Before my daughter was born, I knew theoretically that there would be times my baby would cry. I never imagined that there would be times when she would cry for up to six hours a day. That every cry would tear a little hole in my heart as I struggled to use every soothing strategy I could think of, seemingly to no avail. Her cries filled the walls of our tiny apartment, her desperate wails were a sound that haunted my dreams. As I sat on the couch, shushing and rocking, feeding and patting her back, every minute felt like an hour. It seemed there would be no end to the tears, hers and mine and those dreamlike moments I had envisaged pre-baby would always be elusive.
The loneliest road...
For the parents of a sensitive, fussy or crying baby , the early months can be a bewildering, exhaustive experience . The experience of parenting a baby who cries a lot is one which is lonely and has the capacity to fill the new mother with a deep sense of shame and insecurity. A feeling of hopelessness can colour each day. Intellectually you may know that other babies cry, but the sound of your own baby crying, for long periods may fill the new mother with such feelings of shame and profound inadequacy. For many women the experience of a baby that cries constantly is one of incredible isolation. Within the endless question ‘ Is she a good baby? ’ we may feel there is little space to say ’No, she cries all the time and I don’t know what to do’, without feeling somehow culpable, as if we are doing something terribly wrong. When asked 'Is she a good baby?’ many of us secretly hear 'And are you a good mother?’ The endless crying of our baby in our own minds seems definitively to state ‘No I am not.’
Why do babies cry?
All babies cry. Some babies cry more than others. A baby cries for a multitude of reasons. Being hungry, tired, overstimulated, a wet nappy, or a painful bout of wind may all lead to bouts of crying in a baby. Some babies temperamentally are more sensitive and easily overwhelmed by the newness of the world around them. A baby may also be startled by a loud noise, , annoyed by the scratchy material of their jumpsuit, feel a little bored or lonely. And reflux...awful reflux. In the absence of any language of words that a baby can use to communicate a need, crying remains one of the most effective ways a baby has of sharing their needs and seeking connection from the one they trust to meet them...their mother. As we struggle in the early days to understand our baby and decipher their needs, the experience of having a baby that is inclined to cry constantly can feel overwhelming. Whilst intellectually we may know that in the early days, learning our babies language of tears takes time to interpret, it may feel to many new mothers that these days will never end, they will never emerge from the lonely days of crying.
But it gets better...
For the mother of a sensitive, 'fussy' baby who cries constantly, it may be heartening to know that it gets better. Most babies settle down by the end of the third month and prolonged bouts of crying are less frequent. The incredible learning curve of the early months feels a little less steep. We can recognise our baby's cues better, and perhaps too, our baby has developed some capacity to tolerate the confusing and stimulating world around her. Often by the three month mark, routines have found their own rhythm and whatever means we are using to feed our baby has settled down. Its unsurprising that the first three months are often referred to as the fourth trimester. It's a profound time of change not only for the baby, but us as mothers too.
Five things I wish I knew then...
I look back upon those early months with my first born and wish I could reach back in time to the mother self that I was. As I think back to the hours spent alone on the couch, my heart beating faster with every cry, I imagine giving my mother self a gentle look of warmth and understanding. I would tell her it gets better. These are just the early days and they are very hard. But they are not forever. And one day you will look back at these moments with compassion and know you have come along way.
1. Having a baby who cries a lot is incredibly painful and can leave a mother of a newborn feeling anxious. It can be hard to remember that this is not necessarily a reflection of you, your parenting and anything else you are doing. At stated earlier, some babies are just wired to be more sensitive. Or they may have reflux. Or they may be overwhelmed by all the stimuli of the world around them. Offer yourself compassion and remember that you are still getting to know each other.
2. Don’t be misled or confused by advice from those around you who rush to question your milk supply, your settling methods, or your capacity to be a good mother who knows her own baby. You do know your own baby. Every mother will have moments with their baby (or child, or teenager...) when they feel a little bewildered. Our relationships with our children are constantly unfolding, even when they are 35! Often moments of understanding our children and their needs are preceded by feelings of confusion. This too shall pass.
3. If your baby has been crying for a number of hours and you have tried everything, take a break. There were days when I had to force myself to walk away, even just for a few minutes to gather my thoughts and think about what might be happening for my baby. Although everything within me felt dreadful that I was walking away in the face of her primitive distress, I realise now that taking a break might be just what is needed to think about your baby more clearly and also what your baby needs to settle . I realise now that an ordinary mother doesn't always know what to do, but her willingness and capacity to reflect on her baby's crying is more important than any specific settling technique.
4. Be gentle with yourself. Talk yourself through it. Think of anything that you could do that would ‘improve the moment’ and reduce the tension of the day . Get a cup of tea, rub on some nice hand cream, go for a walk, call a friend, eat chocolate, watch something uplifting on tv.
5. Ask for support and accept it when it is offered. A crying baby is physically and emotionally exhausting. You need to replenish your energy in whatever way you can so that you can continue to lovingly respond when he does cry. I wish I’d asked for more help. I wish I'd brought my feelings of being overwhelmed into the light. It would have made the early days less lonely and the road a little less long.
Adapted from Becoming a Mother, Finch Publishing , Sept 2015 Available at Qbd, The ABC Shop, Angus and Robertson, Avid Reader, Mary Ryan Bookstore, Riverbed bookstores and online from Amazon