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Why Soothing Babies Grows Their Brains

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My two month old daughter cries easily. It is not simply a matter of being colicky because she is so happy and smiles and laughs so easily, but if I change her diaper or clothes she screams, if I put her down for even a minute she screams, if we put her in her carseat she screams, when she wakes up she get my drift. She goes from a smiley happy baby to screaming and almost inconsolable in seconds. My question to you is, is she being mentally traumatized when she cries? How can I help her stay calm?


All babies cry to communicate their unhappiness and their need for help. But some babies are "set off" by every little thing, as you describe, while others are more unflappable. And some babies are fairly easily calmed, while others quickly become so upset that they're "inconsolable," or difficult to soothe, like your daughter.

From your description, I would say that your daughter is highly sensitive. I would also say that she finds it hard to calm down when she gets upset. She may always be a sensitive person. But how you respond to her now will have a big impact on her ability to calm herself as she gets older. 

That's because babies aren't born with the ability to self-soothe. They learn that by being soothed when they cry. In fact, every time your baby cries and you soothe her, she is learning to trust that the world is a good place and she will be taken care of.

When you comfort your infant, her body responds by sending out oxytocin and other soothing biochemicals. What you see is that she calms down. What's happening in her body is that she's building more neural pathways for these self-soothing hormones.

She learns that help is forthcoming -- that someone is protecting her, helping her regulate herself. No need to panic. She can trust in this friendly universe to meet her needs. And she begins to develop a working model of human relationships, one that feels warm and safe and loving.

Eventually, that will help her learn to stay calmer when upsetting things happen, and to calm herself down when she's upset.

In the meantime, what can you do to help her stay calm? Your little one is certainly on the sensitive end of the spectrum, since she cries at so many things that by two months old, many babies have adjusted to. She is one of those humans who does not like change. She may always find it a bit challenging to adapt to change, but this very challenging stage won't last, so why not try to minimize the number of upsets she has to handle in a day?

You mention that she screams when you put her down for even a minute. Many babies need to be held and carried most of the time. Your little girl sounds like one of those babies. So the simple answer is, she is letting you know that she finds it dysregulating to be put down, even for a moment. Over the next few months, she will begin to feel safer when she isn't held, and she will also gain more capacity to manage her upset. But in the meantime, shy not wear her in a sling whenever possible? Often, that creates enough security that babies become more flexible about other changes. And for now, why not minimize the times you have to put her down, undress her, or put her in the carseat?

That isn't always practical, of course. Once in a while, you do have to change her clothes. But why not do it as little as possible? Why not drive with her as little as possible? Why not change her diaper -- as long as it is only wet -- while holding her against you, with the help of another adult if necessary?

This may seem like "going overboard." Why can't she just get used to being put down? She isn't actually in any danger! But research shows that "responsiveness" to a baby's expressed needs is one of the most important factors in their emotional health. Since she can't understand that she isn't in danger, and you can't explain it to her, you have to let her learn it gradually. She'll learn better if she feels secure and reassured by your presence. And no, you won't have to be so responsive forever. This is a temporary stage, where she is learning to feel safe and secure in the world, and your presence is the key to that learning.

Of course, sometimes, you will have to put her down to change a messy diaper. Maybe you have to drive to your pediatrician. Maybe her teeshirt is smelly with milk and you can't really support her head to change it while holding her against you, and there is no adult to help. At those times, is she being mentally traumatized when she cries? As long as you are soothing her, no. And if, momentarily, you aren't holding her, your voice is soothing her, providing that "holding environment."

You may not feel competent at soothing, but your little one hears your calming voice and feels your arms around her. She feels your loving, witnessing, presence. She may not seem soothed, but your presence is doing its job. She feels safe in your arms, so she doesn't have to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. She may still feel upset, but your caring presence allows her to express those emotions. She's releasing all that cortisol, adrenaline, and other pent-up stress hormones. Her body is responding by building neural pathways to deliver calming hormones.

I know it isn't easy to hold and comfort a baby who seems inconsolable. It's important to support yourself through this experience, to remind yourself that you are a good parent, doing your best. It's critical that you not take her crying personally. And if you keep providing a safe "holding environment" for her, she really will build the neural connections to soothe herself.

Finally, I promise you that sooner than you can imagine, your daughter will be begging you to put her down so she can start tearing your house apart. Until that day comes, hold her close and enjoy those big feelings. Her intense spirit may be the source of those tears, but it's also the origin of all those wonderful baby smiles and laughs.

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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