As the mom of a toddler and a newborn, I’m no stranger to crying, it comes with the territory of parenting young children. I’m also the mom of two amazing sleepers, who successfully ventured sleep training, even with my extremely sensitive response to crying. You heard me right, even as a Colorado baby sleep coach who coaches parents on sleep training, I am very sensitive to crying and it’s a big factor in how I chose to teach my babies to sleep.
Most parents I talk with share my feelings about crying when it comes to sleep – crying sucks and is very triggering. In fact, crying is likely the #1 question on the minds of parents I talk with during my introduction calls, and specifically if my methods include letting a child “cry it out” with little or no parental support. I appreciate the crying question upfront because it allows me to present my philosophy on sleep training and explain why our reactions to crying are triggering and biologically normal. There will be crying, it’s a reality of teaching your child a brand-new skill. However, you DO NOT have to let your baby cry without comfort to have an amazing sleep-trained child and I can help your family make this a reality. As your Colorado baby sleep coach, we’ll find a way to get your baby sleeping without major tears.
The science behind our reaction to crying
I’m a big fan of understanding the “why” so we carry out the “how” with confidence. I’m also a sleep nerd and love to know the science behind the behavior – I guess that’s why I’m a Colorado baby sleep coach. Let’s start with a little science lesson on where emotions come from in our brains.
The limbic system is a set of interconnected structures deep within our brain. It’s also the part of our brain that is responsible for our emotional and behavioral responses to outside experiences and stimuli.
Hypothalamus: this part of the brain controls emotional responses and aids in the release of hormones and temperature control.
Hippocampus: This is where memories are stored and retrieved. It also serves a role in how we spatially perceive our environment and the world around us.
Amygdala: This part of the brain is responsible for coordinating responses to things in the environment, specifically experiences that trigger an emotional response. This part of the brain also plays a role in how we perceive emotions such as fear and anger.
Limbic cortex: This area is made up of the cingulate gyrus and the parahippocampal gyrus. Together, they impact our mood, judgment/decision making, and our motivation.
Why is crying so triggering?
Picture this…you’ve been waking up every few hours around the clock for two weeks now. You are severely sleep-deprived, exhausted, irritable, and tired of fighting your child to get to sleep. You dread every single bedtime and the mystery of what that night will bring.
Sleep deprivation stimulates activity in our old friend the amygdala, which controls several of our immediate emotional reactions to stimuli.
If we look at this objectively, we can see that there’s an actual reason why the sound of a crying baby causes us such distress, and it’s not because of the actual level of urgency. Dr. David Poeppel, Professor of Psychology & Neural Science at NYU, found that a crying baby differs from other environmental noises in something called the “amplitude modulation rate,” meaning how often the loudness of a sound changes.
“Crying babies, along with car alarms and police sirens, have a modulation rate of about 100 times per second, compared to a regular speaking voice, which hovers somewhere between 4 or 5” (Dr. David Poeppel). Experiments with an MRI to monitor the brains of people while listening to a variety of sounds, found that baby screams have a unique ability to trigger activity in… you guessed it, our old friend, the amygdala.
What is happening behind the scenes in the brain?
Your brain, despite having some great intentions, is playing tricks on you. Likely if your brain was able to identify at the moment that your baby’s cries were working towards a bigger goal than it wouldn’t have you feeling guilt and anxiety about the process of sleep training.
Sleep loss and an overreactive amygdala are likely the cause of our sudden urge to correct crying immediately, instead of following through with steps we know are necessary and not harmful. Sleep training done appropriately and holistically, taking several factors in mind beyond just the child, is not a threat to the child nor your emotional attachment to them.
Does crying affect my secure attachment with my baby?
If my baby cries and I don’t immediately respond, will my child feel like I have abandoned them? Will my child need therapy when they grow up? Is allowing my baby to cry for any amount of time neglectful?
These are valid questions I routinely see parents fret over, and I want to clear the air surrounding crying and a healthy emotional attachment. A child’s emotional attachment with their primary caregiver or parent is determined by their nonverbal communication with the child, not by being the perfect parent.
According to an article by Help Guide, “The attachment bond differs from the bond of love. As a parent or primary caretaker for your infant, you can follow all the traditional parenting guidelines, provide doting, around-the-clock care for your baby, and yet still not achieve a secure attachment bond. You can tend to your child’s every physical need, provide the most comfortable home, the highest quality nourishment, the best education, and all the material goods a child could wish for. You can hold, cuddle, and adore your child without creating the kind of attachment that fosters the best development for your child. How is this possible? Importantly, creating a secure attachment bond differs from creating a bond of love.
Children need something more than love and caregiving in order for their brains and nervous systems to develop in the best way possible. Children need to be able to engage in a nonverbal emotional exchange with their primary caretaker in a way that communicates their needs and makes them feel understood, secure, and balanced. Children who feel emotionally disconnected from their primary caregiver are likely to feel confused, misunderstood, and insecure, no matter how much they’re loved.”
Bonding with your child may look like spending uninterrupted quality time together and meeting their basic needs such as rest, nourishment, and safety. Emotional attachment is based upon dozens of nonverbal opportunities a day, where you can strengthen your attachment. For example, your facial expressions during a diaper change or your change in tone when playing with your baby.
Teaching your child how to sleep well will not uproot the nonverbal emotional bond you are building with your baby. Meeting their need for rest and sleep will however deepen your bond and allow you as their caregiver, to interact with ease and not unbalanced emotions caused my sleep loss.
Crying is Communication
From the very start of life, babies communicate their needs, whether physical or emotional, by crying. Crying is your child’s way to signal a need they have. Newborns may even cry for you to deliver soothing and calmness since this isn’t a skill they have mastered yet. Crying is also your child’s method of communication when they are displeased with something or experiencing pain or discomfort. As parents, we are wired to meet our children’s needs, that’s our job after all. When our baby cries it’s our job to determine if they are hungry, tired, need a diaper change, or simply want to be held. During sleep training, when all needs are met and baby is still crying, often baby is expressing their frustration with a change of strategy to get to sleep or a change in their environment. Studies show however that teaching your baby independent sleeping skills does not cause damage to the child-parent attachment. Likely, more sleep will improve your bond and your overall mood and mental health.
You can love your child and still want sleep for yourself
A parent that is emotionally and physically drained or distressed from sleep deprivation is less likely to be able to create a secure attachment with their baby and meet their needs. This is why I am SOOO passionate about normalizing sleep interventions for babies as young as 4 months old. Parents should know there is another option besides toughing it out, while their mental health suffers, and their children miss out on calm and intentional connection-building time.
“….if you’re unable to manage your own stress, to quickly regain your calm and focus in the face of life’s daily stressors, you’ll be unable to calm and soothe your baby.” (Help Guide)
Sleep training isn’t for all parents. There are some moms that are happily content with waking up 6 times a night until their baby is 2 years old. Some families love bed-sharing and nursing all night long. Some babies feed to sleep and never once struggle with sleep. I also believe some babies are born good sleepers, never requiring training. I support whatever works best for your family. You will never receive an ounce of judgment from me. For families that do need a change and are struggling with their current sleep routines, know that there is another option. You can sleep train your child and love them, crying and all.
As your Colorado baby sleep coach, I’m here to support you in a way that works for YOUR family and your needs. Want to learn more? Schedule a FREE intro call to see if we’re a good fit for one another.