Unexplained Crying May Come from an Emotional Need

With Laura Minnigerode

You thought you'd covered everything. It's late in the day, your baby is fed, healthy, and her diaper is changed, you've jiggled and jostled her until you are exhausted, and she is still crying.


You managed to get him to settle only to be woken at 2 am by him screaming. It seems like he wants to nurse, but you know he isn't hungry, or he nurses for a minute or two and stops, yet cries again as you encourage him to sleep.

Crying causes us parents worry and angst, especially when we don't know why it happens. When we factor in the stress of changing routines plus our own lack of sleep, unexplained crying can drive us to the edge.

We want to help, we feel like we need to know how to make it stop, but we don't know how. We wind up feeling inadequate and frustrated.

But having a child who cries doesn't make us a failure. And there is a different choice other than holding the baby all day everyday, or leaving them to cry alone.

Laura Minnigerode is a mother and Hand in Hand Parenting instructor who has worked with many babies in daycare. She says that unexplained crying is actually quite common.

In fact, when we act fast to try and quiet a crying baby, we could actually be stopping natural healing that he or she needs to do.

When Babies Cry and You Don't Know Why:

The answer, Laura says, is actively listening and supporting a child through a cry. Different from cry it out, where a baby is left on its own to cry, supported crying, a tool called Staylistening, is where a parent stays close by, offering gentle touch and eye contact that can bring a deep sense of relief and calm for a baby, leaving them settled and better able to sleep better.

Here Laura talks about how supporting babies with Staylistening helps them offload tension that gets stored in their systems.

Why do babies cry even after their basic needs have been met?

Babies cry to communicate – it's really a powerful way for them to make sure we hear them! A baby may cry because she is tired, or lonely, but also when she is working on letting go of some of the overwhelming feelings from her journey into the world, or even to release her overflowing cup of stimulation. Keep in mind, a loud motorcycle zooming by outside or even a strong perfume smell can be too much for a sensitive little one. A baby can't turn to a friend and say “Wow, that was loud” and so crying is the baby's only tool to process feelings.

Most parents carry a lot of tension around babies crying. Why is this?

Biology plays a role – after all, if it was easy for us to ignore a baby's cry, our species may not have survived! And many of us, probably most of us, were not responded to respectfully as babies.

There are some other reasons: parents are valiant and loving people. Many of us carry strong feelings about not wanting to fail as a parent, or not wanting our children to feel pain or sadness. We love our children so fiercely and want only good for them.

So how can we help support our babies if we find it hard to hear crying?

With support from a listening partner, parents can do good work on their own feelings about crying. Think and talk about what it was like for you to cry as a child, and how you feel about not always knowing the right thing to do with your baby, what it's like to not have enough sleep and to still have this little one need you so much.
You'll begin to dig deep into why and how crying affects you.

How do you actively listen to babies, keeping them comforted and supported as they cry?
My answer will assume that you have checked for a full diaper, hunger, discomfort or pain, and ruled all of that out. When you have responded to those wants and still the baby is crying, begin by breathing, in order to release any tension that you can feel building in your body. Take a moment to lower your shoulders. Remember that this little person has a reason to cry. You may not have figured out why but it is a real and true reason.

Using a calm voice, let the baby know you are sorry things feel hard. Gently hold the baby – but not in a way that is too “shushing”. Try to make eye contact to see if your baby will accept it and just stay as calm and present as you can.

How have you seen a good cry aid a baby's sleep?
In some cases, I have seen a relationship between crying and sleep when a baby who was overstimulated or working on fear has a chance to cry with a listener who stays close and really listens. They will often sleep well after this cry.

Babies, like all of us, are unique and special and so this may not work in every situation, but after you've tried responding to all possible reasons for the upset, my advice is to always listen with love to a crying baby.

What other ways might you help them relieve tension?

Play and responsiveness are good in other situations, and Special Time can be wonderful for babies, but when a baby is upset, it's not time for that.

Thank you so much Laura. Is there a last message you'd like to add? 
I am sending love to all of the new parents out there right now, you are brave and strong!

Find out more in the video class Helping Your Child Sleep.

Laura Minnigerode is a Hand in Hand Certified Instructor based in Texas.

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