Alternatives to Distraction

Now no more smiling mid-crestfall
No more managing unmanageables
No more holding still in the hailstorm.
– Alanis Morissette

I recently wrote about the way that we unconsciously (through no ill will) invalidate the strong feelings of infants and young children by shushing them when they’re in distress and telling them, “You’re okay!” when they’re feeling anything but. I worry that when we devalue their (very real) feelings, we encourage children to swallow them down. Over time, there is a risk of children being unable to recognize, label, and communicate effectively about emotions.

It can be intensely uncomfortable to be around crying babies and young children. Their emotions are powerful. They don’t always respond to “reason”. We often feel tremendous urgency to settle them, quiet them, and put an end to what feels like impending chaos. Their cries are meant to alarm us!

The first step in being able to help and support them is to calm our own response. If we know that there is no real emergency to attend to, we can consciously slow ourselves and support children in reaching their own place of calm. Calm is often (delightfully) contagious. We must be aware of how sensitive children are to our harried pace and the underlying stress we may feel. I like this piece from Dr. Sears on babies’ cries:

Responding appropriately to your baby’s cry is the first and one of the most difficult, communication challenges you will face as a mother. You will master the system only after rehearsing thousands of cue-responses in the early months. If you initially regard your baby’s cry as a signal to be responded to and evaluated rather than as an unfortunate habit to be broken, you will open yourself up to becoming an expert in your baby’s signals, which will carry over into becoming an expert on everything about your baby. Each mother-baby signal system is unique. That’s why it is so shortsighted for “cry trainers” to prescribe canned cry-response formulas, such as “leave her to cry for five minutes the first night, ten minutes the second,” and so on.

In the course of my job, I actively practice my responses to children in distress. There are days when I am up to my elbows in fussy infants and my blood pressure threatens to shoot through the roof when one of my toddlers melts to the ground in pre-tantrum mode. When people remark on how much patience it must take to work with young children, I always think of those moments and how much I long for a bottomless well of patience. What I have instead is decent self-control (developed over the course of my childhood with the support of nurturing adults) and enough experience under my belt to have a deep bag of tricks.

I mentioned before that I don’t think it’s always appropriate to attempt to distract children (especially infants) from their distress. I think it’s disrespectful. Consider whether you would pull a rattle from your purse to shake in the face of your girlfriend if she burst into tears over coffee.

I have compiled a list of alternatives to distraction that I would like to invite you to try with the young children in your life.

  • Sit with it awhile. Be in the moment with that children and their distress. “I’m sorry you’re feeling upset. I’m right here with you.” Model empathy by simply being there — a hand on their back or arm if they seem to want to be touched. Have you ever needed a good cry? Sometimes children do too, especially infants. Hopefully we can all call to mind a time when we were in distress and someone was simply there with us, without asking or taking a thing. Think of how comforting it was for you and channel that back into the world.
  • Talk it out. In the early education field, we call it “sportscasting,” when we simply talk through our observations of a situation. It’s a way to be there with children without interfering in their process, trusting that with our support (but not control), they can work things through. An example would be when a child is distressed about falling down or hitting their head. You might say, “I saw you fall! That hurt your knees. Your knees hurt. I see you looking at that block on the floor. You tripped over that block.”
  • Get a change of scene. While I don’t advise hurriedly whisking babies up into your arms and rushing outdoors at the first sign of distress, a change of scene can be beneficial to all involved. If the baby agrees to be picked up, ask them if they’d like to walk outside. Walk outside and perhaps narrate what you see, feel, hear, and smell. “The wind is blowing. Do you feel the wind blowing? It’s ruffling your hair. The wind feels good on my skin. I feel better outside.”
  • Breathe. I observed a particularly chaotic preschool morning the other day. Their regular teacher was out sick, the children were testing all the limits with the substitute and assistant teacher, and they could best be described as off the wall. Gathering a small group of children around her, the substitute teacher said in a very quiet voice, “I’m going to take a biiiiiiiig deep breath. Will you take a deep breath with me? Here I go!” She demonstrated breathing in deeply, then out slowly, sighing with relief. “Let’s try it again together,” she said, and all of the children quietly breathed in and out, in and out. The teacher then observed, in a quiet voice, “Oh, I feel so much more calm now. I’m ready to sit down and read a book.” I’ve been with infants during times when it seemed to me they were never going to calm down, and when I inhaled and exhaled deeply, I felt their bodies respond as well — it’s important to be aware of the tension we’re carrying and communicating outward.
  • Background music. When I’m in for the long haul with a fussy baby, I’ll often turn instrumental music on low and turn off the overhead lights. Sometimes I’ll open a window, or close a window, or turn on a fan. Subtle alterations like this to the environment provide the soothing atmosphere I’m going for to relax myself, rather than provide active distraction.
  • Troubleshoot. It may seem like the most basic idea possible but is the infant hungry? Are they tired? Too hot? Too cold? Do they need changing? Is something irritating their skin? Are they sick? Do they need to be burped? (Nine times out of ten: yes.) It can help to consciously run down your mental inventory. I don’t suggest trying different solutions willy-nilly at a pace to alarm the baby, but give thoughtful consideration to the environment, the child’s basic needs, and what else may be impacting them.

One thing I’d like to make note of is how important it is for those who are taking care of young children (or taking care of anyone, full stop) to take care of themselves. When you begin to feel frayed around the edges, take a break. Put your baby down, walk away, and put the kettle on for a cup of tea (your baby will survive those few minutes as you regroup). Whenever possible, don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements. The beauty of working with two other women like I do in caring for infant and toddlers is that when something isn’t working and I’m feeling depleted, I have backup. Use your village. Remind yourself that sometimes babies cry without us knowing why, but you’ll get through it together. It’s not a bad thing — it’s always a learning, growing, bonding experience for you both. And it will pass.

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