Dorsal Vagal Response: Your Babies Despair

Baby crying flailing arms

Letting Your Baby Cry May Trigger Their Dorsal Vagal Response

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is important for the body to regulate our systems. A baby looks to us for co-regulation and this is evident with the ventral part of the vagus nerve. This part is for signaling motion, emotions, and communication. This nerve helps us engage with the world around us. When our nervous system is stimulated we are cued to interact with the world around us. This comes in many forms but in babies when they need something they will cry to communicate. To prevent overuse or over-stimulation, our body has a defense mechanism. This mechanism is the dorsal vagal response.

Why a Shutdown Occurs

When it comes to survival our bodies have many mechanisms. One important mechanism is the freeze or withdrawal defense. The dorsal vagus nerve is responsible and is a blunt instrument. It’s like a light switch and is why a baby after crying for minutes will just spontaneously stop. Their body no longer believes it is worth it to communicate their needs. This shutdown is abused when a provider instructs parents to have their baby “cry it out.”

Why Crying It Out Is Teaching A Give-Up Response

Crying it out can be used as a last resort, however, it should not be taken lightly. When the vagal nerve is functioning well, eating, engagement, and a daily rhythm can be seen. When a baby’s dorsal vagal nerve activates the body does not have a choice on what to engage with. Sometimes a baby will sleep but other times this can occur where a baby is listless and although they do not seem upset they are not engaging.

The Solution Is Stimulus

The stimulus of the vagus nerve through play, touch, and interaction helps a baby regulate their system. Some babies need more support than others as every baby is unique. As a provider, I find that I am often helping parents find ways to engage their baby’s nervous system to promote internal regulation. This often manifests as easier feeding, better sleep, and better movement. This is because the treatment meets the baby where they want to start.

Starting With Your Baby Not Ahead Of Them

It is important to start where your baby is. Babies are unable to understand and problem-solve as their frontal lobe develops much later. If a baby is unable to plan a movement how can we expect them to self-soothe? If a baby has tightness they avoid, how do we expect them to roll? Or if a baby is unable to latch, how can we expect them to know what position will feel good when they have reflux?  All of these areas are areas in that I help babies succeed. It’s about setup and preparation with appropriate stimulus nudging a baby in the direction of balance. This is how a baby can experience regulation. This is how a baby can avoid giving up and instead lean into the world and engage with it.