Spending time with my newborn grandson was a powerful reminder of how dependent and helpless they really are, and the extent to which babies rely upon their caretakers to get every need met- including their ongoing need for comfort and soothing. They are perpetually dysregulated: easily overwhelmed and over-stimulated as their primitive brains and bodies attempt to navigate a relentless cascade of experiences. Since a newborn’s only way to communicate their discomfort is to cry, it’s vitally important for caretakers to respond in grounded and present ways rather than getting triggered and dysregulated themselves.
In the best circumstances, caretakers respond to an infant’s cries with kindness and compassion. But consider how challenging the crying combined with sleep deprivation must be for caretakers who either have a history of trauma or don’t get the support that they deserve and need in the early months of being new parents. There is ample research suggesting that the most common cause of abuse is the sound of a baby or a child crying. When a caretaker has guessed at and attempted to address all the possible reasons why their child is crying – wet diaper, hungry, physical discomfort, startled – and the crying continues, it can create overwhelming feelings of anxiety, incompetence, exhaustion, or anger in a new parent.
Clinicians (and grandparents) can provide important psychoeducation to normalize crying as a necessary distress signal that needs to be addressed with a calm, soothing voice, gentle shushing, swaddling, or the rocking or swinging movements that babies require for re-grounding. The idea from past generations that picking up a crying baby will “spoil it” must be dispelled, as we now know that letting a newborn “cry it out” will raise their cortisol to abnormal levels, leading to extreme stress and shut down. New parents need to understand that babies are incapable of regulating themselves. It is only through the repeated acts of comfort provided externally by the caretaker that allows the baby, in time, to internalize those strategies for comfort and soothing.
It’s equally important that caretakers do not misinterpret crying as an indication that their baby is “mad at them,” or a sign of their incompetence or their inability to be a good parent. And urging a parent to “sleep when the baby sleeps” is not a cliché – it is a necessary way to mitigate the powerful adverse effects of sleep deprivation. Any support that can be given to educate, reassure, and comfort caretakers will profoundly benefit their child as well. If you are working with clients who are new parents, be sure to ask about their resources for guidance and support and help them to respond to their baby’s cries and needs with compassion and understanding.
Resources for parents:
- Parents Anonymous
- ZeroToThree.org/Parenting: A good website with resources and services for parents of children- newborn to three years old.
- Babies: An amazing Netflix series that focuses on the first year of life including research related to eating, sleeping, crawling, etc.
- National Parent Helpline: 1-855 4A PARENT or 1-855-427-2736 for help, support, hope, and strength.