As We Go: Listening Through The Cries

Having a conversation with Cub. Copyright EKMCronin 2014.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how we have been doing over the past 3 months with Cub. It has often felt a little like winging it. We read a parenting book before Cub was born but honestly it all kind of falls out of your head when you’re busy with a newborn.

It is also impossible to take all the advice you get, especially when it contradicts other advice. There are so many opinions, routines, miracle cures, and suggestions that it can feel overwhelming when you’re sitting with your first child bawling her eyes out at 3am with no idea what to do – leave her to cry it out? Swing her round? Music? White noise? Rocking chair? Walking? Quiet? Noisy? Cool? Warm? Far too many options for a sleep-deprived brain to comprehend.

I don’t think we’ve done too badly though; we have asked help from our elders when necessary, and the rest of the time we’ve just tried to listen, and I mean literally.

We seem to have fallen into the idea of simply using common sense. There are pretty basic needs for a baby: food, sleep, and to be clean. If Cub is unhappy and we were not sure why we worked through the options. However, what has been more important than this tick-box mentality has been to seriously listen to how our child is attempting to communicate.

A newborn really only has one way of getting your attention: crying. It is a survival instinct to make sure they get food and warmth, quite literally to keep on living, but preferably to thrive. When a baby starts to trust that you are going to look after them, they do start to work out how to be more specific about what they need, and we’ve started to recognise the difference between certain noises and cries. By doing this we are learning more about her and teaching her too.

For example, there is quite clearly a difference between her being over-tired (a kind of moan in little bursts with pauses, and no tears) and her being in pain, for example, with gas (a far louder, piercing cry with a few tears and no break – Cub will also arch her belly up as if trying to get it out). There is also more recently a distinct noise (not quite a word yet) for when she wants food, although this only occurred very recently.

We realised that we had started to ignore what she was trying to say to us because we were so quick to try and hush the crying. This wasn’t necessarily for her sake (although of course we wanted her to be happy and well very much) but more because the crying actually made us emotionally and physically hurt – as it’s supposed to really, again a survival technique.

Here’s an example | used recently: if I am exhausted after a really long day, am physically tired, and just really need some sleep, I tend to say so. My body language and my literal moaning will let anyone around me know that I am fed up and need sleep. If I continue to not get sleep I get emotional, angry, and sometimes ironically won’t be able to sleep. If someone gave me cake, I would probably eat it (it is cake after all!) but I might also feel they were trying to put something in my mouth rather than let me go have a nap or fall asleep. The cake might be nice but this person wouldn’t have really been listening to my problem, or helped me fix it. It could even take longer for me to go to sleep because of the distraction and delay.

So, more recently despite the pain of it, Bear and I have allowed her to cry a little, and really listen. This has meant that at times (like when she’s moaning her little over-tired moan) the best thing we can do is actually to leave her alone. Again, if you think about it you don’t necessarily want a hug or to be told to take a walk when you are sleepy, you want peace and quiet to sleep. We have been surprised at how quickly she has fell asleep when cuddled up in something warm, laid down, and left alone (even if with a cautious eye from the doorway watching out for her).

This seems to have also stopped her using food as a form of comfort for every situation. One particular problem came when she was gassy and yet would want to be fed as comfort – she didn’t seem to realise we were creating a vicious cycle of food and pain. When we recognised the cry, we could solve the problem and she would be far happier, and probably not want food. It also meant that Mama here got some much needed sleep because her chest wasn’t required for every problem that arose.

Now, I do not mean for this to be another mother’s advice column: there are enough out there. I would, however, recommend to any parent to really start listening to your child, whatever their age. There are so many adults who still think that if their child is loud that there is a problem, but I feel that sometimes (of course not all the time!) we need to let our kids be noisy and sacrifice a little of our sanity, in order to understand what they are trying to tell us.

I would love it if I manage to avoid that dreaded scream from a teenage daughter “You’re not listening! You just don’t understand!”. I would love it if my child knows that I am trying my best to understand what she is trying to tell me. I would love to be trusted and spoken to, and maybe, with a good example, be listened to in return.

I can hope.

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