We dread them, we hate them, we get thrown off our game when they happen.…
You are in the middle of a terrifying experience. You desperately need help. You call your “significant other”. Crying, you tell them what is happening and to please come to help you.
“That’s your problem.” they say – and hang up.
You call again.
“You can take care of this yourself.” they say. And hang up.
You call again. You’re panicking and getting hysterical “I need you to help me!”
“Just deal with it, and stop calling.”
So you do. You give up.
And on top of your fear, panic and helplessness, you also feel abandoned.
The adrenalin is coursing through your body. Your heart is pounding, your breathing is shallow and fast.
Your throat is sore from crying. Your nose is filled and stuffed. You are miserable.
You are stuck where you are. You finally fall asleep from exhaustion.
Hours later the phone rings. It’s your significant other. Their smiling voice is on the phone.
“Hi. You sound better. I’ll come get you now.”
Good for you. You “self-soothed”. You’ve “earned” the attention of the person you love.
Well, it is.
We wouldn’t tolerate that from someone we are in intimate relationship with, hopefully, nor would we do it to them.
But, as gut wrenching as this imaginary scenario appears, many parents do it to their babies and children. Because they are told that they should.
Babies get stressed.
In my first blog in this series on Stress in Young Children, stress is defined as “an organism’s total response to environmental demands and pressures”.
Babies lives are filled with short-term stressors:
hunger, digestive upsets, fatigue, overstimulation, being passed around from person to person, getting bathed, being too hot, too cold, sudden noises,”colic”, wet diapers, being put down, feeling alone and disconnected, “missing the womb”…
And there is absolutely nothing they can do about any of it except to let us know that they are stressed and miserable.
How do they let us know that?
They cry. A loud and piercing cry.
It’s designed by nature so we can’t ignore it. Their incessant crying stresses us. And ideally, we intuitively want to comfort their crying.
And regardless of what anyone tells you to the contrary, all of these stressors can be dealt with easily by a loving, responsive parent.
In fact, the research is pretty clear that babies can handle and recover from almost any stress IF there is a loving responsive parent or parent figure who is there to support them through it. Someone to hold and comfort them when they are in distress.
Even if we can’t take away their tummy upsets, or teething pain, we CAN take away their emotional pain and significantly lower their stress levels. And this has long term positive repercussions.
There is so much new and very sophisticated child development research that can measure body systems, hormone levels, and brain activity and development in babies and children.
And the research is very clear. The more nurtured and comforted and supported babies and children are, the more secure they are, the easier they are to live with, and the less prone they are to aggression and childhood anxiety and depression.
When babies go through stress alone and unsupported, it can do long term damage to their fragile, hypersensitive brains and nervous systems. Their stress centres become hyper-developed which can lead to a range of emotional and learning difficulties.
We have a parenting method in our society that supports leaving babies to deal with their stressors by themselves. We let them “cry it out”, or we do “controlled crying” or “controlled comforting”. We think it makes them independent. We think it prevents them from becoming “manipulative”.
It does none of those things.
Throughout my 21 years as owner of my retail store Mountain Baby, I have seen many highly stressed babies who are crying with great intensity, being left untouched and uncomforted in their strollers and car seats.
Sometimes I talk with the parents and mention that we have a feeding room. Some say thank you, and go right into feed their baby.
But others say things like:
“Oh, he’s alright. I fed him a little while ago” and allow him to keep crying or,
“Oh, he’s just got his nose out of joint because he hates the stroller” or,
“She’s just fussy” or,
“She’s just learning to self-soothe. She’ll stop eventually.”
In other words, the baby is on their own.
Just like that absurd imaginary example about you that I began this blog with, imagining that you are in great distress.
But there is one BIG difference.
You are an adult. You have a developed neocortex.That means you have the brain capacity to think things through. You can figure out other ways to deal with their frightening situation. YOU CAN CALL OTHER PEOPLE FOR HELP!
But a baby can’t do any of that. A baby’s brain does not yet have a developed neocortex – the part of the brain that can think and reason.
A baby CANNOT think things through.
A baby CANNOT figure things out.
A baby CANNOT reason
A baby CANNOT talk them self into settling down
And a baby absolutely CANNOT call someone else.
A baby actually cannot do anything like an adult can. They are helpless and completely dependent!
Why do we think a baby can relieve their own stress? The “logic” is because they eventually stop crying.
But, when a baby stops crying in those stressful situations, it does not mean they are comforted. It means they have given up. And when babies are left to comfort themselves, their cortisol levels are still elevated, even after they stop crying.
I know that sometimes there are circumstances when you can’t comfort your baby and the occasional time is fine. But it has long term consequences when it’s a repeated pattern of purposely ignoring their distress.
Your baby, your toddler, your preschooler, your school-age child, your teenager all need you in the most profound way.
Being a parent is a position of honour and yes it’s tiring and very hard work. But the more you are there for them, the better they will be equipped to handle all the things that life will throw at them. And I promise you, even as adults, life will always send challenges their way.
The more you respond to and help to soothe their stress when they are young, the more resilient – and compassionate- your children will be.
To sum up the message of my blogs about stress in young children:
- Stress in children is real.
- Stress in babies is real.
- Stress shows itself in “acting out” behaviour, or negativity or tantrums.
- More than anything in the world, your child wants to connect with and be close to you.
- The more stressed, distressed and “misbehaving” your child is, the more they need you.
- Make conscious choices to lower your child’s stress. It has long-term implications for their health and development.
- The more focused time you have with your children, the less stressed they are and the easier they are to live with.
- Children are irrational and driven by emotion. They are immature. YOU are the adult.
- Babies and young children have almost no capacity to comfort themselves. Your comforting them helps them to learn how – and helps them to learn how to comfort others.
- Babies cannot “self-soothe” and need you to soothe them.
- YOU are the most important person in the world – you are building a human being.