When my children were born I was overwhelmed with love. I was full of emotion which could turn on a dime. One minute, huge feelings of gratitude and happiness, the next, anxiety and apprehension about what I was doing and what lay ahead and then feelings of frustration and helplessness as I failed time and again to stop my baby from crying. Often, these emotions were all-consuming and it took what felt like superhuman effort to ride through the waves and keep the house running. I turned to those around me to offer the support and understanding I needed to get through. I was lucky that my support network were empathetic, and never dismissed my feelings or made me feel inadequate.
Now that I am in a position where I can look back on this stage with more clarity and with a greater understanding of Magda Gerber’s RIE parenting, it seems strange to me that although I experienced each of these emotions very explicitly at the time, somehow, it never occurred to me that my babies might also feel strong emotions just as genuinely and equally need the same level of support and understanding.
When my babies cried, my instincts told me to make it stop. I wanted to soothe them and keep them safe, feeling loved and happy. I wanted everyone to think I was a great mum with content babies. But I now know that keeping them safe and feeling loved is not necessarily synonymous with keeping them happy and being a great Mum does not mean my babies are always content.
I have learned that in the early years, crying is the way babies begin to communicate their needs to us. It would be much easier if they just came right out and told us they were hungry or tired but life is not always meant to be easy and by having to really listen to our infants we can become more connected, understand them and to get to know them more deeply. If our first reaction to every cry we hear is to make it stop either by distraction or feeding, we are missing valuable opportunities to listen to what our babies are telling us and thereby miss valuable chances for connection and creating a trusting bond between us.
So how can we learn a baby’s cry language? Well, there are a few systems such as Dunstan’s Baby Language which encourages us to listen for sounds embedded within the cry which indicates the need the baby is communicating. This system actually worked really well for us. We used it well before we were introduced to Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophies and immediately became much more confident in responding appropriately to our babies’ needs.
I remember one particular problem we were having with our first-born when she was about 4 months old. She would take 30 minute cap naps throughout the day which we soon realised was the time of one of her sleep cycles. She would wake after half an hour and we would retrieve her from her cot thinking she was done sleeping. Often she would be grizzly after this time and our first instincts were to feed her.
After learning about the Dunstan’s method I started listening to my baby’s grizzles instead of just trying to feed her after these cat naps. I quickly realised that she was not asking me to feed her but was telling me she was still tired. I therefore, decided to try placing her back in her cot where she promptly fell back asleep and slept for another 2 hours. It seemed she had been telling us this all along and the days of cat naps disappeared as we gave our daughter the opportunity to resettle after waking during her first sleep cycle. She subsequently slept for 2- 3 hours each nap.
Although the Dunstan method helped us significantly, I have spoken to many people who just could not make out the sounds in their babies cries that would give them the clues they were looking for. So what were they to do? Well as it turns out, the sounds we had been listening to so carefully in our infant’s cries petered out by about 9 months and well before she could communicate with words. We soon had to learn her language through patience, understanding and empathy.
Since discovering RIE parenting, I have learned that a crying child is not to be feared or prevented at all costs. It is healthy for babies to release their feelings in loving, supportive arms. If a baby cries, talk to them: “Are you hungry?”, “You are very upset. I’m here for you and I am going to help you if I can.” “It’s been a while since your last nap, it seems you are tired. Let’s take you to your room so you can have some sleep.” A baby may not understand the meaning of the words initially but they will detect the love and comfort in your tone and voice. If there seems to be no reason for the crying then perhaps they just need a good cry – don’t we all sometimes? Let them cry. Be there to comfort but don’t try to stifle it out with distraction or other artificial means. Let it run its course.
Now that my children are older their emotions can be more easily defined. In any given day my children might express hurt, anger, jealousy or frustration and I welcome these feelings with the open arms they need. I allow my children to cry. I don’t mean in a cold-hearted, cruel way, But rather in a way that shows them I am listening and available to them to meet their needs when they are ready to open up to me. There are even times when I recognise an emotion in them that needs to be released and invite them to do so. “Wow! It sounds like you are REALLY angry and feel like shouting. It’s normal to feel this way when you’re angry. Let’s go to your room together and let some yells out”
When we show our children we are not afraid of their emotions, and they realise their emotions don’t rattle us or make us uncomfortable, we open the lines of communication that will see them able to come to us in the future where they might have bottled up and kept to themselves. I shudder at the thought that my children might be afraid to come to me to talk when they are older. I need them to know that my love for them is deeper than any action, inaction or feeling they do or don’t have. The foundations for this trusting relationship starts at infancy and grows over time.
Before I learned of the RIE philosophies, I was very uncomfortable (as most new mothers are) with hearing my babies cry. I remember clearly trying to soothe them by poking a dummy (pacifier) in their mouths only to have them spit it back out. I would carefully force it back in only to have it pushed out by their little tongues. Ashamedly, I even remember holding the dummy in, pleading with my babies to accept it and suck away peacefully even though they were clearly trying to tell me they didn’t want it. They were communicating with me during those early days through their cries and I was not listening. I was telling them to stop!
I try not to dwell on this now though as I realise our children really are the most forgiving creatures on the planet. They have given me so many more opportunities to gain their trust through open expression of emotions and communication. When my children are in the throws of a tantrum over the most seemingly innocuous event, I stop to listen to them. I don’t hurry to make it stop and I certainly would never threaten or punish to be done with it.
I know it’s not the event that is making them upset, my job is to look past the immediate cause and think about the bigger picture. Are they telling me they are tired, hungry, needing connection, or has there been a significant change in their lives, a new school, house, brother, sister or has Dad been away for a work trip. It could be anything. I know that once I have worked it out or acknowledged the hard time they are having, they will be able to move on, knowing they have been heard and understood.
Changing my perceptions of my children’s emotions has made me a much calmer parent. I recognise the underdeveloped part of the brain which my children possess and realise that any ‘unreasonable’ expression of emotion on their part is normal and healthy for their growth and emotional well-being. This is particularly so if I am there to listen and support them through it, which, thanks to RIE, I am!
You may also enjoy reading:
Acknowledging Feelings ~ Narelle Smith (Hands, Hearts and Minds)
5 Steps to Nurture Emotional Intelligence in Your Child ~ Dr Laura Markham (Aha Parenting)