The Aware Baby: A New Approach To Parenting, by Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D., Shining Star Press, Goleta, California, pp. 276, $11.95

"I have recommended this book to thousands
of parents and professionals, with outstanding
results." - William R. Emerson, Ph.D.

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

Aletha J. Solter has written a humdinger of a book. In The Aware Baby, Dr. Solter, developmental psychologist, lecturer, international workshop leader and consultant in three languages, presents an interesting approach to parenting. She introduces a novel way to help babies work through their feelings of anger, fear and grief. Babies are assumed to know what they require in life and the author believes that the way these already sentient beings are treated by their primary caregivers will determine their present and future happiness and potential. Another assumption she makes is that traumatic experiences which babies have undergone can be reversed by emotional discharge, primarily crying.

Solter believes that babies can resolve a traumatic birth by doing a lot of crying. In fact, supporting and encouraging babies in crying is an important theme of The Aware Baby. Crying, is also an important aspect of primal therapy, but I must confess that I had never before considered babies deep wailing and crying as attempts to resolve past emotional pain and birth trauma. Certainly, one needs to cry to resolve such hurts, but can the infant resolve the physical effects of birth trauma without actually fully re-living the actual specific trauma? For example, is crying about the memory of being battered in the birth canal the same as crying while re-living the actual battering. Is it crying which resolves the past trauma or is it the reliving of the trauma, which is usually accompanied by crying, that actually accomplishes the goal?

To some it may seem that this distinction is academic, but it is the difference between simply crying about a trauma and a full re-living of the trauma, and in primal theory there is an important and essential distinction between the two. I doubt that only crying about a trauma resolves the trauma; the trauma should be fully experienced. Perhaps the baby, while crying, is re-living the trauma. Dr. Solter does not say whether she believes the infant is actually re-living the birth experience or simply experiencing the memory of its birth. Such an abreaction about the pain of one's birth might help, but it is doubtful as to whether it is curative. (See the author's response to my position).

I believe that the most interesting chapter of Aware Baby is Chapter 2 which deals with the benefits of crying. Dr. Solter writes that picking up crying babies neither spoils them, nor reinforces their crying. She insists that babies who cry are not trying to be manipulative, but rather are trying to get their needs met. But, sometimes, as stated above, those attempts are aimed at healing past hurts, which is a possibility all parents should consider. The expansion of this concept forms the most interesting and compelling part of her book.

So what should a mother do when her baby cries and the baby is not in physical discomfort, is not hungry, does not need its diaper changed, and the cause of its crying cannot be discovered? Solter says that in such cases, the parent should give the crying baby "loving attention," by being held and listened to. She writes that such supportive crying helps resolve earlier traumas.

Usually, it is the parent who tries to soothe the baby so it will quit crying, but sometimes, babies themselves suppress their crying by doing something which distracts them from feeling their early pain. These defenses against allowing past hurts to be felt, Solter calls, "control patterns" which is a term used in Re-Evaluation Counseling theory. These patterns are similar to those used by adults, even though the baby can't light a cigarette or get a beer from the fridge! But, for example, a baby is capable of over-nursing, and this can instill a lifetime pattern for obesity as the adult has a tendency to turn towards the same effective control pattern which was used during her infancy and early childhood.

These defenses or control patterns, as in primal therapy, can be almost any behavior which stops the infant from feeling her anguish or sorrow. Thus an infant or toddler who wants to be continually entertained is using a control pattern. Instead of acquiescing to the baby's demands, the mother should allow the baby to cry while it is being tenderly and lovingly held, but without attempting to assuage the crying. Holding the crying baby is not spoiling the infant, Solter writes, but rather is helping her to feel her past pain, which the author emphasizes can be from as early as birth.

I am sure that, at times, it is difficult to apply this new approach to crying babies, since mothers are supposed to make the hurt go away, certainly not intensify the pain! So you should do what "common sense" tells you not to do. And, temporarily, the crying will probably become deeper and more rageful, but the key to eliminating the pain is by going through it. The important element here is "loving support" so that the baby will feel in a safe, protected place which will allow her to free herself from the traumas of the past.

Dr. Solter's book answers such important questions as: "How can I tell whether my baby needs to cry or whether she needs something else?", "How much can I expect my baby to cry?", "What if I can't stand to hear my baby cry?" "What should I do if my baby has already learned to suppress her crying?" But, The Aware Baby is not just about crying. Other interesting chapters cover problems which may arise during issues of sleep, food, play, and conflicts.

There is no doubt that the author considers the psychological well-being of the baby her main concern. For a mother, meeting all of the needs of her baby can be a time consuming task, but no one has ever suggested that being a good parent is an easy job! I heartily recommend Dr. Solter's winning book.

Dr. Solter's Aware Baby has been translated into German, French, and Dutch. Her internet website is at:

In 2001, Solter published her revised edition of Aware Baby. Containing supplemental material, this work is even better than the first edition as it contains many, many footnotes which scientifically support her advice on the raising of infants from birth to the first two and one-half years.

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Dr. Solter's response:

The distinction you make between merely remembering a trauma and actually re-living it is interesting. Of course, we cannot know what babies are experiencing when they cry. What we do know is that human beings of any age (including infants), will cry immediately following a traumatic event in order to heal, if allowed and encouraged to do so. Could it be that remembering a traumatic event and re-living it are one and the same thing for recent traumas? I think that, once we are adults, the need to re-live early traumas (such as a birth trauma) is important because of the emotional distance we have acquired from the experience over time. As adults, merely remembering early traumas may not be sufficient because the memories become intellectualized. Furthermore, most people cannot remember early experiences such as birth. So we need to re-live the trauma artificially, and on an emotional level, sort of "turn the knife in the wound" in order for healing to take place.

With babies who are attempting to heal from birth trauma, however, the experiences are so fresh and so recent that this is not always necessary. Furthermore, babies do not have the ability to conceptualize their experiences, so there is no danger of over-intellectualization. They simply experience. Babies can heal from birth trauma when a loving adult holds and reassures them during the crying spells that occur spontaneously during infancy. I suspect that they are re-living the birth trauma to some extent. However, it has also been shown that resimulating the birth trauma can be beneficial in facilitating and accelerating this healing process in babies, provided that this is done in a loving and respectful way that does not overwhelm the infant. (William Emerson's work). For example, one can lay a hand on a baby's head to help him re-experience the pressure of a long labor (an example used in my book), gently reproduce the sensation of forceps on the sides of the head, or stroke the neck of a baby who was strangled by the umbilical cord. With older babies, working with tunnels and other confined spaces can be beneficial as well. These very gentle reminders of the birth process often elicit crying or raging and a release of energy, and can be extremely therapeutic.

I consider the various forms of emotional release (such as crying, raging, laughing, trembling and perspiring) to be the crucial healing factors in any therapy. I do not think that either remembering or re-living a traumatic experience in the absence of these forms of release would be very therapeutic. Rather than making the distinction between remembering and re-living a past trauma, I have found the concept of "balance of attention" to be more useful. Emotional release and healing will occur automatically for a person of any age once there is a proper balance between present safety and past distress. Thomas Sheff describes this concept of balance and calls it the "distancing of emotion" (in his book Catharsis in Healing, Ritual and Drama). A person who is "overdistanced" is too removed emotionally from the experience and cannot cry or heal from it. On the other hand, someone who is "underdistanced" is too caught up in the distress and is so overwhelmed or "swamped" that no healing can take place. Once there is a proper balance, people will spontaneously release feelings (through laughter, crying, raging, etc.) and thereby heal. The therapeutic goal should be to create this balance, either by bringing the person's attention away from the distress, or by helping the person re-experience the distress, whatever may be needed at the moment. I find this a very useful concept that applies to babies as well as to adults. -- Aletha Solter

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