Unexplained infant crying explained

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baby's rich communication

When a baby cries, gurgles, smiles, screams, waves its hands and so on, it is using the only channels of communication it has. It doesn't have words yet. An instinctive response to crying is to pick a baby up and comfort it whilst assessing its need. Is it hungry, too hot or cold, wet, uncomfortable, in pain, frightened, lonely, wanting company and interest? An immediate quietening and smiles might suggest company, affirmation, play, conversation and so on are needed. By conversation I mean talking to the child and listening to the response and vice versa with full eye contact, which children from the moment they open their eyes, do make naturally and are very good at!

children express hurt to heal

Once you have eliminated hunger, discomfort, physical pain, fear or loneliness by satisfying the need, there may remain persistent unexplained crying. It may not be obvious why the child is crying but it continues. When a child is old enough, she can explain the experience of the hurt, and all becomes obvious. There is a hurtful event and a hurting experience. Once the story is told and the loving parent listens to the story with full attention, full eye contact, encouragement and holding, the child expresses the distress, works it through and recovers zest, enthusiasm, life, energy and gets back into the situation, with renewed vigour. It is obvious then, that the story needed telling and it needed a listener and the best listener is a parent, devoted to the well-being of the child. It is also obvious that the process is normal, natural and heals.

newborn tell their life history too

The same is true of the recent arrival. It has experience of life in its mother's womb, of being born, of the immediate events after birth and of life at home once birth and its followup has been completed. This story is not true for all children, but the message is the same. There may be a painful story to tell!! Once you get that, all may become obvious. You have to listen to the story, and do your best to discern its meaning and at least show you are listening thoroughly even if you do not understand the specifics. It is all too tempting to try to shush the child and distract it from its tears and anguish in the belief that the expression of anguish is somehow not right, unhealthy or a sign of poor parenting.


mother's experience of pregnancy

In an ideal world a child is wanted for its own sake, fully welcomed. The mother is well cared for, supported by her husband or partner and family, perhaps even an extended family. She is healthy and well nourished, within appropriate shelter and surroundings and actively wants her baby and loves it unconditionally as does her spouse or partner. In practice, the reality may fall short in some respects perhaps markedly. A mother may be unsupported, or worse, in a hostile, even violent environment. She may take alcohol, smoke tobacco or drugs. She may be subject to one or more challenges which tax her emotionally, or even have a fright over some unexpected occurrence, however simple and normal. We could write a script of all the things that might make a pregnancy less than ideal for the mother.

foetal experience

What is vital to understand is that the growing foetus is also experiencing all this at second hand. Drugs of all kinds are poisonous to the foetus. Mother's emotions are communicated at least by the emotional chemicals such as chatecholamines which cross through the placenta into the child's bloodstream. The child can hear what is going on outside the womb and hear the external voices. All the events and people, father, brothers and sisters and so on, are reflected in the mother's experience in which the foetus is immersed totally. Some of these events and some aspect of the whole experience may need to be expressed.


In an ideal birth, mother supports the child spiritually and psychologically. Yet the experience can be too strong for the child to bear - the first stage can be crushing. In the second stage full cooperation and synergy are the ideal. Babies can however get stuck, especially boys. In the third stage there is a natural welcome into the world: the mother is with her family, the baby given straight to mother before the cord is cut and mother-child-family relationships are developed. Breast feeding is started as soon as the child is ready and so on. The actual experience can be the opposite: the cord is cut before baby breathes, baby is taken away from mother, gross physical invasion takes place, in spite of the baby’s direct communication that all is not well. If you can listen to the nuances of the baby's cries you can discern pain, rage, terror, grief. In an ideal world, these feelings are perceived, acknowledged and acted upon. Alas, a baby crying is often taken as a good sign, without any recognition of what the baby is actually communicating, if only anyone could read the sound.

support your child


All that is just a backcloth to underline the importance of hearing the story of your child's distress to its end, in its depth and ever changing qualities and nuances. Ideally both parents are together, the child's eyes are open and (s)he is looking into mother's eyes (mostly), but father is there to listen and understand the path to this moment and supporting mother. Ideally, from time to time, it will be good to reflect back gently what emotion you are perceiving and validate it, fear, anger, grief or whatever (terror, rage, despair are more intense versions). It is quite normal for parents unfamiliar with this process to get frightened and want to stop, to get upset at the pain the child experienced, to be surprised at the sheer amount and intensity of distress being expressed.

a challenging process

There are two aspects to this fear. Firstly, it is so counter-cultural to do this and parents have neither experience of the process nor models to show them. The first experience will be one to test the possibility of the process being beneficial. Once at least the child calms down and the pattern of repeated crying seems to be in abeyance for a while. It will start up again and as parents and child gain in confidence, bouts of catharsis may lengthen and deepen, though there is not necessarily any pattern in this. Our own experience with our daughter, born with an emergency caesarian, was that she started this work at about 5 weeks old and continued daily until 5 months old. “Sessions” might be 5 minutes to 20 minutes. They seemed to come at any time, mostly once per day, but sometimes twice. They varied in intensity and were challenging at times to accept and sustain. After every session, there seemed to be some obvious benefit and each time the story seemed to change in some respect. Having had the advantage of training with William Emerson, I could identify the stage of birth and on one occasion she grabbed my hand and pulled it to her head and slowly guided it down her face as if showing me how she wanted to be born! We believe our daughter's extraordinary ability to read others' emotions and her ability to support distressed children has come about through all this. The abundance of her attention, her awareness of herself, her environment and others is obviously great.

dealing with restimulation

Secondly, the pain of any child is likely to stimulate pain in the parents. In this case pain and sadness is possibly the easiest to allow and one or both parents might cry. It is still necessary to listen through this episode and keep the eye contact going as you are there for the child. If it all gets too much, it might be best to cuddle together for a while and return to the work when it seems appropriate. One possibility is that the mother remembers the pain of birth at a particular time. It is likely that this is indeed the time the baby is remembering and expressing. It will be reasonable for the mother to feed this back in such a way as to show understanding of baby's experience. Ideally you recognise the session is for the benefit of the baby and you will leave exploring your own emotions till later. However, it is also apparent that our own unexpressed distress arising from our own birth may be clamouring for attention!

positions to take

One excellent position for babies is lying on mother's lap facing upwards so mothers can look into their eyes, ready to talk first if their eyes close and pick them up if it all seems too much for the child. Father can sit in front of mother so as to be able to look into baby's eyes from above its head, but he can also be beside mother with a supportive arm round her. A child that keeps its eyes open, crying intensely, is demonstrating the naturalness of the process and this can give confidence to the parents. You can always feed back, quietly, “You are doing fine”, and afterwards “What a story you have told us!” or your versions of support and validation. If the child seems lost or terrified and won't open its eyes, it is vital to stop and comfort it with a close cuddle and comforting words, reflecting the overwhelming emotion “That's so terrifying, you are safe now” and “You did survive” or some such.


Your baby will initiate its own session at any time of day or night. You do not need do so yourself, though you may discover accidentally that certain touches on the head or face or even on the tummy, initiate a session. A common way is to push its head against the cot or against your hands if they are over its head. Grunts often accompany these movements. You may put (or keep) your hands in position to receive the push, only holding the pressure the child creates, no more, no less, adapting to increase, decrease or remove pressure sensitively and in tune with your child who is communicating its physical memories faithfully.

Interestingly, an aspect of play in later life as a young child is to express any unexpressed feelings from birth, and can do so in games such as the all time favourites “hide-peep” and “hide and seek”, and playing in tunnels and on slides in a playground. Here fear is expressed in laughter and is almost entirely in the control of the child.

debrief afterwards

Once baby is asleep, it is important to debrief together, express any feelings put aside for baby's sake during the session and share uncertainties and successes, talking them through until clear. It is a lonely path and few in the wider culture would condone what you are doing. In the normal culture, it is even recommended that parents actually leave a child alone to cry itself to sleep, without any regard whatsoever for the integrity of the human spirit in the body of an infant!! The damage this must do is immense.

value of giving space to your baby

Firstly it is a way to enable the child to release the distress of events before, during and after birth. In fact, a child will persist in trying to release its pain, until it may give up its right to have the space to tell its story. However, this right will constantly be asserted, later in indirect ways. So, in the end, giving your child the space to cry the pain away, with you listening fully, will benefit everyone – you will rapidly change sleepless nights into peaceful ones!

Secondly it dissolves the ground zero disturbance to personality development and reduces the likely future patterning of personality in negative ways, such as despair about getting emotional needs met, disbelief in anyone's ability to help, feeling and acting as if unlovable, vacillation about decisions, aggression and insensitivity to others – the list is endless. It replaces all these negative trends by their positive versions: trust in emotional needs and their being met, openness to assistance, ability to receive and give love, self-confidence, sensitivity to others' feelings and so on. The gain for the child is immense and for the parents, who persist in this support, the opposite would be unthinkable.


look up key topics in birth psychology

wonderful account of aware parenting principles

a charter of rights of the child, before during and after birth

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