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Why Your Head Hurts When an Infant Cries

Remember that time when you heard an infant wailing and it almost felt like nails on a chalkboard?

Well, you are not alone in your reaction!

New research suggests that the cry of an infant is a biologically evolved means of survival and serves as a cue in the caretakers brain to attend to the infant’s distress.

All to often I meet a mom in my office that is at odds with her partner around one central theme: to soothe the infant to sleep or to let the infant “cry it out”.  And despite reasoning and despite endless “how to” books on the value of “crying it out”, it seems that one parent just cannot let the baby cry without feeling terrible guilt and sometimes even panic.

One of the most vivid recollections I have of my first born infant crying was when my husband and I were driving home from the grocery store on Los Gatos Blvd and traffic suddenly came to a dead stop.  I realized that a non-moving vehicle and an awake baby meant that it was only a matter of minutes before the bomb would go off and my son would start crying.  I began to fill with panic as I looked over at my husband and whispered some desperate and descriptive profanities.

The lack of motion first set him off to wiggle his hands.  Then squirm in his seat, mumble a few sounds.  And then a slow mad cry at first that soon grew louder.  I began to sweat and my husband began to daze out behind the steering wheel.  Our options were limited. All we could do was sit and pray and try really hard not to take out our anger and desperation on each other.

That day marked for me a cognitive realization.  Sitting in the front seat with no escape and no soothing gesture for my baby made me feel stuck, trapped, panicked, angry, and hopeless all in one fail swoop.  It was overwhelming and terrible.  I was mad at my husband for not honking the horn, or better yet, not driving on the sidewalk and away from that stopped traffic to the freedom of motion and quiet.  And I also became acutely aware of the inside of my brain buzzing- almost like a needle was grinding into my inner earlobe as the baby wailed.  I wondered afterward, was what I was feeling in that moment actually neurologically engrained in my mom brain?

The answer is “Yes”!  It is.  This article from the New Your Times speaks to research conducted on infant crying and it’s psysiological origins as the basis for survival in communicating with caretaker brains.

So the next time you find yourself in the chaos of soothing your crying infant (or someone else’s for that matter!)…know that these bouts of noise are your infants first means of communicating it’s needs to you (and others!).  And follow your heart because it’s closely connected to your brain.



Navigating New Parenthood – The Mini Guide

Together with several awesome Bay Area pregnancy, birth and baby experts I contributed to a mini guide for expecting parents as well as parents of newborns. It is a collection of tips about pregnancy, birth and new parenthood to help you on this new journey you have stepped on.  Here’s a little teaser of my article:

“Having a baby is profoundly impacting for a couple, and profoundly uniting.  Parenthood brings with it a marital bond that will last for the rest of your lives as you share the joy of raising this child.  Sometimes it also brings new hiccups to your marital bliss.” 

To read the rest of the article as well as articles on, for example, morning sickness, planning your birth, and being present with your growing family, head on over to Navigating New Parenthood mini guide!


My collaborators:

Alicia Fishbein, South Bay doula

Check out Alicia’s free birth plan checklist download here!

Amber Pearson, East Bay doula

Amie Wang, pilates instructor and founder of play it fit

Check out Amie’s Movement Bit videos here!

Jenna Christina, Bay Area newborn and family photographer

Neta Shani, acupuncturist

Dr. Rachel Hamel, holistic cranial chiropractor

Love on the Brain

Love acts as is a safety cue that actually calms and soothes the human brain.  When we are faced with fears, anxieties, or real life losses our limbic system begins to light up triggering the fight/flight/freeze reaction.  A loving partner can soothe the reactivity of the limbic system when emotional connection is reached and a secure attachment is established.

This video by Dr. Sue Johnson speaks to research that strongly links attachment and the emotional connection of love to soothing the limbic reactivity of threat.

Are you emotionally connecting with your partner?

Is your partner emotionally connecting with you?

In your marriage, are you heightening the limbic response of fight or flight?  Or are you soothing each other on the neurological level by providing deep attachment and connection?

Couples therapy provides a space to adjust the unhealthy responses in your relationship that are triggering stress and dissatisfaction.

Through therapy you can learn to emotionally connect with your partner and allow your partner to emotionally connect with you.  Thus, deepening your attachment and bond and increasing soothing and calming feelings in your body and brain.

The result is a life that you love living, and a partner with whom you love living it.


Can the “One” really be your “Everything”?

“When you write a story, you edit, you change, you see things that don’t fit.  It’s never a perfect story, ever.” Esther Perel

It’s problematic to expect the person that you are in love with, married to, or living with is the one and only that will fulfill your needs.  In our culture and our day and age we put so many expectations on our partner that we often set ourselves up for disillusionment.

Expecting that your partner can provide you with everything is unrealistic and can set the stage for deep emotional pain.

Instead, look at your partner choice as a story that you are writing together.  Every couple has issues.  How you go about looking at and tackling those issues is the process that will lead down the road of happiness or trouble.

Watch the video below as Esther Perel explains why our relationships often feel stressed and constrained.


How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn

“A hilariously candid account of one woman’s quest to bring her post-baby marriage back from the brink, with life-changing real-world advice.”

Thank God this book has been written and published.  I can’t tell you how many times a mom has mentioned to me how desperately she would love relationship counseling for her and her spouse post-baby.  But the timing never seems quite right with so many things in daily life standing in the way: like the new baby and maybe some older kid(s), work, chores, budgets, and last but certainly not least- that strained attempt at relaxing and maybe even sleep.

Besides- who the heck want’s to talk about the hard parts of a relationship when they are struggling to just barely get along with their spouse?

That’s why this book is a must read.  It’s funny, relatable, and has the tips that your local relationship therapist (ahem…me!) will be giving you in counseling.

I wouldn’t say it’s a filler for counseling- but it is definitely a great start in repairing, rebuilding, and re-romanticizing your marriage.  And the skills provided are a great foundation to couples therapy when you are ready.

A quote taken from the front insert of the book pointedly states, “Many expectant parents spend weeks researching the best crib or safest car seat but spend little if any time thinking about the titanic impact the baby will have on their marriage- and the way their marriage will affect their child”.

Every relationship needs a little TLC once in a while.  

Luckily, I will be hosting the first ever “Love After Baby” workshop at Tiny Tots in Campbell on June 22, 2017.  

Mark your calendars, call a babysitter, and join me for an energetic and fun night dedicated to strengthening your relationship and reconnecting with your partner after having kids.

In this workshop we will explore: neuroscience and how the brain changes after having a baby, attachment theories as applied to your marriage, and communication must-do’s to sustain friendship and companionship.

Stop arguing and start uniting together as a whole!

When: June 22, 2017

Time: 6pm-7:30pm

Where: Tiny Tots Parent Resource Center at 138 Railway Ave., Campbell, CA 95008

The cost is $45 per couple and space is limited.  Please no children- infants in arms are okay.

RSVP to Tiny Tots: http://store.tinytots.com/store/product/48778/Love-After-Baby-June-22/

Postpartum Depression and Teen Moms

Teen mothers are almost twice as likely as adults to experience postpartum depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013).

My first ever social work job was working with teen moms.  I was a case manager for a program called Second Chance in San Diego, California.  I was 22 and more closely aligned with the teens themselves and not so much with the ‘becoming a parent’ side.

Fifteen years later and those girls are still on my mind.

Second Chance had the goal to prevent a second pregnancy in the teenage years by using a wrap-around model of care.  We focused on school, nutrition, vaccinations, birth control, and parenting.  We never focused on postpartum depression.  But many of these girls were depressed.

When I look back on my time with these girls my heart aches.  I wish I had then the knowledge of postpartum depression that I have now.  I wish that we had a society that would hold and support our young people- even when they have a life experience that we deem “not ideal”.

As a mom myself that had postpartum depression with my first and second babies, I can’t even imagine being a teenager and going through this process.  And I am thankful for articles and research like the one listed below that reminds me how vulnerable our most vulnerable populations really are.




Love After Baby

As a therapist, wife, and mother I find that writing about relationships is hard. Relationships can be looked at from Emotional, Developmental, Systemic, and Relational perspectives, to name only a few. All of which have deep theoretical and philosophical underpinnings and strategic applications that can be somewhat cumbersome to thoroughly address in a catchy snapshot. But this topic is so important.

If you have ever dated someone then you will know, relationships can be complicated!

In my musings about what happens to relationships after a baby comes home, I am repeatedly coming back to Dickens iconic words;

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the Spring of hope, it was the Winter of despair”.

Being in love and then adding a child to the mix can feel utterly epic—like the most momentous thing that might ever happen in one’s life. And at the same time it can feel profoundly isolating and almost like death as the old you begins to morph into the as-yet unknown. To add my own words to Dickens’ famous opening lines in relating directly to parenting with children;

“It was the deepest of bonding, it was the most unnerving…it was the season of Miracles, it was the season of Loss, it was the Spring of Life, it was the Winter of my Youth…”

Ask any mom about her marital relationship as a parent and you will get: 1) a distracted look that implies, “oh, I don’t know, I don’t even want to know, I do everything possible to not know what my marriage is really like right now” and then the lonely sound of crickets in the dark, or 2) a pensive pause with slight hesitation giving evidence of cautious thought and calculation of not disclosing how shitty things are or throwing her husband under the bus.

Very rarely (like almost never) will you receive an honest assessment of the ups and downs and sideways challenges that are happening for parenting partners behind closed doors.

In my opinion, it would be unrealistic to think partnerships would continue basking in the bliss of love after having children.  It seems that parental attempts to reconnect and stay attuned to each other are often thwarted by unsuspecting invaders. Like that crazy little person living with you that successfully halts those advances toward unity.

Remember that time when you tried hugging in the kitchen for the first time in…oh, say a month, and your toddler dropped that engrossing game of throwing all his toys on the floor, spied you from the other side of the house, dashed over, and proceeded to whine and yell at you while prying your legs apart and strategically placing his head between your bodies. Physical contact denied.

And you thought you’d get a quiet moment!

And yet, that crazy little person responsible for all this havoc (more laundry, less sleep, more expenses, less sex) is actually profoundly dependent on the marital health of her caregivers for her emotional and developmental wellbeing. What we know today is that a secure parent in a calm and peaceful household will tend to be more interactive and attentive with a child. This, in turn, will create a secure attachment that will lead to a lifetime of benefit for that child—whereas a depressed, angry, volatile, and hostile home environment could lead to an insecure attachment.

Many of us new parents find ourselves becoming burdened with the guilt of not having harmonious relationships with our spouses. We want more for our children than we had, and yet we are only human, and subject to faults. This deep guilt of motherhood builds as a sort of anxiety, and sometimes inadvertently leads us down the road of depression, panic attacks and rage.

According to a study that John and Julie Gottman conducted with their relationship center and found in their book, And Baby Makes Three, “In the first three years after babies were born, a whopping two-thirds of parents experienced a significant drop in their relationship quality”. The participants in this study were just like you and me—loving couples that decided to marry, decided to procreate, and had dreams of sharing their lives together. This study indicates that 67% of these families experienced a significant amount of stress in their marital unit during those precious first three years of their children’s lives. These first three years are usually a time, I imagine, that parents had hoped to enjoy their little critter while marveling at each passing milestone. Yet only one-third of couples are saying that they have not lost “relationship quality” during this time. Just as an aside, not losing relationship quality does not mean the other one-third is in blissed out marital land. It solely suggests that their relationship did not drop “significantly” in quality.

If it is the case that the majority of relationships are struggling post-baby, why then are we not talking more about helping each other to thrive?

Granted, there are times that the dissolution of a partnership is for the benefit of parents and child. But often times, the heart aching reality is that the culprit responsible for the disintegration is simply ‘communication’. Communication is the single most identified problem in a marriage by people who are married. Problems communicating include fighting, yelling, blaming, stonewalling, berating, withdrawing, antagonizing, criticizing…communication is interwoven in every aspect of a couple’s relationship.

To be quite honest, sometimes it feels really good to just have someone to yell at when stressed by parenthood; or adulthood for that matter. One day, after getting into an argument with my husband and calling him some swarthy names in the heat of the anger, I asked him if he would just let me verbally berate him sometimes while not taking it so “personally”. He said “yes” and proceeded to request the same with me. After a millisecond of thought I quickly resolved that, no, we could not “tantrum at each other” and be verbally hostile with each other. Alas, I would have to be an adult about my feelings and take control of my behavior.

Wanting to just emotionally vomit cuss words at someone may be natural given the stress of interpersonal dynamics…but it tends to be a poor way of maintaining respect, compassion, and caring in a marriage.

In a wonderful book I’ve been reading titled, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, (which is hot of the press and humorously guides you through the evolving relationship of the author and her husband), Jancee Dunn interviews a chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit about ways to lead a hostile person off the proverbial cliff of relationship suicide. As a therapist, I loved the angle Mrs. Dunn uses to ironically lighten what tends to be a dense topic. Doing therapy with a volatile couple is much like hostage negotiation in a crisis. Tempers are hot, feelings are deep and each person wants to be heard while making sure their partner knows exactly how they are feeling.

The catch is that a partner cannot hear how the other is feeling when he or she is being attacked. It’s physiologically impossible (okay, maybe the Dali Lama can do it) but for the most part your spouse cannot be nice to you when you are being an asshole. Nor vice-versa.

The hostage negotiation thing works because it gives a clear outline to follow when in the heat of hatred. And it gives leadership. Considering yourself a crisis negotiator when your partner is falling apart actually adds just enough differentiation to the interaction that you can remove yourself and see your partner as he/she truly is…wounded, scared, alone, and confused. This in turn softens you, allows you to be more receptive, lowers the reactivity of the amygdala and brings the frontal cortex back online. As it turns out, fighting is a neurological matter.

For the past three years I have been trying to launch a couples workshop for parents. It has been unsuccessful thus far. It appears that while everyone tells me that couples workshops are desperately needed, no one actually wants to attend one. And I get it. Who wants to sit around with other couples that are having problems?! But I’m trying it again. Part of my workshop will be about communication. Here’s a teaser for you to chew on….

How to end a fight with your partner (anyone really, but let’s focus on the one you’re married to):

For you to do:

1) Stop, Look, and Listen to your body…what is going on for you? Is your heart rate up? Is your breathing fast? Check in and notice your reactions.

2) Make eye contact, take a step back and position yourself in a non-threatening way (like sit down or keep your arms to your side).

3) Open yourself up to hearing your partner. Remove the filter of defenses that come up for you and try to listen for clues on what your partner is really trying to tell you.

For talking with your angry partner:

1) Paraphrase what you heard. Paraphrasing means that you feed back to your partner exactly what they said. Do not insert yourself, your ideas, your criticisms, or your disagreement. You might start with, “What I hear you say”…(for example, “What I hear you say is you are overwhelmed that the baby is not sleeping and I’m not doing anything about it”).

2) Ask if you heard correctly. Say something like, “Did I hear you correctly”?

3) Paraphrase again until you got it 100% correct.

4) Agree with your angry partner. This can be REALLY HARD…and YOU CAN DO IT! Agree. Agree. Agree. It always takes two to tango. No matter how agitated you feel, how bruised your ego is, however many residual emotions come flying at you…you have played a part in your partner being upset. Taking accountability and responsibility for your part is the most critical step in diffusing an argument. All that other stuff that I listed before is nice…but worthless if you don’t take accountability for your share of the problem.

By agreeing with your partner you are doing so many wonderful things! You are admitting you have blame, you are softening their stance, you are showing them you hear them, you are attuning to them, and you are showing compassion for their feelings.

All these things are wonderful for you and your spouse. As a side benefit, you are teaching your child(ren) to do the same. When your partner’s neurological functioning is soothed and the amygdala is no longer triggered, your child will mimic those receptors and so will you.

The dance of lovers as they waltz toward parenthood is complicated and extraordinary. So many of us get lost in the mix, or we hold it together long enough for our children to get to grade school. And then we slowly dissolve. I say, “Lets not dissolve”! Let’s work with the notion that we loved this person for a reason when we decided to procreate. A lot of challenging obstacles suddenly come into play when we have babies, but that doesn’t mean your love isn’t real.

With some simple skills, empathy, caring and compassion we can keep our marriages alive and live the married life of which we were dreaming.

Angela will be hosting Love After Baby, a short workshop for couples who are recently new parents at Tiny Tots in Campbell on June 22, 2017. If you would like to try on a new “date night” activity this might be the right one for you. We will have fun, we will laugh, and we will learn new ways to make your relationship stronger. Click here to RSVP: http://store.tinytots.com/store/product/48778/Love-After-Baby-June-22/

My Daughter and The Mean Girls

It was a play-date that went wrong.  It was a normal day of kissing my daughter goodbye for school only to have her come home in tears.  It was a flashback to my own childhood and all the mean things that girls can do.  I admit…at times I was one of them.

As a private practicing therapist and a school-based counselor for an elementary and middle school, I work with cliques, mean girls, hurt feelings, and teasing on a daily basis.  But having to watch my own daughter go through it hits my heart-strings on a more personal and emotional level.

I find myself envisioning I am Leslie Mann’s character in the movie “This is 40” where she tells off her child’s bully…minus the part where she tells the kid to f-off.

But I know personally, and as a therapist, that mom behavior like that would not only be ineffective on multiple levels but it would actually rob my child of working through her own problems and finding solutions that will eventually empower her to do the right thing.

That seems obvious enough.  However, I still can’t help wanting to take her pain away.  Oddly, I find myself recalling memories of my own childhood peer problems.  The time my best friend Leslie started hanging out with Beverly and not only didn’t want to play with me anymore but would prank call pizza delivery to my house.  Or that time when the neighborhood kids actually left a bag of poop on my doorstep after the daily torment of ringing my doorbell and running away.

I will admit that I am not blameless.  I’m sure I did tons of mean things to other girls.  But the times that stick out are when they were done to me.  There is a real part of me that wants to protect my child from this pain.  And then the therapist in me steps in and does some parent coaching.

She tells me to take it deeper.  She wonders if maybe I have some healing to do myself.  Maybe projecting my experience onto my child could be a symptom of the anxiety that is coming up from those painful memories.

And, maybe… not.  After all, I don’t fall down and cry at those memories.  Actually, they make me feel stronger in who I am and somewhat thankful that these breaks in friendships actually propelled me to meet new people and make better friends.

When I work to support parents, I use this same reflection process.  I believe we genuinely want our children to have their own experiences and overcome their own obstacles.  It’s just that sometimes we accidentally put our own life experiences in the way.  Protecting our children is great when it comes to real danger.  But it can be confining and limiting when it comes to growing up.

Being the person I am, I began to research books like Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson and How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I hoped to get some guidance that would help me with my daughters problems and also to better my therapist skills in working with kids and their parents.

After gathering the literature data, I began to gather real life data in asking and interviewing kids.  Yep, I asked kids themselves.  I wanted to know 1) What peer and social issues are relevant for kids? and 2) How can adults and parents best help?

After gathering all that, I started trying stuff on.  Ways of talking to, relating to, exploring, validating, and empowering young people.  Here’s what I came up with for parents to do in empowering children to thrive despite social meanness:

  1.  Check in with yourself and the feelings that are coming up for you.  Acknowledge them, listen to them.  And don’t push them away.  Keep them alive and talk to an adult, your spouse, or a friend about your thoughts, feelings, and concerns.
  2. Make eye contact with your child and let her/him know that you are present to hear what they have to say.  They may make motions for a hug or hand holding and they may not.  Don’t force physical affection but let them know you are happy to give a hug or hold their hand if they would like.
  3. Be curious but in a nonchalant sort of way.  Sometimes kids don’t want to talk right off.  And sometimes the whole story comes flying out.  The nonchelant part lets them decide when it’s right to share and validates that it’s their life and they know what’s right for them.
  4. Name the emotion you see or ask if your inference is correct.  As parents we also want to assist our children in developing emotional intelligence.   Simple statements like, “You look really upset, I see your eyes are tearing up” or “I wonder if something is wrong, your head is down and your arms are crossed” give words to what they might be feeling and also validates that you are picking up on their body language.  Remember that 90% of our person to person communication is unspoken.
  5. Try to not ask questions.  Questioning kids can feel really overwhelming to them and can cause them to close off rather than open up.  If you notice that you have burning questions or you think a particular child is picking on your child…go back to step 1.
  6. If you feel you really must ask questions, try not to frame it that way.  Instead of saying, “Did the kids make fun of you today?” try, “I wonder if something happened at school today”.  This also allows your child to maintain their privacy and work through the feelings that are coming up for them in talking to a parent.
  7. When they do start to talk to you, don’t offer advice unless asked by your child.  Even if you have really good advice.  Remember that as a child growing up it took you some time to find the right solutions for your situations.  Sometimes advice worked…but more often than not you had to try out some options for yourself.   If you can’t hold back, ask your child first if they would like your advice.  If they say no and feelings come up for you…go back to step 1.
  8. Allow your child to explore their own solutions.  Even though I just said ‘no questions’, two really good ones I’ve found that don’t feel intrusive are, “What have you already done?” and “What are your thoughts on what you should do?”.  Remember, that your child is an expert on his/her life.  They know how to manage themselves socially and have creative ideas on overcoming challenges.
  9. Lastly, accept your child’s decided course of action.  S/he might decide to do nothing at that time.  S/he might decide to still hang out with the group that is being so mean.  Telling your child that they are making a bad decision feels really disempowering to them and validates what the mean kids are saying…that s/he is not good enough or smart enough.  If you’re concerned about your child’s choice, you can let your child know that you will be curious about what happens and are happy to revisit solution brainstorming with them if needed.
  10. If strong feelings come up for you after all this…go back to step 1.

Social tug-o-wars are normal developmental milestones that kids go through across countries and cultures.  My daughters struggles are not over.  They will keep coming up.  And I know that at times I will be exasperated with the drama.  But I really look forward to seeing her blossom into a self-assured woman who knows she is capable of solving her own problems and confident in the friendships she finds.

Angela Jensen-Ramirez, LCSW is a private practicing therapist in the San Jose areas of Los Gatos and Willow Glen.  She can be contacted at (408) 827-5179 or by e-mail at angelajramirezlcsw@gmail.com.