“Zoe is 3 months old and she keeps us awake right through the night with her fits of crying. We have tried keeping her awake in the day but that just leaves her tired and fretful in the day as well as crying day and night. Whether we feed her, play with her, leave her- take her into our bed for a while -nothing works. We are both worn out- even though we are operating a shift system- and don’t know how much longer we can go on like this.”
Mr and Mrs A
The sound of a baby crying has an impact on almost everybody. In a busy noisy market a baby’s cry can turn heads as quickly as an emergency siren. Indeed, a baby’s cry is like a biological siren. If we did not care to answer it our species would not survive. A cry, then, is a powerful communication that requires an answer. However, a cry that resists comforting, linked with lack of sleep, makes a formidable combination for anybody to manage, let alone new parents. After the major life event of bringing a new being into the world parents need both their sleep and positive proof of their ability to parent. To not be able to soothe your baby’s cries is a draining experience. What else could make an unanswered cry so psychologically stirring?
Psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff specialises in work with pregnant women and new parents. “A baby’s cry resonates with primitive experiences in the parents reactivating a wordless recollection of what it was like to be helpless and needy in their own infancy. This poignant reminder can serve as the basis for empathy, helping the caregiver to understand the baby’s urgent non-verbal message and meet his or her needs for comfort. But when a baby can’t be soothed, crying can feel like an accusation - a reminder of the adult’s helplessness in the face of the baby’s unhappiness, catapulting the mother or father from sadness at their own constant failure to rage at the inconsolate baby for arousing awareness of a needy child crying deep inside themselves. “
Are the A’s worried that their exhaustion and despair could tip over into rage? Hitting a baby is often the result of an unsupported parent not bearing such a difficult combination. However, Mr and Mrs A. do sound as if they are jointly involved in trying to help their baby and support each other even though they have not yet found a satisfactory answer.
What kind of birth was it? Were there any particular difficulties that could throw light on Zoe’s crying ? Child psychotherapist Dilys Daws, author of “Through the Night” comments “When there has been a difficult birth both mother and baby can be really upset for quite a long time after and find it hard to get a joint rhythmn going.” Difficulties in foetal life prior to the birth can also have an impact. Dr Stella Acquarone of the Parent-Infant Clinic points out that where babies are not adequately nourished by the placenta they can cry for up to four months. American paediatrician Professor T.Berry Brazelton whose recent rare visit to England was hosted by the Parent-Infant Clinic, has found that if he warns such parents in advance that their babies might cry for several months they are better equipped to deal with it as they cease to take it so personally.
Some babies, through a cognitive deficit, a disability or a unique sensitivity can experience more bodily discomfort than others. Professor Brazelton has noted that such babies are more likely to cry in the evening because they cannot process the tensions of the day that exist in themselves or in their parents. Where the baby is over-loaded he thinks a low-key approach is best. The parent should not talk and look and rock- but only do one low-key thing at a time. Could Mr and Mrs A be trying to do too many things to ease their baby? One mother said to me “I seemed to go through all the checklist of things to do- check nappy, feed, play, cuddle, speak- at about 90 miles an hour because I was so desperate. Only after my mother came to stay and help did I have the space to slowly try one thing at a time”.
What other factors could lead baby Zoe to be so distressed? Sometimes unworked through feelings about a past miscarriage or a cot death are transmitted from mother to the baby. One mother, Mrs C, commented “Whenever I put Sara down in her cot - even though I had a baby alarm and the door open- I felt terrified of her dying like her brother did. I was always relieved when she cried even though I was tired”. After a few meetings with a therapist she realised how Sarah was crying for her and her unworked through grief. “It was shocking to think that an eight week old baby should realise my mood of depression”. As Dilys Daws comments “It is hard to allow the separation that letting a baby go to sleep involves when it gets equated with death. You may have had a serious separation or loss such as the death of a parent, illness of a parent or yourself, hospitalisation when little or a parent dying when you were an adult but before having the baby. If something difficult like a loss has happened it does not mean you can’t soothe your own baby. Indeed, once you have understood the connection you are in a strong position and your baby can feel the difference.”
Mrs Dilys Daws, is a child psychotherapist concentrating on work with parents and under fives and also working at the baby clinic of a general practice. “ What a therapist can do is help parents have conversations about their relationship with the baby to help them understand the total emotional picture. This can be done very economically. Listening to people properly once or twice can be very satisfying to both sides. It is important to work with both parents wherever there are two. Above all I want to emphasise the optimistic message that understanding what is going on really does help people to get a grip on it.”
Brief work with parents and their babies is successfully increasing.
Mr & Mrs A have done their best to answer Zoe’s needs and they are increasingly exhausted and despairing. Now they need some support for themselves that acknowledges the hard work they have already put in.
“Touchpoints”, T.Berry Brazelton, Viking 1992
“Through the Night” Dilys Daws, Free Association Books ś 8.95
Dr Stella Acquarone, The Parent Infant Clinic, 071 433 3112
“Psychological processes of childbearing” (1991), Joan Raphael Leff, Chapman & Hall