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Understanding Crying

Babies cry to communicate and young children cry to express emotions and this is all completely natural. We instinctively protect and provide for our children and when a baby cries we try to figure out which need he wants us to meet. Sometimes we cannot figure it out, especially when we think we have covered all the bases and yet the crying continues. Perhaps it is not a need. Perhaps it is an emotion or a frustration?

When babies cry in the night and it is not to be fed or to be changed and all the obvious needs are met, it can quite often be a frustration of wanting to get back to sleep but not knowing how to. This cry is simply your baby saying ‘I’ve found myself awake and I don’t know how to go back to sleep, please come and do whatever you did before to get me to sleep’

In the early weeks and months, babies need a lot of help to get to sleep. After all, it is a learned skill and not something we do unconsciously like breathing. We adopt all kinds of instinctive soothing techniques to help our babies to sleep and some take to it more easily than others. Usually the easy going, adaptable types have little difficulty conforming to the parents plan but the more alert ones like to challenge things, tend to have their own ideas and don’t often go with the flow.

Around the age of four-five months a lot of development takes place. Sometimes the great little sleepers come unstuck and those that were already a challenge, get even more tricky! This is your baby’s way of telling you that he is ready for your help to learn the skill of settling himself to sleep so that he can put himself back to sleep towards the end of his sleep cycles and sleep through the night.

Crying is something you will experience throughout childhood and whilst we do not enjoy hearing our children cry, we somehow find ourselves more able to tolerate some crying than other crying depending on the meaning we place upon it. For example:
If you believe your child is crying due to pain, you will comfort him and try to take away the pain.
If you believe your baby is crying due to hunger, you will feed your baby.
If you believe your child is crying because another child did something unkind, you will protect and comfort your child.
If you believe your child is crying because you said ‘no’ to that packet of sweets, you might ignore the crying, you might reprimand the crying, you might give in to the crying?

So what do you do when your toddler is crying because she wants something that she cannot have? When our daughter was around 20 months old, I remember being out for lunch and I had a glass of wine. Our daughter pointed and asked if she could have some of mummy’s drink and, of course the answer was ‘no’. She cried. She was upset, She did not understand why I was denying her a sip of mummy’s drink when she had previously been allowed some of my drink (when it was water or juice). She had no understanding of my reasoning but no amount of crying would make me give in because what she wanted would be incredibly harmful to her. I knew better. So I comforted her, offered her her own drink as an alternative and tried to lovingly distract her from the situation.

We often find it easier to accept our children’s cries when we know the thing they are crying for is 100% out of the question and not good for them. Why? Because our duty to protect them is stronger than our duty to make them happy about every decision we make for them. We cannot stop every tear or turn every sad emotion into a happy one but we can lovingly support our children as they learn to process these emotions and as they develop new skills through this learning.

It is important for us to recognise our children’s emotions and help them to deal with them or process them in a healthy way. If we dismiss them, tell them to stop it and fail to address them, it suggests that these feelings are not important or not valid. Sometimes a toddler or young child may be crying or making a fuss about ‘nothing’ and we know that it is a means to either gain attention or to attempt to manipulate a particular result and this will be reinforced if the child finds that it works! However, even when the crying is over ‘nothing’ it is important to recognise that it is ‘something’ to the child. By allowing the child the opportunity to calm down and explain what the emotion is, you will help to teach him how to handle his emotions. Some questions that might help are, ‘Why are you upset?’…’and how did that make you feel?’….’so what have you learned from this?’….

I believe that finding a balance is key. Not ignoring cries, dismissing them or trivialising them but also not rushing in to ‘put out the fire’ at the first sign of any tear/cry/whimper.

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