Babies have Real Feelings - Part I

Written by Marion Rose PhD

Babies have real feelings.

In our culture, we often have the belief that babies only have one type of feelings – feelings that indicate immediate needs that require meeting.

And of course, they do have these types of feelings.

They show us their upset when they need closeness or are needing protection from overwhelm; when they’re hungry or are feeling uncomfortable, such as when their nappy is wet.

And in practicing Elimination Communication, I also saw that they would often cry briefly when they were about to wee or poo – when they need to eliminate.

And of course, the most helpful response at those times is to promptly meet the need. 

To hold them when they need closeness, to put them in a sling where they can hide away from stimulation (or to leave the stimulating place), to feed them when they’re hungry, to change their nappy when it is wet, to put more clothes on if they are cold or take clothes off if they are hot and so on.

Aware Parenting is a form of attachment parenting, and at it’s heart, attachment parenting is about creating secure attachment by responding promptly and accurately to a baby’s needs and feelings.

The more we respond promptly to meet a baby’s needs, the more she learns that her needs are valuable and important, and she internalises how we respond to her needs, so she learns to respond compassionately and promptly to her own needs. Which is the whole basis of secure attachment – the more we respond accurately, the more she internalises that and is then able to do that for herself as she becomes older.

AND, from an Aware Parenting perspective, babies have a second type of feelings.

I call these “Feelings feelings.”

These feelings don’t indicate unmet needs.

The feelings might be fear or grief of confusion that arise when needs weren’t met in the past.

They also include feelings like:

Frustration, fear, terror and rage during their birth.

Sadness, loss, grief, fear, shock, confusion if they were separated after birth.

Powerlessness and fear and confusion if they go through any medical procedures.

Loss, grief, fear and terror if they were left alone to cry.

Overwhelm anytime they experience something new (which in new babies is happening every day!)

Frustration whenever they are on a developmental cusp.

Confusion if we respond with frustration or harshness.

Fear when there are loud noises, phone calls, washing machines, cars.

Overwhelm when they are at shops, restaurants, shopping centres, gatherings of people.

Confusion and fear if they are sick or teething.

Powerless if they have an older sibling who is responding roughly.

and so on.

I invite you to have lots of compassion for yourself as you are reading this.

If you have a baby and they have been through any of these experiences, I invite you to be compassionate with yourself.

Aware Parenting is all about not punishing children, but listening to their feelings and needs.

And for me, Aware Parenting extends to adults, and invites us to refrain from punishing ourselves with self-judgment and guilt, and instead listen to our own needs and feelings with empathy and compassion.

So, it’s normal for all babies to experience uncomfortable feelings.

All babies experience some uncomfortable feelings, every day, however much we aim to meet their needs promptly, and protect them from overestimation. Coming out into the world is a BIG thing!

And if you’ve done any rebirthing, Holotropic Breathwork, bodywork or psychotherapy, you may well have experienced these kinds of feelings yourself.

And if you have, you’ll know that if these feelings don’t get expressed, they don’t go away.

They remain in our bodies, ready until we are ready to express them and have them heard.

And that’s the beautiful thing – it’s never too late to listen to the feelings that we experience in infancy.

AND it makes a huge difference if we, as parents, can listen to any or some of these feelings in our babies, whilst they are still babies. 

For one, it’s much more healing to have our own parents listen to our feelings.

Secondly, it’s much easier to express them as babies rather than waiting until adulthood.

Thirdly, not expressing them as babies means we are holding them in, which has all kinds of effects, which I will talk about below.

So, what happens to these feelings feelings in babies?

Because we live in a culture that thinks that all feelings in babies are needs feelings, and because probably none of us had our feelings feelings heard as babies, it becomes very hard to listen to a baby’s feelings.

And of course, if we think that all uncomfortable feelings indicate unmet needs, we are going to try to do anything we can from our baby experiencing uncomfortable feelings.

And that is what we tend to do in our culture.

We feed, jiggle, rock, put our baby in a carrier and bounce her, or sit on a fit ball and bounce her, or put her in a stroller or pushchair or buggy and move her, or put her in the car, or give her a dummy.

Anything to stop the feelings that we believe to indicate unmet needs.

But if those feelings were feelings feelings, what is happening when we do that?

Well, we are taking her attention away from what is going on in her body. We are taking her attention away from her feelings.

And those main ways of doing that are through movement, sucking and distraction (also through leaving her alone to cry, where she will find her own way of dissociating).

But if we look closely at a baby when we are distracting her from feelings, we will see cues to show us that she is moving away from being present with herself.

She may have a glazed look in her eyes, or avoid eye contact. She may be tensing her muscles. More about that later.

Because all we are doing is taking her attention away from her feelings.

The feelings are still there.

Feelings are physiological things, so they remain there, in her body, with her awareness somewhere else.

And of course it seems like the most caring thing to do, doesn’t it, distracting her so that she doesn’t feel those uncomfortable feelings?

The thing is, because those feelings don’t go away, they start to accumulate.

Every time our baby feels feelings feelings and we assume they are needs feelings and do things to distract her attention away from what is going on in her body, those feelings build up in her body.

And again, I invite you to have self-compassion here.

You might be feeling sad when you read this. Or frustrated – it might not resonate with you. Or perhaps you might be judging yourself. And if so, I invite you to set a loving limit with self-judgment.

It’s NEVER TOO LATE to start listening to the feelings of our baby, our child, or ourselves.

So, when uncomfortable feelings accumulate in a baby’s body, again we can see the signs of this.

Perhaps these are things that you have seen in your own baby.

And perhaps you’ve experienced accumulated feelings yourself – perhaps at times you’ve felt antsy and agitated and it was hard to sit still. Perhaps you had really tense muscles in your shoulders or jaw. Perhaps it took ages for you to go to sleep at night, and you woke in the night, unable to go back to sleep. Perhaps you work up early in the morning. Perhaps you found yourself eating sweet things when you weren’t hungry, and distracting yourself with FB or Instagram or busy-ness. Perhaps you found yourself speaking in a different tone, and avoiding connection, because if you connected with someone you love, you’d burst into tears.

Have you ever experienced anything like that?

And if you put yourself in your baby’s shoes, do you think she might feel that sometimes?

Is that what you see in her sometimes?

Babies feel the effects of accumulated feelings.

Babies feel agitated when feelings accumulate.

They start moving around a lot, especially if we are feeding them when they’re not hungry.

They take longer and longer to go to sleep, because we need to feel relaxed to go to sleep, and those feelings are getting in the way of relaxation.

They start sleeping for shorter periods of time, and waking up more frequently and moving around in their sleep.

They can seem more distracted, moving from one thing to another without concentrating for long.

They can make agitated vocalisations and sounds.

They can avoid eye contact, because when they see our loving gaze, that connects them back with their bodies and their feelings, and they’ve learnt from us to avoid that.

As well as feeling the effects of these accumulated feelings, they also need to do things to actually hold the feelings in.

They seem to need feeding more and more often, even though their stomach is getting bigger and can hold more milk.

Their muscles might seem more tense, as they hold the feelings in and disconnect from the feelings through muscle tension.

They might start sucking on their fingers or thumb, not in an alert, exploratory way, but with a kind of glazed look in their eyes.

They might need to keep distracting themselves with one activity after another.

You can probably see that most of the things that we can find challenging with babies – agitation, frequent feeding, taking ages going to sleep, waking up frequently at night, waking up early, crying in the carrier or stroller or car-seat, are all caused by feelings feelings that they are trying to express.

For now, I’d love to invite you to connect in with how you feel after reading this.

Did any of this resonate with you?

Did it match things you’ve experienced with your baby or yourself?

Did you feel big feelings in response to anything you read?

Did you have any big reactions to any parts?

Did you judge yourself? (I invite you to set loving limits with self-judgment and should’s)