Our brains regulate the nervous system in our body. In times of stress or danger, it activates the body’s fight-or-flight response. When faced with a stressful situation, this response is activated, allowing our bodies to move fast by speeding up our heart rate, shutting down digestion and upping blood sugar for quick energy. When a baby or child gets agitated, this system is in full gear and the emotions are high.
Conversely, there is a calming or dampening system, which slows down our heart rate, increases digestion and conserves energy. This calming part of our nervous system can counter the high speed effect created by the fight-or-flight system, and it’s crucial in controlling our bodily functions and emotional well-being.
When these systems are acting in balance, our bodies run properly and we are in emotional control. But when the systems are out of balance, we need to draw on our self-regulation techniques to bring them back into a healthy state.
Since the fight-or-flight response is critical for human survival, it is no coincidence that the instinct to accelerate develops before birth. Every parent knows that newborns are capable of getting worked up enough to alert parents to their needs by crying.
The newborn’s ability to self-regulate is not as well developed at birth. Infants have limited self-regulation capability available, such as thumb sucking, hugging a blanket or visual avoidance. They can only self-soothe, however, to a certain point, especially if they’re extremely agitated or if whatever is upsetting them doesn’t change (loud noises, being left unaccompanied, feeling trapped, hearing parents fighting, hunger.)
When babies cry uncontrollably, it’s like they are driving on an emotional runaway car with no brakes! It is up to parents to help them regulate their “brakes” because their nervous systems are not yet fueled to drive this emotion alone.