When baby cries, our reactions can run the full gamut; from turning to stone, to melting "like a soft cheese on a warm day", writes Philippa Wintle.
A woman once took me aside in the supermarket, and told me that "you get used to the sound of your baby crying". She was the same kind of woman as those who used to tell me to "get all the sleep you can while you're pregnant", because I was about to not sleep for the rest of my life. It may have even been the same type who constantly asked me if I was having twins through my pregnancy. I wasn’t.
While the crying thing I found true to a point, it was an impossible thought at the time. I was deep in the woods of newborn life, reading too much about sleep, spending hours in a dark room rocking and swaddling and bouncing my baby to sleep, putting him down ‘drowsy but awake’ (whatever that actually means) and generally obsessing and then lamenting over the inevitable pitfalls of life on Planet Baby, a place foreign and unforgiving.
At this time he had one cry and it was blood curdling and could bring me to my knees. I don’t know if I really ever knew why he cried so violently, although having recently been diagnosed with lactose intolerance I now imagine that he was screaming in pain. Whoops. Sorry mate.
His cry tormented me the most when my husband and I gave sleep training a crack at about four months. All of a sudden our darling boy protested at being cradle-held and marched around the house Monty Python-style, our desperate attempts to induce sleep. We didn’t know what else to do other than to let him try putting himself to sleep. Because I had read the entire internet, I felt well-informed enough to begin controlled crying. My knowledge on the subject however, was not matched with emotional resilience, and two minutes into the journey I was draped over the outdoor barbecue like a soft cheese on a warm day, questioning why people would have more than one child (I still haven’t quite moved out of that camp).
My thought process at this time was limited, one-dimensional even. Survival. Just get through the next half-hour, and if he isn’t asleep then, pick him up. The physical response to his crying at this time was paralysing, and I was perhaps the most irrational I have ever been during this dark time of sleep training. But it worked, and within days he was self-settling, until he wasn’t again, and we repeated the process.
As his sleep behavior matured, so did his cries, and we were soon able to distinguish the, ‘Help, my face is mashed up against the side of the cot’, cry from the, ‘I am very tired, but also too tired to properly cry’, cry. His expanding repertoire encouraged a greater diversity in emotional responses, and instead of melting into a hormonal puddle on the floor outside his room, I was able to, at the very least, endure periods of unrest and, at most, understand his ever-increasing list of demands.
Long gone are those days where his cry could turn me to stone, or puddles, or melting cheese. His cries at eight months are still very upsetting, but for different reasons. He cries now when he doesn’t want to be put down. He cries when he sees me at daycare and wants a cuddle. He cries when his teeth are sore and when he is desperate for his bottle.
His early cries were intense and for his survival, and my emotional response was equally intense and visceral - crippling even. Now he is more complex, I can appropriate my thoughts to his needs, and while his cry will always trigger an emotional response, that response is now because I know what is upsetting the wee fella. Perhaps what has changed from those challenging early days, is that we have figured out a way to communicate with each other.
Our behaviours are equal in a way: he cries and I comfort. And even if it’s 3.40am and I’m sleeping on the floor, with my arm through his cot having patted him back to sleep for the sixth time, with the dog scratching at the door because of all the excitement, I am also comforted by the fact that I'm the person with the golden hand who can do this. It’s a strange privilege.