How a Baby’s Cry Makes Us Feel - Woodmam

How a Baby’s Cry Makes Us Feel - Woodmam

And, still Caroline cried, and Martha’s nerves vibrated in extraordinary response, as if the child were connected to her flesh by innumerable invisible fibers.

Doris Lessing, A Proper Marriage

Just as your baby is born with certain automatic, built-in reflexes (like crying) you too are equipped with many automatic and irresistible feelings about your baby. Researchers proved years ago that adults are naturally attracted to an infant’s face. Your baby’s heart-shaped face, upturned nose, big eyes, and full forehead give you the urge to kiss and cuddle him for hours!

You also have special instincts to help you tell whether your infant is babbling or if he needs you urgently. Not only does your brain get the message but your body does too. That’s why your baby’s screams can really “get under your skin.” You feel your nervous system snap into “red alert” as your heart begins to race, your blood pressure soars, your palms sweat, and your stomach tightens like a fist. Studies show that a baby’s piercing cry can jolt a parent’s nervous system like an electric shock. As you might expect, scientists have also demonstrated that parents experiencing other stresses—such as fatigue, isolation, marital discord, financial stress, hormonal imbalance, problems with family or neighbors, or other serious strains—are especially susceptible to feeling overwhelmed by their baby’s cries.

It’s not just the sound of your baby’s cry that makes you want to help him, it’s how he looks too. Seeing his little fists punching at the air and his face twist in apparent pain can penetrate your heart like an arrow. Every loving fiber in your body will compel you to comfort your crying baby. This powerful biological impulse is exactly why it feels so wrong to wait outside the nursery door and let your baby cry it out.

Not only parents tune in to a baby’s cries. Single adults and children, too, find the sound of a baby crying upsetting. But new parents, especially ones without prior infant-care experience, find their baby’s crying exceptionally disturbing.

Your baby’s cry may even rekindle forgotten emotional trauma from your past. You may suddenly recall memories of prior failures or humiliations, like someone who was unfair to you, or remember people who criticized and attacked you. The crying may make you feel that you are being punished for some past misdeed. For some parents, this sense of helplessness is so intolerable that it makes them turn away from their babies’ screams and ignore their needs. (See Appendix B for more practical advice about how to survive these difficult days.)

Of course, your baby isn’t intentionally trying to make you feel guilty or inadequate. During the first few months of life, his cries are never, never, never manipulative, mean, rude, or critical. Nevertheless, those feelings may bubble up inside you when your baby screams on and on.
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