One of the main forms of communication for a baby, is their cry. At first, it is likely that you will struggle to understand the meaning of your baby’s different types of cries, as you have only just met! As you get to know your baby, you will begin to discern a hungry cry, from a tired one, one that is saying ‘come and talk to me, I’m a bit bored,’ ‘I’m feeling scared,’ or ‘I’m cold.’ Sometimes baby may seem to be inconsolable, which can often seem to happen towards the end of the day. This is because your little one, just as you may feel, is tired out from their day and this can easily slip into becoming overtired, making it super hard for them to use your help to become calmer. This can often be challenging.

You might find that for a lot of the time, when baby cries, you can think about what they may need and figure it out to be able to them. At other times, it might be that this feels really hard and you feel frustrated more easily, or that you just want to get away from your baby. This is really ordinary and almost every parent will feel like this at some point during the day or week. Lots of reasons will impact the extent to which you are able to support your baby with what they are feeling, from your own tiredness, which may become exhaustion, to stress caused by daily life, including tension in other relationships.

However, it might be that the cries of your baby can feel as if they intrude right into you, shutting down your ability to think. You may almost feel panicked, attacked, or even as if your baby’s cry is an accusation, telling you that you are not getting it right. You might feel quite angry with your baby. This can lead you to try and anticipate your baby’s every need, in order to prevent them from ever getting upset. Although this may sound like a good idea, it does mean that it is hard for your baby to learn to begin to be able to very gradually manage difficult emotion. It is also simply not possible to ‘get it right’ every time. We know from research that parents who have good relationships with their children get it right first time only 30% of the time. More important is your ability to notice you have missed or misunderstood your baby’s cues and be able to think about what they need.

It can feel very confusing that such a little person can have such an enormous impact upon you. A significant part of the reason for why managing your baby’s feelings can be so challenging, is because when we were babies, our memories worked a little differently. We remember what happens to us, but we don’t have access to these memories as thoughts, in the way we do as older children and adults. Babies memories are encoded as emotions, feelings, within the body. An example may be that we learn to walk, we have no memory that we can bring into our mind of doing that, but we clearly remember how as we walk every day! This is called procedural memory. At around the age of two years, our autobiographical memory comes on line, which means that our memory, as we recognise it, begins. We can construct a time line of events and we can see images of our past experiences in our mind.

When you are with a baby, particularly a baby that is your child, your procedural memories will most likely become activated. Not all of the time, but certainly at points of stress, crying often being one such trigger. Our memories of how we felt as a baby will emerge, not as thought, but as feeling and this can be quite overwhelming and helps us to understand why it can feel so hard for you to help your baby with their cries. If as a baby it was difficult for those caring for you to help you with your cries, then your experience may have been quite frightening as a baby, maybe being left to cry for long periods, possibly shouted at, or even hurt. Babies who have such experiences repeatedly often stop crying almost all together, as they have learnt that it is not safe to do so and more importantly, in order to keep their parent around, who they need in order to survive, then not crying is best. This comes at an enormous cost for baby, as they have learnt that the emotions connected to their distress are not tolerable, cannot be managed and are overwhelming.

If you have received nurturing care in your first few years of life, this can serve as a powerful protective factor against later distressing experience. However and of course unsurprisingly, later childhood experiences can have a significant impact upon the templates you form about relationships. When confronted with looking after a very vulnerable little person, this often prompts the feelings and memories related to your own experiences when you were similarly vulnerable, not solely as an infant, but also through the course of your childhood. When you were a vulnerable infant or child, if you were abused or mistreated, particularly by your parents, or there was little or no room for how you felt, then your association of this time and therefore the experience of vulnerability, may include panic, distress, rejection, isolation and trauma. If vulnerability was a frightening experience for you when you were little, one of the ways you may have unconsciously managed this as an adult is as much as possible, wanting to feel as if you are in control of your surroundings, which may include other people. This is of course simply not possible with baby, as you cannot control what they do and how they respond. This can then reawaken those frightening feelings associated with being vulnerable, a time when you were not in control of what was happening around you and to you. As these experiences become triggered by being near your child who is in this vulnerable state, it can feel hard to be around them. This may become heightened at displays from your baby of obvious vulnerability and need, such as when they cry.

In essence, if you did not get enough help as a baby or child with difficult emotion, then it means it may be harder for you to mange this both within yourself and for others and particularly for your little one. This of course is not fixed and this capacity can and does change. One such way that this can be achieved is though therapy. The essence of therapy is to enable such emotion to be recognised and noticed, meaning that it does not have the same all-consuming impact upon you. Although it may feel hard to imagine things being different, therapy can gradually help you to begin to see your baby’s upset in a different way, not as an assault, intrusion, or accusation, but as a communication. This will help you to not fear or resent your baby and so come to cherish the time you spend with them.

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