see my thought above)

Distracting (toys, books, muic, games)
- baby could demand constant entertainment

Putting baby in crib, ignoring
- baby could suck his thumb or become attached to object (blanket, stuffed animal)

Giving sedatives or ther drugs
- baby could seek relief from stress through drugs later on

She adds that control patterns don't disappear without crying, they simply become modified. Such as thumb-sucking turning into nail biting in an older child.

Control patterns give only temporary relief, they do not release stress.

Researchers found that non-nutritive sucking on pacifiers reduced the amount of crying but not the cortisol levels. Food for thought.


  1. I will have to look up that book. I'm not sure that DS fits either crying category (for communcation or healing); or rather, perhaps it's me that doesn't fit. I don't think I've been able to help him cope with life either way (by meeting the needs he communicates or healing his stress). But, I did at least notice a change when we night-weaned. He finally - for the first time since birth, though we've co-slept all along - began to tolerate, and even initiate cuddling. :-)

    Anyway, I really appreciate the way you're thinking/working through the challenges you face with Wildflower. I wish I could have handled ours with such grace.

  2. Yup.
    Complicated. :)

    It makes me smile to hear and see you work through it.

    I'd say more about how I can relate to several ideas, but I would just bore you and everyone, so I won't.
    (I bore people enough on H-F and OLM. :) )

  3. wow, very interesting information. i try not to panic at her crying, and just hold and soothe her, sometimes i try to distract her after she's had a few moments to cry, but i see it more as trying to cheer her up. but i will think about these ideas further. the notion of control patterns especially. thanks for sharing!

  4. hmm pretty interesting stuff...especially the nursing for comfort; I immediately was reminded of eating for comfort later on too.

    Def food for thought.


  5. Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I wish I had found something like this when my kids were babies. I do read a lot about stress management for both adults and kids, and some of this material reminded me of a study with slightly older kids (preschool and elementary I think) in which the researchers were focused on how to help children handle stress, and one of the things they found was that children with parents that viewed it as their job to eliminate stress from their children's lives did not develop skills for handling stress themselves, and that could become a problem for them later on. For example, parents who always interceded when children had a dispute, or removed their children from a playground/group/school situation if their child experienced problems, etc. By the late elementary years these children had higher overall cortisol levels, and were more likely to start exhibiting signs of stress when difficult situations arose. The children of parents who instead 'modeled' how to handle difficult situations, and discussed options for handling the difficulties, etc. had lower cortisol levels and other stress indicators, presumably because they had a sense that they could handle whatever arose. Of course it makes perfect sense, but as a parent it is a tough line to find sometimes. We all want to 'protect' our kids from negativity, and of course that's partly our job, but on the other hand we also want to prepare them for dealing with negativity themselves. For me it also ties into the whole Buddhist approach to life, trying to live with an equanimity that isn't based on desire or aversion, and how do we help our kids develop that as a tool also. Still sorting that out of course:-)

  6. Fascinating. I wish I had had this information back in the day! I do some of this now with my kids, in terms of not always intervening in their disputes and requiring them to try things themselves before asking for help (unless I can see that they're at the end of their rope, or some other situation where compassion seems more in order).

    I think parents have a hard time believing that eventually their kids will benefit from benevolently stepping aside to allow the kids to figure things out themselves. Maybe part of our instant gratification disease?

  7. jumbleberry - there are so many different issues with children and their psyches. The crying thing eally is only about stress release. There are other psychological needs and problems.

    Stephanie - stories, theories, and opinions are never boring around here.

    mountainmama - yes, I had to become mindful of my own behaviours. Like using distraction. It's a fine line between using it to stop the crying or cheering them up isn't it? I also 'cheer up' sometimes, but now I wait until I feel the cry is over.

  8. Lisa, that makes sense. If we are taken away from stressful situations, not only do we not acquire the skills to deal with them, but also I imagine that our psyches attach a higher level of fear to those situations. Thereby raising our (cortisol) stress.

    anthromama, I was watching a group of kids playing today and noticed that there was a bit of a disagreement. I watched as they argued and seemed to come to an understanding. Of coure, it's not always so amicable, but I thought about how much trust we (parents) need to have, to allow our children the right to argue, dispute, even fight. So that they can learn from it.

  9. The more I read blogs like yours the more I realize how little I know! I often think about the character development of my soon to be son and how I (think) I will teach him well. I appreciate your information as it prompts me to further educate myself.

  10. Oh we have that bible on our book shelf....and also Tears and Tantrums....have you read that one yet? So reassuring and beautiful....

  11. Mama1, that's what I love about mama's bloggibg, we all learn from each other.

    Leanne, I've heard of it but haven't bought it. Is it necessary? I mean, owning Aware Baby already.

  12. What I think is interesting is that you say you came to many of these ideas yourself Mon. It just shows that trusting your motherly instincts is a very powerful thing to do. Whilst research like this is fascinating, it is obviously no substitute for your own knowledge of your own baby. I always think people often have the answers they seek within themselves, if only they can trust their intuition.

  13. Hmm, very interesting! I think I could have benefitted from that book when Fidget was little. Lots to think about.

    I recognised Fidget's need to cry at the end of every day very early on and let her do so while I held her. However she is addicted to her dummy and muslin square (they come as a pair in our house, she doesn't want one without the other) and i'm really struggling to get her to give them up. Although, I don't think it started (or continued) as a way to stop her from crying. She
    originally got the dummy because she seemed to have an excessive need to suck which was not met in any other way. I hadn't even planned on giving her a dummy. Need to ponder that one...

  14. Carin, I'll see if Solter talks about what to do if the child has moved onto contrl patterns and post about it.

  15. Another valuable post, Mon, and I'm thoroughly enjoying following your journey with this.x

  16. I don't see my comment here that I left yesterday...it was really long, maybe too long?

  17. Oh Lisa, how annoying! I would have liked to hear your thoughts on this.

    I tend to copy long comments before hitting submit (if I remember!), just in case. Blogger can be a jerk.

  18. yes distraction. they advise it in the beginning. but somewhere along the way (or perhaps all along?) distraction clearly becomes invalidating in my opinion. hey you're not sad, look at this! that's no good~ after reading your blog and thinking about this whole crying subject, the other day when our daughter was upset, i think it was near the end of the day and it seemed to make sense that she might just need to release, so i let her have a good cry for a few minutes. holding and swaying and patting her on the back, just comforting her in her feeling. and it felt very natural and good~ thanks again for this post! :)

  19. "Nursing is the controversial one, because many mothers adhere to the philosophy that nursng for comfort is a legitimate need. Now, I'm not saying it isn't, and neither is Solter, I think. However, what Solter says is that doing any of the above (including nursing for comfort) when the baby needs to cry to release stress, is not beneficial to the baby at all."

    I remember back to those days & during obvious stress releasing cries, I neither offered my breasts nor refused my son's attempts to nurse. If he sought it out, then I obliged, but for me, cramming it into his mouth like a pacifier wasn't really helpful nor did it seem logical.

  20. This is such good food for thought. I think for the most part I've done really well with my dd, and have endeavored to be very accepting of all her feelings. But I see myself in the nursing as a control pattern. I have offered the breast to soothe her and sometimes do so even more say, on weekend mornings when trying to get just a little more rest. I so appreciate seeing this!

  21. Ugh, I think Blogger just ate my comment. Oops!
    Anyhow, I so appreciate seeing this. I see myself in the nursing as a control pattern. From birth nursing worked sooo well that it became my go-to way to soothe her. I've endeavored to allow her to have her feelings accepted, but it's important that I remember she isn't or hasn't experiencing/ed the childhood I had but one that is much more loving and secure. I love to soothe her and have offered the breast on weekend mornings when I want to get just a wee bit more rest. This is a great opportunity to be more aware :-)


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