13th October 2018

Can You Sleep-Train Without Crying?

Understand your child's sleep

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One of the things that nearly every parent asks me about at the start of our journey together is how bad the crying is going to be. Many are hoping it will be a tear-free experience. Most are expecting it's going to be horrific! The conversation around crying is more detailed than people generally expect - and some of what I have to say is surprising. But don't just take my word for it! In this article, clinical psychologist Dr. Rebekah Olive discusses crying - what it means, why it isn't all the same and how our own experiences influence our response when it happens.



In a word: no! I know this from personal experience as when I helped my own little boy learn how to sleep well,  shortly before his first birthday, there were no tears shed whatsoever - by either of us! This was particularly handy as I had a very low tolerance for crying when my son was younger. Then he became a two-year old and I discovered that if I wanted to prevent him doing things that would actually kill him, I would have to endure the odd bout of fairly extreme crying from time-to-time! Is his crying when I decree pouring water into the toaster a prohibited activity any less intense than when he has genuinely hurt himself? No. But it is different.

Young children and babies express a lot of feelings by crying - some of which may arise when we're changing sleep habits a child has had for months, or even years. Frustration, confusion, annoyance - and even plain, old tiredness may lead a little one to cry. My advice to parents is that these are not things to be afraid of. We can manage all of these feelings lovingly and positively, whilst equipping a little one with the skills and ultimately the confidence they need in order to sleep well and reap the rewards of better rest.

Read on to hear what Dr. Rebekah Olive tells us about crying, child-development and attachment...


Learning to understand your baby - what's all that crying about?

Perhaps you are reading this during pregnancy with the aim of being prepared. Or perhaps it's 3am and your baby is 3 months old and you are Googling for anything that will help you stop your baby crying. Whatever stage you are at, it can be helpful to think about the influence of our own attitudes to crying and then to learn about the reasons behind your baby's cries. This article explains some of the neuroscience and how you can learn to understand the signals your baby is giving you through crying.

What are your own beliefs about crying?

When you think of crying what comes to mind? Sadness? Distress? Weakness? As a culture we tend to view crying as something that ought to be done in private, stopped as soon as possible or even prevented altogether. In my therapy room clients often apologise when they cry as if it may have offended me. Often people feel ashamed of crying.

What messages do we give and receive about crying?

When we reflect on the well-meaning responses of those around us when we cry, we often hear phrases like "don't cry", "dry your tears", or "I don't like to see you sad". While said out of love and support, the unspoken messages we hear could be: "your sadness needs to stop now", "stop crying and show us you are OK", "I can't tolerate seeing you sad so please don't show me". Many of us hold these beliefs and attitudes to crying and naturally bring these into our parenting.


Keeping up with our ante-natal friends

It is likely you have heard comments like: "her baby is so good, she never cries". It is easy to fall into the trap of comparing your baby to others and wondering why yours seems to cry so much more/more often/louder/too little in comparison to other babies. Just as with sleep, every child is different, some cry more than others. The more you get to know your baby, the more you can feel comfortable that you know what she needs. That might not be the same as our friends' children.

What does neuroscience tell us about crying?

Neuroscience tells us that crying in babies and small children is actually vital to the child's survival. It is their only way of communicating that they have needs to be met. If we see crying too simply as something we must stop as soon as possible, or something that babies just do and we can't do anything about, we risk missing opportunities to understand, respond and bond with our children. In order to understand your child's internal world, it can help to learn about the processes involved in brain development of infants and young children.

Your baby's reptilian brain

Your baby's brain is designed to respond and change depending on the environment it arrives into. She is born with more neural connections than any adult but after the first three months of life, many of these connections drop away depending on the relationship she has with her caregivers and her surroundings. The brain is ready to fit into whatever surroundings it finds itself in. The responses the baby receives from the people around her will shape the connections in her brain.

While much of the brain is immature during babyhood, there is one part of the brain which is fully operational. This is the reptilian brain which provides the baby's survival instincts. Any perceived threat to the new-born baby will trigger the reptilian brain. Threats can include feeling too hot, too cold, hungry, uncomfortable, scared, tired, in pain, or unhappy about being too far away from mum or dad. Once the reptilian brain is triggered, it can respond in three different ways: Flee, Fight or Freeze. This is called a stress response. When it is active, we feel stress. Anyone of any age can feel stress. As an adult we might behave differently depending on the stress response we experience: we feel scared of a spider so we run out of the room (flee), or we feel undermined by something a partner says so we argue with them (fight), perhaps we feel overwhelmed by work so we avoid important tasks (freeze). Adults have access to a range of ways of dealing with feeling under threat. Babies only have crying as a verbal way of communicating their stress response. We need to look for clues to help us work out what type of response they are experiencing and how best to respond.

You are the best person to work out what your baby is trying to tell you. But here are some general clues:

Flee response:, you may notice your baby moving around more or turning away. Perhaps she is feeling uncomfortable in her surroundings. If you think this might be the case, try changing your hold position, move to another room or go outside. It can also help to defuse the stress response by making her laugh.

Fight response: You may notice tension in the jaw, arms and legs. This may be happening because you baby wants something and you haven't worked out what it is quickly enough! Try giving her different things for example milk, something to hold or simply your eye contact.

Freeze response: you may notice your baby looking sad or disinterested. In the freeze response the baby is looking to you for protection. Try looking into her eyes with a gentle smile on your face, tell her "Mummy or Daddy's here, you're safe". Let her know that you are there with her. 

Whatever the response, your baby needs reminders from you that you are on her side. Cuddles are a great soother and release oxytocin - a hormone that facilitates bonding and trust between parents and baby. Simply cuddling your baby once their need has been met can slow her heart rate and decrease her blood pressure.

Always remember that your baby's brain cannot put things in perspective like yours can. The ability to put things in perspective is the role of the pre-frontal brain - this only matures at age 24. Therefore children are so vulnerable to stress because they don't have the tools to deal with strong, overwhelming emotions. As your baby grows older and seems so distressed about the colour of their spoon or wearing their gloves, they are unable to realise that in the scheme of life, it doesn't really matter. To them, it is everything.

What happens in the parent's brain?

Longitudinal studies have observed structural changes in the brains of mums and dads in the early months of a baby's life. There is increased activity in areas of the brain associated with sensitivity to the baby, reward signals - helping to respond positively to the baby, maternal motivation, positive perception of the baby and protection. There is evidence that these changes increase with more interaction with the baby. So we can see that both the baby and the parent's brains are changed by the interactions with each other. This learning develops over time as you and your baby get to know one another. This is why we can't expect ourselves to know what the baby needs straight away. Baby is learning how to tell you and you are learning how to understand and respond.


About attachment

Through this reciprocal relationship, you and your baby will develop an attachment relationship. This is important for helping your baby learn to moderate her own emotions and behaviour. It also sets up her expectations for relationships in the future. Learning how to respond sensitively to your baby gives you a fantastic opportunity to help her become secure as she grows up. Studies show us that children whose parents have responded sensitively will become gradually more willing to explore their surroundings in the knowledge that their parent will be available to them if they start to feel anxious.

As your confidence in responding to your baby grows, so will her confidence in herself and in her relationship with you. Responding to your baby's cries can be very frustrating because you don't yet know each other. This will come with practice and the cries are likely to become easier to tolerate. Big feelings need to be released. As adults many find relief from crying or expressing their emotion to someone else. The validation of being noticed and listened to is powerful for helping us move through painful emotions and release the tension they cause. Sometimes, babies need to cry to get through a difficult feeling and as parents our main role is to be with them and respond in a comforting way. Being understood is a powerful experience.


"She's manipulating me"

When we are exhausted and feel we have tried everything, feelings of frustration and anger can build. We might start to remember other people saying "don't let your baby control you" or "she's manipulating you"; as feelings of resentment rise through lack of sleep and exhaustion. At times like this it is important to remember that your baby's only intention is to communicate with you.

Learn to respond early

As you get to know your baby you will learn early signs of your baby's stress response so at times you will be able to respond before your baby cries. These signals include faster breathing, wriggling, back arching, raising the volume of her vocalisations and other signals that you will learn to understand. Studies have shown that babies whose cries are responded to promptly tend to cry less as older infants. You are helping your baby learn that you will respond when they start to show signs of stress. This helps them feel more confident in you and their surroundings.

Model calm

Your baby is learning from you all the time. She has a system in her brain made of mirror neurons which enable her to copy everything she sees you do. This imitation helps her learn to motor skills. It also helps her read and copy your emotional state. If you are happy she will mirror this emotion. When baby cries, it can help to communicate calm with your face and your voice as her mirror neurons will imitate your response. Often as parents we feel anxious about why the baby might be crying. Even if we feel this, it can help to turn to the child with a smiling face and say: "It's OK, you can handle this feeling, Mummy's here". You can model soothing your own stress levels by smiling, taking a slow breath and relaxing your muscles. Your baby will learn from this. Frustrating as this is, your baby will mirror your tension, so the calmer you can be, the better chance she has of learning how to soothe herself.

Share the caring

If you are becoming overwhelmed by the crying, take some time to be alone and away from the sound until you start to feel calmer. Asking someone else to cuddle her and try some alternative responses will help you both.

Some babies cry more than others

Some babies cry more than others. Responding sensitively is the best thing you can do to help ease your baby's distress. But you do not have to stop your baby from crying. Babies who cry more than others are in need of more help from parents to learn how to soothe themselves.

How you can help yourself to build a secure attachment

- remember that you are your baby will take time to get to know one another
- comparing your baby to others is likely to cause you stress, focus on getting to know your baby's signals and remember every baby is different
- ask yourself what state your baby's reptilian brain is in when she is crying. This will help you think of different ways to respond
- engage your baby's mirror neurons - if you want her to be calm, show her how (even if you are worried, exhausted or stressed)
- remember your baby's only intention is to communicate with you
- remember that it is normal for babies to cry and it is their only way of communicating with you, she wants you to work it out with her, not blame yourself.
- if you are struggling to cope with your baby's crying it is best for both of you if you seek help
- speak to your health visitor or GP
- join a baby group
- speak to your partner, friend or parent
- you know your baby. If you think she is in pain, seek help.

Siegel & Bryson (2012) The Whole Brain Child, Hachette, UK
Siegel (2012) The Developing Mind The Guilford Press, London
Sears & Sears (2001) The Attachment Parenting Book Little Brown & Co., London
Gregory Caremans (2018) Neuroscience for parents: How to raise amazing kids: Udemy Brain
Kim, Leckman, Mayes et al. (2010), The Plasticity of Human Maternal Brain: Longitudinal Changes in
Brain Anatomy During the Early Postpartum Period. Behavioural Neuroscience 124(5): 695-700

Atzil, Hendler, Zagoory-Sharon et al. (2012),Synchrony and Specificity in the Maternal and the
Paternal Brain: Relations to Oxytocin and Vasopressin. Journal of the Academy of Child and
Adolescent Psychiatry 51(8): 798-811



Dr Rebekah Olive is a Clinical Psychologist with 16 years experience working in mental health. She specialises in anxiety disorders including trauma (PTSD) and OCD. She also works with eating disorders and has a keen interest in the mental well-being of Mums and Dads. 

Rebekah has a private practice in Ilkley in the beautiful Victorian Arcade. 

She also has two beautiful children who bring joy and challenges in equal measure.

You can contact Rebekah at rebekah@olivebranchpsychology.co.uk or for more information go to www.olivebranchtherapy.co.uk

Understand your child's sleep

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Bespoke Sleep Solutions

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