When we’re pregnant or awaiting adoption, we dream about our baby-to-be and we always envision those beautiful scenes, which always show a charming baby smiling up at a peaceful parent’s face. We read books in advance of the big day about how to care for a newborn, how to bathe a newborn, feed and dress them, and then we feel somewhat prepared. However, a crying baby was never part of that idyllic vision, so this takes new parents by surprise.
But the fact is, all babies cry at one time or another. Some babies cry more than others, but they all cry. Understanding why babies cry can help you respond effectively to your crying baby - and so can this list of ideas.
Why does my baby cry?
Simply put, babies cry because they cannot talk. Babies are human beings, and they have needs and desires, just as we do, but they can’t express them. Even if they could talk, very often they wouldn’t understand why they feel the way they do. They wouldn’t understand themselves well enough to articulate their needs, so babies need someone to help them figure it all out. Their cries are the only way they can say, “Help me! Something isn’t right here!”
Different kinds of cries
As you get to know your baby, you’ll become the expert in understanding their cries in a way that no one else can. In their research, child development professionals have determined that certain types of cries mean certain things. In other words, babies don’t cry the same exact way every time. (Other child development experts, also known as mothers, have known that for millennia.)
Over time, you’ll recognize particular cries as if they were spoken words. In addition to these cry signals, you often can determine why your baby is crying by the situation surrounding the cry.
Following are common reasons for baby’s cry, and the clues that may tell you what’s up:
Hunger. If three or four hours have passed since your baby’s last feeding, if they have just woken up or if they have a very full diaper and begin to cry, they’re probably hungry. A feeding will most likely stop the crying.
Tiredness. Look for these signs: Decreased activity, losing interest in people and toys, rubbing their eyes, looking glazed, and the most obvious, yawning. If you notice any of these signs in your crying baby, they may just need to sleep. Time for bed!
Discomfort. If a baby is uncomfortable - too wet, hot, cold, squished, tummy ache - they’ll typically squirm or arch their back when they are crying, as if trying to get away from the source of discomfort. Try to figure out the source of your babe’s distress and solve the problem.
Pain. A cry of pain is sudden and shrill, just like when an adult or older child cries out when they get hurt. It may include long cries followed by a pause during which your baby appears to stop breathing. They then catch their breath and let out another long cry. Time to check your baby’s temperature and undress them for a full-body examination.
Overstimulation. If the room is noisy, people are trying to get your baby’s attention, rattles are rattling, music boxes are playing and your baby suddenly closes their eyes and cries (or turns their head away), they may be trying to shut out all that’s going on around them and find some peace. It’s time for a quiet, dark room and some peaceful cuddles.
Illness. When your baby is sick, they may cry in a weak, moaning way. This is their way of saying, “I feel awful.” If your baby seems ill, look for any signs of sickness, take their temperature and call your health care provider.
Frustration. Your baby is just learning how to control their hands, arms and feet. They may be trying to get their fingers into their mouth or to reach a particularly interesting toy, but their body isn’t cooperating. They cry out of frustration, because they can’t accomplish what they want to do. All they need is a little help.
Loneliness. If your baby falls asleep feeding and you place them in their crib, but they wake soon afterward with a cry, they may be saying that they miss the warmth of your embrace and don’t like to be alone. A simple situation to resolve…
Worry or fear. Your baby suddenly finds themself in the arms of Great Aunt Matilda and can’t see you; their previously happy gurgles suddenly turn into crying. Your baby is trying to tell you that they’re scared; they don’t know this new person, and they want mommy or daddy. Explain to Auntie that your baby needs a little time to warm up to someone new, and try letting the two of them get to know each other while baby stays in your arms.
Boredom. Your baby has been sitting in their infant seat for 20 minutes while you talk and eat lunch with a friend. They’re not tired, hungry or uncomfortable, but they start a whiny, fussy cry. They may be saying that they’re bored and needs something new to look at or touch. Taking your baby out of their seat to join the visit or providing a new toy to hold may help.
Colic. If your baby cries inconsolably for long periods every day, particularly at the same time each day, they may have colic. Researchers are still unsure of colic’s exact cause. Some experts believe that colic is related to the immaturity of a baby’s digestive system. Whatever the cause, and it may be a combination of all the theories, colic is among the most exasperating conditions that parents of new babies face. Colic occurs only to newborn babies, up to about four to five months of age.
What if you can’t tell the source of crying?
There are plenty of times when you can’t tell if your baby’s crying is directly related to a fixable situation.
That’s when parents get frustrated and nervous. It’s when you should take a deep breath, calm yourself and try some of the following cry-stoppers:
Hold your baby. No matter the reason for your baby’s cries, being held by a warm and comforting person offers a feeling of security and may calm their crying. Babies love to be held in arms, slings, front-pack carriers, and when they get a little older, backpacks; physical contact is what they seek and what usually soothes them best.
Provide motion. Babies enjoy repetitive, rhythmic motion such as rocking, swinging, swaying, jiggling, dancing or a drive in the car. Many parents instinctively begin to sway with a fussy baby, and for good reason: it works!
Turn on some white noise. The womb was a very noisy place. Remember the sounds you heard on the Doppler stethoscope? Not so long ago, your baby heard those 24 hours a day. Therefore, your baby sometimes can be calmed by ‘white noise’; that is, continuous and uniform noise, such as that of a heartbeat, the rain or the static between radio stations. Check out apps too for white noise sounds.
Let music soothe your baby. Soft, peaceful music is a wonderful baby-calmer. That’s why lullabies have been passed down through the ages. You don’t have to be a professional singer to provide your baby with a song; your baby loves to hear your voice. In addition to your own songs, babies usually love to hear any kind of music. Experiment with different types of tunes, since babies have their own favorites that can range from jazz to country to classical, and even rock and rap.
Swaddle your baby. During the first three or four months of life, many babies feel comforted if you can recreate the tightly contained sensation they enjoyed in the womb.
Massage your baby. Babies love to be touched and stroked, so a massage is a wonderful way to calm a fussy baby. A variation of massage is the baby pat; many babies love a gentle, rhythmic pat on their backs or bottoms.
Let your baby have something to suck on. A bottle, pacifier, baby’s own fingers, a teething toy or daddy’s freshly washed blankie can work wonders as a means of comfort.
Distract your baby. Sometimes a new activity or a change of scenery - maybe a walk outside or a dance with a song or a splashy bath - can be very helpful in turning a fussy baby into a happy one.
Reading your baby’s body language
Many times, you can avoid the crying altogether by responding right away to your baby’s earliest signals of need, such as fussing, stiffening their body or rooting for milk. As you get to know your baby and learn their signals, determining what they need will become easier for you - even before they start to cry.
Elizabeth is a mother of four, and author of the bestselling No-Cry Solution series on topics such as sleep, discipline, picky eating and potty training. She is known worldwide as the voice of practical, respectful parenting. For more information, visit her website, nocrysolution.com. These tips are from The No-Cry Discipline Solution by Elizabeth Pantley.
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