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The Crying Game: Understanding Baby Cries

The Crying Game: Understanding Baby Cries

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Updated on Jan 13, 2012

There's nothing as heartbreaking—or nerve-wracking—as your baby's cry. What's the key to understanding and coping with your baby's cries? Questions race through your mind as you pace up and down in the middle of the night with your wailing infant. Is your little one cold, hungry or sick? How do you know what's wrong? New parents often feel bewildered and overwhelmed when dealing with a fussy, crying newborn. Two of the biggest questions on the minds of new parents—is this crying normal or not? And, am I doing everything that I can for my baby?

Newborn crying is usually harmless—even healthy. Crying is the only way an infant can
communicate before he has words to express his mental or physical state. There's
a wide range of "normal" crying behavior, but the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families provides a rough guideline for "typical" a crying pattern. According to their research, newborn crying peaks at about 6 weeks, then slowly starts to decrease. At about 3 months, your baby should be crying for about an hour or two a day.

Parents of infants should be consulting their pediatrician regularly, says Dr. Jess Shatkin, a pediatric specialist at The NYU Child Study Center—and they shouldn't be afraid to bring up the subject of crying with their doctor. Most crying is perfectly normal, but occasionally it can be a sign of a condition that needs to be treated. Regular communication with your doctor can help you better understand if your baby's tears are on track.

Even after medical conditions are ruled out, you're still left trying to cope with incessant crying on a day-to-day basis. So, during the peak crying months, try these simple methods for soothing your child:

  • Keep In Touch. Tune into your baby's moods, and keep track of his outbursts. It's very easy to become detached and alienated from your infant when he turns into a screaming ball of fury—you just want to make it stop. However, staying calm and jotting down notes may help you figure out what brings about his wails. Is there a specific time of day when he is prone to crying fits? Or a certain place where his fuse regularly blows, such as the park, the car or the grocery store? Sights, smells and noises that you don't notice in a particular environment can trigger crying in your child.
  • Use Your Common Sense(s). Your infant lives in an intense sensory world and he's attuned to voice, touch, light and smell. Pay attention to these factors when trying to calm him. When your baby cries in the middle of the night, speak to him in a soothing voice and try rocking him, but don't take him out into the living room and turn on the lights. You may not notice a difference, but he will. Try swaddling your child by wrapping him tightly in a blanket. This can create a sense of physical security that'll often calm and comfort a fussy baby.
  • Be Flexible, Be Creative. All babies are not alike. Some infants liked to be rocked, but for others the back-and-forth motion is too stimulating. Some babies like the slow and gentle sensation of being carried while you walk back and forth; others prefer more active comforting like swinging or more vigorous rocking. Some babies like complete quiet, others are comforted by background noise, like the sound of a fan or white noise machine. If something doesn't work, try something else. Eventually you will find a technique that suits your baby's temperament.
  • Take It Easy—On Yourself. Above all, don't blame yourself if your efforts don't work right away. Sometimes babies just need to cry. If you've checked off all the usual causes of crying and your baby is not cold, wet or hungry, it's perfectly OK to give yourself a break by placing the baby in a safe place like a crib for 5 or 10 minutes so that you can have a breather. Or find someone to take over for a little while, if that's practical. Taking care of yourself will help you be more alert and focused, so that you can better care for your newborn.
  • Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help. A recent study in the British Medical Journal by Dr. Pamela Douglas found that parents—especially first-time parents—often have a hard time seeking help for problem crying, and this adds to parental stress. Be active in seeking advice from your doctor and in finding good resources to help you cope, such as new parent support groups or online forums. Don't be reluctant to ask for support—the crying is not your fault. Some babies are just fussier than others.

All babies have their own unique personalities, and getting to know your infant can be a process of trial and error. Have patience and manage your stress by getting enough sleep, seeking out support from loved ones and getting professional advice when needed. This too shall pass. You and your baby will eventually master "the crying game" and emerge with a strong new bond and the skills to cope with the next phase of childhood.

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