Understanding Your Child and Their Crying

crying children

When we can come from a place of understanding for our children, then we may begin to understand that crying is communication. When a newborn, infant, toddler or preschooler is crying, as a parent it is important to know that we will need to respond to this communication.  The challenge is, but how? We will get to that, but let’s understand crying as a form of communication.  

Some of the reasons a child may cry is because they are communicating:

  • Hunger
  • Tiredness
  • Boredom
  • In pain
  • Uncomfortable

As parents, when we think about being uncomfortable, often we will think of perhaps the feeling of being hungry or maybe gas pain making us uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable cries have a wide range of reasons.  The sensation an emotion  produces in the body can be very uncomfortable.  When we get curious about the emotions a child may be holding onto,  we can problem solve to figure out how to best support our child. 

“It’s painful to listen to a crying baby. Grown-ups tend to overreact to a child’s cry. Why? Because crying often stirs up painful memories of our own childhood, churning up issues of abandonment and fear. Perhaps as babies or young children we were not allowed to cry and were distracted or reproached when we did. Our children’s tears many trigger in us these buried memories of rage, helplessness, or terror, taking us back to those early years. Our baby’s message may then become muddled in our own issues. Try to listen to your baby to hear what she is saying.” -MagdaGerber

Why is crying hard for parents

“Why is it so difficult to hold a crying baby and to accept the crying? Probably because few people were allowed to cry as much as needed when they were little. Your parents may have tried to stop you from crying when you were a baby. Perhaps they gave you a pacifier, or kept trying to feed you, or jiggled you every time you cried, thinking this was what you needed at the moment. Perhaps they tried to distract you with toys, music, or games, when all you needed was their undivided attention and loving arms so that you could continue with your crying.” –Aletha Solter, Aware Parenting

Your child’s outward behavior, crying, tantrum, or defiance, is an emotion that is being expressed.   Young children don’t have the vocabulary to share what that emotion is, but their behavior signals how they are feeling on the inside.  Our job is not to fix them, but support them. We listen to our children through their  frustrations and learning process.

No matter what age or stage our children are in, they need to offload emotions from their day. Crying is one of the ways young children offload emotions. We can help them identify the emotion that’s causing the tears. 

Newborns, infants, toddlers and preschoolers have very different lives, so we have to start with their age and stage, and then WHY they’re crying. Here are some general scenarios with some questions to help you explore and understand why your child is crying.

A newborn

“All healthy babies cry. We would worry if they didn’t cry – no infant can be raised without crying. Respond to the baby, reflecting that you are there and that eventually you will understand the reasons for the crying.” -Magda Gerber

Your newborn has already eaten, they seem tired, but now they’re just waking up, refusing to sleep, crying, red faced, with a painful looking face. They already ate, they’re supposed to be sleeping and they’re not sleeping. You are left wondering what they need?

Questions to get curious about for your newborn: 

  • Is my baby in an active state of sleep?
  • Is my baby needing to burp or pass gas?
  • What is the temperature in this room? Is my baby swaddled? 
  • Does my baby need some soothing and connection?  
  • Am I, as a parent, comfortable? Is my position comfortable?
  • How am I feeling? Am I calm? Am I feeling uncertain about what to do? 
  • Am I trying to get something else done? Do I need a break? 

A little bit more about newborn crying…

In my role as a postpartum doula, I work to help educate and support families in the newborn season of life. But of course, we want to know what does that cry mean. I appreciate the work of Priscilla Dunstan who shares some common cries a baby makes that has a specific need to it. Watch what she shares in the Secret Language of Babies to help you tune in and observe your newborn baby.

Postpartum Doula Tip: Look at your baby’s unique dialect of these sounds/ cries and what is happening based on the flexible routines you have established in your home.

An infant

Your infant is waking up multiple times at night to feed. Your infant is really busy during the day, and may not have time to eat during the daytime.  You may notice that your infant  gets distracted easily during feeding times. Your infant is excited about crawling, sitting up, pulling up, exploring toys and is too busy to eat a lot during the day.

Questions to get curious about for your infant: 

  • How is this infant feeding during the daytime?
  • What is the first feed of the day like?
  • Are they frustrated with the skills they’re working on? 
  • Is their playtime short? How much floor time can they handle? 
  • How many transitions have there been in the day? 

A toddler

Toddlers crave connection.  When a toddler is acting out they’re feeling dysregulated and may be disruptive. They may be throwing toys, having a tantrum, meltdown or whining.  

Questions to get curious about for your toddler: 

  • Has this child had a nap?
  • Is my child waking up too early?
  • Is this child hungry?
  • Does this child need to reconnect with their caregiver or peers?
  • Are they being asked to do something they don’t know how to do? 
  • Are they frustrated at the task at hand?

“A growing number of psychologists believe that the healing function of crying begins at birth, and that stress-release crying early in life will help prevent emotional and behavioral problems later on.”

-Althea Solter

A preschooler

Preschoolers can literally cry OR their behavior may reflect the need to cry.  Your preschooler is pushing limits.  They keep asking “why?”  Your child is not listening and it feels like they are running the house.  They stall at bedtime and bedtime becomes a long drawn out event in your home. 

Questions to get curious about for your preschooler: 

  • Are they up too late?
  • Am I asking them to do something they don’t have the bandwidth for?
  • Does my child feel empowered? 
  • Are they also trying to offload some big feelings from their day?
  • Have they been able to express emotions throughout the day?

“The way you listen to your child, play with him, cuddle him, comfort him, and treat him when he is being “naughty”is very significant. It is these times that you stack the cards for failing or thriving in life.”  –Margot Sunderland

Supporting your crying child

Take the time to listen to your child’s emotions regardless of their age and stage.  This is the start of establishing healthy communication and that your child will be able to come to you no matter what.   This is open, honest communication that builds trust and respect in your relationship.  

Meet your child’s immediate needs.  Check and observe your child’s immediate needs: hunger, tiredness, diaper change, or any other sources that may cause discomfort.  

Once your child’s immediate needs are met, be prepared to listen.  Get comfortable.  Be present, be with, and be still. Take time to be the calm and confident presence for your child and listen to understand. 

Allow your child to express their emotions, feel heard and loved through the big emotions and you get to listen and accept without judgment. 

As a parent, our process is to  think about your child’s age and stage.   Young children will communicate through crying and their behavior will signal the emotions they may be holding onto.  Observe the signals your child is communicating, then move toward solutions to problem solve with your child.   Be the calm and confident presence with your child through these big emotions rather than feeling like you have to fix them.  When you understand your child and their crying, this will help you and your child rest well. 

Tears bring a child to rest so that they can play and grow—we must become the tearjerkers and comforters our children require. -Deborah MacNamara

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