I don’t know a person who doesn’t hate the sound of a crying baby. It can elicit feelings of helplessness, anger, frustration, and sadness. At times, we are utterly incapable of effectively stopping the crying which compounds these feelings even more. One of the biggest concerns in our society is something called “Shaken Baby Syndrome” whereby parents feel so helpless and frustrated at a child’s cry that they lash out and shake their baby. Obviously this isn’t good. But what to do?
Many intervention or prevention programs focus on simply putting baby down when it gets to that stage, but what about before that stage? Although I completely agree that if you feel you are about to harm your child, the absolute only thing to do is to put him/her down and give yourself a breather, we need more tips to help families not even reach that stage. After all, the importance of holding and responding to a baby while he or she cries is often the difference between the baby experiencing a cortical stress response or not (see here, and more in-depth here).
With that, I would like to share a few tips that I have learned along the way with numerous children who experienced bouts of crying that I could not alleviate in the moment, but remained holding them to provide comfort. One of the most important things that we often forget is that our children are as attuned to us as we are to them; if we are panicked and stressed while they cry, we can contribute to their distress and they are less likely to calm down. Remaining calm ourselves is critical to allow the synchronous relationship we hopefully have with them to help relax them when possible.
This isn’t possible for everyone, but whenever it is possible, it should be used. Switch it up before you hit the end of your rope. If you wait until you’re at the end of your rope, the time to recoup may be too long before it’s your turn again. Instead, take 15 or 30 minute shifts (depending on how long your baby cries for) and make sure you are away from the crying when you aren’t “on call”. Remember, it doesn’t have to be your partner but can be anyone that helps you out who your baby feels comfortable with (this part is key as the comfort element is with someone baby knows, however, even a responsive stranger is better than nothing); however, if it’s not someone baby knows well, taking a 5-10 minute breather may be exactly what you need and you should take it. Being in someone’s arms is better than being alone, but you may need to take more time than the secondary person.
Know You Are Helping Just by Holding
Sometimes all we need to make sure we don’t go crazy is the awareness that holding our child in a time of distress is helping even if it may not seem that way right away. When you can’t calm your crying baby it can feel like you’re helpless and, well, useless, but that is simply not true. Crying with support is essential to the well-being of our babies (you can read more here on the science behind it) and so knowing that you are providing that support will hopefully help bolster your ability to cope with these periods of crying. Furthermore, attempting to soothe a child, no matter how successful, actually predicts less crying in the long run.
Listen to Music (or Podcasts or Whatever Else) with Headphones
This was my go-to when my sister was young and had bouts of crying. I would give my mom a break and take over for her, holding my sister closely and rocking in the rocking chair or walking around, while listening to music. Music was my thing and I loved it and would always pick music that helped calm me (i.e., this was not the time I chose to listen to my punk rock). Earphones in and volume up, I could still hear the crying, but the music could be my focus, giving me the means to not go slowly insane.
I suppose in the day and age of tablets and smartphones, one could add watching TV to this. I would never recommend putting something on that baby can hear as sometimes the crying can be due to overstimulation of these types of gadgets, but if you have a tablet and some good earphones then you can watch and listen while holding and comforting your child. Note that there are good wireless earphones that can work too so you can use a laptop and not have wires hanging in baby’s face.
Take a Warm Shower (Yes, With Baby)
A warm shower would often calm my own daughter if she was upset, but even if it didn’t, the warm water, the skin-to-skin, the sound of the water all contributed to calming me. During the one period where my daughter had a few days of intense, prolonged crying due to a food allergy reaction, I could sit in the shower for 30-40 minutes with her. The water just helped keep me calm (as a nice warm shower does any other day I feel stressed). I would add bath to this too if you have a large and comfortable enough bath (which we don’t); the goal here is to do something that calms you and the skin-to-skin with your baby should help facilitate the physiological change for them as well.
Go For a Walk
Fresh air does most people good – even if it’s cold or raining. If you need to, bundle up, but baby wearing and going walking is wonderful for your state of mind and health too (the movement and closeness may have a shot at calming your baby as well). Being cooped up inside, especially with a crying baby, can make you go crazy. You’re staring at the same things, walking the same steps, and you slowly feel yourself losing it. Getting outside if at all possible changes that. You’re breathing fresh air, seeing new sights, and actually walking with purpose meaning you get a bit of a workout too (and we all know a workout releases endorphins that help you feel better too). Many people don’t do this because they fear people’s reactions to a crying baby out in public. Pardon the language, but fuck them. Your responsibility is to yourself and your child and no one said that people are entitled to nothing but quiet when outside. If you’re walking, you’re hardly close to any one person for any length of time either so you don’t need to worry about that. People will survive a slight inconvenience of a crying baby walking past them or their house whereas it may be a game changer for you.
When baby has calmed also remember to take care of yourself. If you need to vent or talk, call a friend (obviously this isn’t helpful when babe is still upset). Have a glass of wine. Do what you need to do to get back to “normal” after one of these events. Just always try to remember that you are being a responsive parent by being there for your baby and that you are not useless. Your caring and compassion is exactly what your baby needs to thrive. Remember: A happy baby isn’t one that never cries, but one that feels loved and cared for even in times of distress.