Stress: An overlooked cause of unsettled babies

When our baby cries, we immediately feel they must be hungry, tired, overstimulated or gassy? If it becomes a pattern, we might consider colic – a term often used for babies who cry excessively for no apparent reason. What if there was a reason? And that reason is to communicate stress or repressed emotions from early life experiences? Those that may have been stressful, painful or overwhelming for them, including birth? Our culture tends to ignore or deny the fact that babies experience stress and have emotional experiences that are every bit as complex and real as the rest of us. In this article, I explain how to recognise stress in babies (it’s not just crying), what kind of things can be stressful for babies, how the nervous system works and how to best to support babies through their difficulties.

How can you tell if your baby is stressed?

Here are some signs and symptoms to look for:

  • Excessive or inconsolable crying*
  • Tense muscles; frowning, arms rigid and in front of the chest, shoulders held up around the ears, tight jaw
  • Feeding difficulties eg. fussy feeding, cannot latch at the breast
  • Sleep issues eg. does not transition in and out of sleep smoothly, difficulty getting baby to sleep, waking with an intense cry
  • Exaggerated startle reflex
  • Tremors or shakiness
  • Hypersensitive to touch
  • Desire not to be held or inability to put baby down for even a few moments
  • Avoidance of eye contact

*Babies who have stopped crying or don’t cry very much are not necessarily stress free. Studies on babies during sleep training, have shown that the stress hormone cortisol remains high in babies who have stopped calling out to parents. I can palpate/feel an activated nervous system in a sleeping or quiet baby during a cranio treatment (more about that below). 

It is becoming more widely accepted that babies are conscious in the womb and are affected by the emotions and stresses of their mother. We tend to overlook babies experience of birth. We recognise that birth is a huge experience for the mother, emotionally and physically, but it is also for the baby. Often, before they are able to integrate the experience of the birth; ideally placed directly on the mother’s chest and left alone to rest – they also may then be subject to medical interventions that are both unexpected and confusing. There are a myriad of circumstances that babies may find stressful. Not all babies react to these events in the same way but simply being aware of the potential for stress and trauma is supportive for the baby.

What kinds of things are stressful for babies?*

  • Induction of labour via drip
  • Premature birth
  • Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) or Special Care Nursery (SCN) experience
  • Difficult births: being stuck during labour; long or fast births; assisted births (vacuum, forceps, c-sections)
  • Near death experience or deprivation of oxygen (including babies with intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)
  • Medical procedures or hospitalisation e.g., circumcision, excessive oral exercises after tongue tie release
  • Abusive parental relationship
  • Prolonged maternal stress or depression.
  • Unintended pregnancy /ambivalence from either parent about the pregnancy / Being given up for adoption
  • Death in the family

*An Integrative Approach to Treating Babies and Children:  Multidisciplinary Guide by John Wilks

When I realised my son had unresolved stress in his nervous system from his early birth, this ignited my passion as a craniosacral therapist to help to ease unnecessary suffering in babies, and to raise consciousness of the existence of stress in babies. My first birth was highly medicalised and followed the typical cascade of intervention: induced (against my instincts) with a syntocinon drip….pethidine….epidural….episiotomy and he was pulled into the world via vacuum. He had a swelling on his head called a cephalohematoma. I was left traumatised from the birth, with lasting physical and emotional consequences but I did not fully consider the impact of the experience on the health and wellbeing of my son. Looking back, for months he would wake from sleep screaming as if he was being murdered. Plus he was a sickly child! Unbeknownst to me at that time, the birth had a lasting effect on his nervous system. When I finally discovered craniosacral therapy, he was ten years old and, according to the craniosacral therapist, his nervous system was in “global activation”, primed to fight or flight. Having now supported many infants with similar activated nervous systems and witnessing how quickly they resolve the stress during treatment, I wish he could have had the same release soon after his difficult birth. To say I wish I had known about it sooner would be an understatement!

Tuning in to the nervous system of babies

During a cranio treatment, I use my hands and body to tune into the nervous system. The nervous system will start to show me its patterns of experience.  An activated sympathetic nervous system can feel like an electrified buzz through the whole body, the heart can beat harder and faster than normal and the breath is either held, or rapid and shallow, and muscles and tissue are contracted. This is a survival strategy also known as fight or flight mode. The body cannot properly heal easily in a sympathetic “activated” state.

Babies are uniquely vulnerable, as they cannot run away or fight, so when the fight or flight response has not resulted in avoidance of the stressor, a baby may go into a freeze state. Freeze is a survival strategy activated by the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning the nervous system is shut down or dissociated. These babies can be floppy with low muscle tone or a ‘good baby” that cries very little and sleeps a lot. A baby whose nervous system is in freeze feels different in a cranio session – there is a fogginess or spaciness to the system at first until the body starts to attune with the therapist’s nervous system and remembers its healthy original blueprint. It can be common to feel subtle shuddering movements or muscles start to twitch as the nervous system unfreezes.

The ideal healing state is one of rest and relaxation. When the nervous system is in a parasympathetic state (not freeze), the breath is slower and deeper, the heart is in a coherent rhythm, and muscles and tissues soften. During a craniosacral session, this feels like a slow tidal rhythm of energy, expanding and contracting through the body and tissues. The body then starts to let go of physical and emotional restrictions.

What can we do to minimise stress/ trauma in babies?

Life is stressful! It’s impossible to avoid stress completely and it’s important to remember that not all stress is toxic – some stress is tolerable or even positive, fostering resilience and growth. Trauma is what happens when our nervous system becomes overwhelmed, often when something has happened too fast or for too long. Or because we simply felt alone or unsupported during an event. This story or imprint can remain cycling or unresolved in the nervous system. Understanding the nervous system and how to help it to integrate our stresses is important in order to avoid overwhelm.

A few ways to help your baby to minimise stress:

Stress in babies can be integrated healthily through responsive parenting – including communication, presence, listening, empathy, touch and communication.

  • Babies understand more than we know, they take great comfort in our tone of voice and understand the feelings behind our words. We can talk to them and differentiate our feelings from theirs eg. “I was really sad/stressed while you were growing inside me because (xyz) but this is my stress and it has nothing to do with you. Its not yours to carry. You can let it go. You are safe now”.
  • They can feel our grounded presence and calm nervous system. While we can’t always be in a calm state, we can take a few moments to feel into our body; feel our feet; feel our seat and be an embodied presence during their difficult moments.
  • Any medical procedures for babies need to be carried out with compassion – ideally with parents present or soon after. Choose your practitioners wisely.
  • Simply acknowledging that our babies might be expressing emotions rather than present moment needs (eg, hungry, dirty nappy), can support babies. They know if we “get it” as they are very much n tune with the feelings of the people around them. Naming the emotion can be helpful eg “I can see you are feeling angry right now – I hear you” “Is that how it was for you? Tell me, I’m here”.
  • Babies tend to need a slower pace, so slowing potentially stressful experiences down is supportive. Letting babies know what is coming up for them is an empathetic way to prepare babies for events. We can even talk to them inutero and let them know of an upcoming c-section or induction.
  • Can we be present to strong emotions in our child? Are we quick to shush them? We can notice our own triggers and tendencies and have compassion for ourselves. We too, may have unresolved early traumas, with many of us being left to cry it out as babies.
  • As mothers/primary caregivers we also need support for ourselves too. Eg. support through family and friends, or cranio support to calm our own nervous system. A doula is a great investment for your birth – supporting your process supports your baby inutero.
  • Touch and close contact increase oxytocin levels. Oxytocin (the love hormone) is the antidote to cortisol (the stress hormone). Things like skin to skin contact, baby wearing and safe co-sleeping are healing for babies. However, some babies may be tactile defensive, meaning that touch is a trigger for stress, maybe its just on certain parts of their body. You can still provide support by being physically present and using less tactile means to instill a sense of security. Or being careful to avoid touching any sensitive areas.
  • Oxytocin is also released during breastfeeding, in both mum and baby. Many babies regulate their nervous system by feeding frequently at the breast, so where possible allow unlimited access to the breast. Other babies will act out their stress at the breast – with fussy feeding or latching issues – these babies greatly benefit from a combined lactation/cranio consult.
  • As parents we would rather suffer than see our children suffer. It hurts us to know they may have suffered unnecessarily or without appropriate support at the time. It is never too late to heal though! Even adults can heal their early life trauma with the right support. Cranio is a great way to access and resolve these early imprints.

As a culture we have a history of overlooking infant stress, forgetting that babies are sensitive beings that are having their own experience of their environment. On an unconscious level, the nervous system just wants a feeling of safety to be restored; to rest, to slow down, to feel supported. Our calm “parasympathetic” nervous system then assists the intelligence of our body to heal itself. Studies have shown the long-term impact of early life stress can lead to increased risk of anxiety disorders, cancer, substance use, heart disease, immune disorders, social struggles and relationship problems. Acknowledging and resolving stress in early life has the potential to change this trajectory.

Babies who have not been able to integrate their stress may greatly benefit from cranio treatment.   Having cranio sessions in the first few months of life can make a significant and positive impact to both their present and future wellbeing.

Get in touch if you feel your baby needs more support.


For a more in depth look at this topic, I highly recommend Mia Kalef’s book It’s Never Too Late : Healing Prebirth And Birth At Any Age and The Secret Life of Babies : How Our Prebirth and Birth Experiences Shape Our World


The challenges of being sensitive

One of the challenges of being a craniosacral therapist is encountering the belief systems of clients (or with babies – their parents). I understand! Before I got into this work I, too, was sceptical – how can light touch do anything?? And how does the craniosacral therapist feel all those things? With the hands? Through the body?

But, in the two years of training myself to tune into subtle sensations, I was shocked to find that not only could I feel what was happening in the clients body through my hands, but also in my own body!! I have a Bachelor of Science (Nursing) and science is yet to fully explain this phenomenon. There are some studies on emotional contagion and mirror neurons and I absolutely loved reading this Phd Touched by Touching which looks at the bi-directional nature of touch and the embodied experience of bodyworkers – it was incredibly validating! At first, I was in denial about my ability to feel from my body, believing these sensations were simply my body’s own healing being triggered in a session – but no! – countless sessions with adults validated that these somatic imprints that I was feeling, were the same thing they were experiencing. A body-to-body resonance. I now completely trust it and it guides me in a session – a true gift!

When this ability awakened in me, I became very sensitive, unable to be in crowded, visually busy, noisy environments. My ability to function in daily life was extremely limited. I was chronically dizzy, and ended up being diagnosed by a neurologist with persistent postural perceptual dizziness (aswell as being told by other health professionals that nothing was wrong with me and that I needed to see a psychologist or to go on SSRI medication). I now believe that many people on SSRI’s and those suffering from dizziness, anxiety or depression are actually also super sensitive, picking up on the energies and emotions of others, people struggling to function in this fast paced, noisy world. My healing journey was a very isolating one that has taken me years to understand and harness, involving deep reflection, radical self care and letting go of relationships and jobs that no longer served me.  

In the past, as a nurse, I recall emotionally struggling through some difficult shifts, patients were dying, suffering – their families too. I was told that I will eventually “toughen up”, but instinctively I didn’t want to. I am now at a point where I truly value my sensitivity. I see it as a gift and I am tired of hiding it to fit in with the expectations of society.  It allows me to be a sensitive therapist that can recognise the tensions and inner healing forces in others. In babies this is even more valuable because they can’t talk, sure, they cry but they can’t tell you specifically what is wrong – but their body can in a cranio treatment. Sometimes information from others comes to me without even putting my hands on a  baby/person (eg. I suddenly get a sore neck or shoulder). Professionally it can be an awkward thing to explain to someone. Many of my cranio clients come with an open mind but my lactation clients have often never heard of cranio and I am introducing a completely new concept to them. Other baby clients are referred to me by an LC or midwife but their parents are not quite sure what to expect.

I have received regular cranio sessions for years now, during many of the sessions the therapist held my feet for the whole session. My body is so used to the healing space that it knows exactly how to self-correct in the presence of a listening touch. Recently I received a completely hands-off, in-person cranio treatment. My body is now so sensitive that I don’t necessarily need direct touch to stimulate my own self-healing. It still blows my mind that this is possible (though working with mobile toddlers has also shown me it is). In fact, my nervous system and energy field prefers light touch or “far” touch. Most manipulative work puts my system into protection mode, not healing mode. I do find that the people who most resonate with cranio work are those who are sensitive and open, including babies and children (esp those with autism) – a little (touch) goes a long way! Those who don’t feel much in a session are more likely to be drawn to bodywork that is more tangible – different strokes for different folks (literally)!

One thing I am grateful for is the fact that my kids will grow up knowing that touch heals, that I have been able to help them shift sore necks, backs, knees, ear infections, nasty head injuries and headaches – often in just one treatment. They haven’t had to discover this at middle age like me. I often feel when they have a headache without touching them and they have no doubt this is possible – how cool is that!?

My son Chester getting a treatment for an ear infection

Cranio is a hard thing to describe and is best experienced. But it is a beautiful therapy and it works! I have seen incredible results; babies who sleep better, who cry less and adults whose pain resolves. So I continue to put myself out there – mostly for the babies, to bring peace to their systems – despite external judgement and my own fears of rejection and ridicule. I don’t care what people think anymore (most of the time). The therapy takes a leap of faith, a suspension of belief on the parents’ part, but it does not hurt – it heals! I am proud of the work I do and feel privileged that parents trust me to work with their babies, even if they don’t understand it.

Please get in touch if you consider yourself a sensitive person, or want to experience this gentle work for you or your baby/child.

*This article was inspired by Anita Moorjani’s book Sensitive is the New Strong

Memory crying in babies

Babies cry – some more than others! Most of the time it is to communicate a “present moment” need, they are hungry, cold, bored, tired etc, and once the need is met, the crying stops. My experiences as a craniosacral therapist have also shown me that babies also cry to tell their story of what happened to them in the womb or around their birth. Karlton Terry calls these crying bouts “memory crying”. This cry sounds different or more intense than a “present needs” cry and often babies resist their parents attempts to shush and calm them. Memory crying is when the baby is experiencing sensations and emotions that relate to an earlier overwhelming experience. Babies who are difficult to console are often brought for a cranio treatment although, interestingly, seemingly untroubled, happy babies may suddenly use the opportunity during a cranio session to communicate some strong emotions from their recent past.

Babies are aware and sensitive starting from the womb. There is plenty of research now to show that babies inutero share the same emotional experiences that their mother does and this has the capacity to shape them. Any part of their prenatal or post-natal journey can impact and leave an imprint on a baby’s system and become stored in the body. These body memories can be triggered by external stimuli –e.g.  a shirt being pulled over the head or being handled in a way that reminds them of their birth e.g. a c-section baby who is being placed into a car seat.  They can also arise during a cranio treatment where they feel safe and supported to fully express themselves to tell their story of pregnancy or birth.

Most babies find cranio to be calming and often settle off to a deep state during or afterwards. Cranio is permission based, during a treatment I carefully watch a baby’s body language, especially when I change holds. I ask “Is this ok for you? If not, I will move – you show me”. If they recoil in any subtle way from my touch, I pull back. Some of the “holds” may be triggering for them, eg a head hold for babies who have experienced a vacuum or forceps birth. Babies are in their bodies, not in their heads like most adults, and are great at knowing what they like and don’t like. They will let me know their preferences without resorting to crying. Saying that, there are times an emotional outburst is more likely, when I feel tension in the chest, diaphragm or throat shifting but interestingly it may or may not be accompanied by crying. As a new cranio graduate, I thought it was possible to avoid crying because the touch of a craniosacral therapist is so gentle and often when emotions arise during a session, they arise in subtle ways – fluttering sensations, sighs, or twitches and tremors as the accompanying muscle tension releases. Babies have shown me otherwise, using the cranio sessions to communicate their repressed emotions.

When I first started with this work, crying babies were a trigger for me. Crying babies reminded me of my experience with my second “colicky” son who cried for months. I felt so helpless and on high alert looking for a way to soothe him. While I know he has cows milk protein intolerance, I now wonder if he was also expressing emotions related to his time inutero. When I found out I was pregnant with him, my response was not a welcoming one. I felt too sleep deprived to have another baby. I found the pregnancy draining and unenjoyable. The field of pre and perinatal psychology acknowledges the impact these types of experiences have on babies. Knowing what I know now, I am now able to hold space for memory crying and to support parents to hold space too.

I recently worked with two babies who were clearly memory crying during their cranio session. These babies both surprised me when they suddenly and unexpectedly went from a happy “chatty” state to an intense emotional outburst. It can feel like it came out of nowhere and it can last for some time. The parents are often surprised that their baby has the capacity to hold such strong emotions under the surface, at such a young age! These emotions can range from anger, rage, sadness, grief, anxiety or fear. Body Psychotherapist, Thomas Harms in his “Emotional First Aid” approach talks of “assisted crying” where during these sudden outbursts we do not try to shush the baby (often babies refuse to be shushed anyway) but instead be fully present and centred in our bodies to hear the baby’s story. Sometimes naming the emotion may help – “I can see you are feeling angry right now” or empathising “Were you uncomfortable in the womb?”, “Was it a shock to be born that way?”. Babies understand more than we know, our tone of voice and calm presence is a comfort to them. The wave of emotion eventually passes and leads to a release of tension. The baby feels a sense of peace, of being fully seen and heard. The flow on effects may include deeper bonding, better sleep, reduced crying, greater communication skills or a developmental leap.

Just like adults, babies have a range of difficult experiences that need to be integrated and shared. We feel better if we have a good cry to a friend, one who listens without trying to distract from feelings or to try to fix things. I advocate for mothers to respond promptly to their baby’s present needs cry while at the same time to hold an awareness of the potential for the memory cry. Babies appreciate the opportunity for empathy and feel a sense of relief to get these pent up feeling out of their system or “off their chest”. Once the experience is brought to the surface then there is no longer a need to hold this in the body. The benefits of the experience can shape who they are and how they handle future difficult experiences.

If you feel your baby or child has not fully integrated some difficult perinatal experiences, then contact me to make an appt.

Memory crying in babies

Babies cry – some more than others! Most of the time it is to communicate a “present moment” need, they are hungry, cold, bored, tired etc, and once the need is met, the crying stops. My experiences as a craniosacral therapist have also shown me that babies also cry to tell their story of what happened to them in the womb or around their birth. Karlton Terry calls these crying bouts “memory crying”. This cry sounds different or more intense than a “present needs” cry and often babies resist their parents attempts to shush and calm them. Memory crying is when the baby is experiencing sensations and emotions that related to an earlier overwhelming experience. Babies who are difficult to console are often brought for a cranio treatment although, interestingly, seemingly untroubled, happy babies may suddenly use the opportunity during a cranio session to communicate some strong emotions from their recent past.

Babies are aware and sensitive starting from the womb. There is plenty of research now to show that babies inutero share the same emotional experiences that their mother does and this has the capacity to shape them. Any part of their prenatal or post-natal journey can impact and leave an imprint on a baby’s system and become stored in the body. These body memories can be triggered by external stimuli –e.g.  a shirt being pulled over the head or being handled in a way that reminds them of their birth e.g. a c-section baby who is being placed into a car seat.  They can also arise during a cranio treatment where they feel safe and supported to fully express themselves to tell their story of pregnancy or birth.

Most babies find cranio to be calming and often settle off to a deep state during or afterwards. Cranio is permission based, during a treatment I carefully watch a baby’s body language, especially when I change holds. I ask “Is this ok for you? If not, I will move – you show me”. If they recoil in any subtle way from my touch, I pull back. Some of the “holds” may be triggering for them, eg a head hold for babies who have experienced a vacuum or forceps birth. Babies are in their bodies, not in their heads like most adults, and are great at knowing what they like and don’t like. They will let me know their preferences without resorting to crying. Saying that, there are times an emotional outburst is more likely, when I feel tension in the chest, diaphragm or throat shifting but interestingly it may or may not be accompanied by crying. As a new cranio graduate, I thought it was possible to avoid crying because the touch of a craniosacral therapist is so gentle and often when emotions arise during a session, they arise in subtle ways – fluttering sensations, sighs, or twitches and tremors as the accompanying muscle tension releases. Babies have shown me otherwise, using the cranio sessions to communicate their repressed emotions.

When I first started with this work, crying babies were a trigger for me. Crying babies reminded me of my experience with my second “colicky” son who cried for months. I felt so helpless and on high alert looking for a way to soothe him. While I know he has cows milk protein intolerance, I now wonder if he was also expressing emotions related to his time inutero. When I found out I was pregnant with him, my response was not a welcoming one. I felt too sleep deprived to have another baby. I found the pregnancy draining and unenjoyable. The field of pre and perinatal psychology acknowledges the impact these types of experiences have on babies. Knowing what I know now, I am now able to hold space for memory crying and to support parents to hold space too.

I recently worked with two babies who were clearly memory crying during their cranio session. These babies both surprised me when they suddenly and unexpectedly went from a happy “chatty” state to an intense emotional outburst. It can feel like it came out of nowhere and it can last for some time. The parents are often surprised that their baby has the capacity to hold such strong emotions under the surface, at such a young age! These emotions can range from anger, rage, sadness, grief, anxiety or fear. Body Psychotherapist, Thomas Harms in his “Emotional First Aid” approach talks of “assisted crying” where during these sudden outbursts we do not try to shush the baby (often babies refuse to be shushed anyway) but instead be fully present and centred in our bodies to hear the baby’s story. Sometimes naming the emotion may help – “I can see you are feeling angry right now” or empathising “Were you uncomfortable in the womb?”, “Was it a shock to be born that way?”. Babies understand more than we know, our tone of voice and calm presence is a comfort to them. The wave of emotion eventually passes and leads to a release of tension. The baby feels a sense of peace, of being fully seen and heard. The flow on effects may include deeper bonding, better sleep, reduced crying, greater communication skills or a developmental leap.

Just like adults, babies have a range of difficult experiences that need to be integrated and shared. We feel better if we have a good cry to a friend, one who listens without trying to distract from feelings or to try to fix things. I advocate for mothers to respond promptly to their baby’s present needs cry while at the same time to hold an awareness of the potential for the memory cry. Babies appreciate the opportunity for empathy and feel a sense of relief to get these pent up feeling out of their system or “off their chest”. Once the experience is brought to the surface then there is no longer a need to hold this in the body. The benefits of the experience can shape who they are and how they handle future difficult experiences.

If you feel your baby or child has not fully integrated some difficult perinatal experiences, then contact me to make an appt.

Treatment goals

Lets talk treatment goals…. the good news is babies often need fewer sessions of craniosacral therapy than adults.
Colic, wind and unsettled behaviour can be often be treated successfully within 1-2 sessions. (unless caused by food sensitivities)
Breastfeeding issues are a bit more complex – its takes two! – ideally mum should also receive cranio during the course of treatment.. I recommend starting with 3 x weekly sessions (including 1 x mum and bub session).