As adults we generally identify crying as a negative emotion, but for babies it is a way of communicating their needs. Lisa Hewell has talked to Doreen Buckely and Tizzie Hall about what your baby’s cry really means.
One of the hardest things about being a parent (and, especially, a first-time parent) is figuring out why your baby is crying. This is particularly trying if the baby is crying a lot. It can be both of you, and frustrating as you attempt to work out what’s going on.
“Few things are more unsettling than the sound of a baby crying and trying to establish what exactly he or she is trying to tell us in the early weeks,” says Doreen Buckley, parenting expert and antenatal teacher. She says that, with time, parent and baby will get to know each other but, in the early days, every cry, runny nose and hot forehead is analysed for life-threatening conditions.
Interpreting your baby’s cry
But the skill of interpreting your baby’s cry can be learned. She says:
- Parents can get better at it – firstly, by knowing what is normal. Crying is a baby’s way of communicating a need. Healthy babies cry for three hours per day at six weeks and one hour per day at four months.
- New babies need constant soothing, love and attention. It’s not unrealistic to suggest that babies can cry because they are missing the womb – their ideal environment – and the place where they were safe, always at the right temperature, fed when they needed it and generally content.
- Parents-to-be need to attend a preparation course; not just for the birth but also one that covers going home with a new baby. Knowing when to worry and when not to worry makes parenting a little less fraught.
- Pharmacists are a valuable resource for anxious parents. it’s important to bring the baby with you and they will advise you to go to the doctor if there is any doubt about the severity of the problem.
Author and baby sleep expert Tizzie Hall agrees that parents can learn the skill of interpreting their baby’s cries. “The feedback I get from parents is they feel helpless and frustrated when their baby is crying and they don’t know what to do to comfort him or her. I believe the way we live today is a big factor in why we are now seeing so many parents not understanding their baby’s cries.”
So what then are the most common causes of your baby crying and what are the subtle differences between cries?
“This is the most common cry,” says Doreen. “It begins gradually, then works up to an explosive cry, followed by a pause. It usually gets louder and louder and the baby tends to make a ‘neh’ sound, with emphasis on the ‘n’, particularly in the pre-cry stage.”
“It fluctuates in tone and volume and is often accompanied by sucking fingers or rubbing eyes,” says Doreen. “Tired, crying babies tend to shape their mouth like a yawn and make an ‘owh’ sound. Try rocking them to sleep. If they are tired, it should only take a few minutes before they nod off.” According to Tizzie, “The cry of a baby who is fighting sleep has gaps and the tone and pitch will vary.”
This can be very uncomfortable for baby as bubbles of air can move into their intestine, so it is important to wind your baby properly after feeding. “Crying babies with trapped wind often make a ‘neh’ sound,” says Doreen. “They can also give a cry of ‘eairh’, which indicates lower wind pain and needs relief. Use massage to move air bubbles around.” Tizzie says that trapped wind can be indicated not only by a baby’s cry but also from the baby seeming stiff and bringing both knees up to the tummy when laid down.
“This cry is loud, long and shrill,” says Doreen. “The baby’s body tenses as he draws his hands and feet up. The cry caused by internal pain is the same.” She advises checking for signs such as swelling, sensitivity to touch, vomiting, a change in bowel movements and/or a change in the pace of breathing. If any of these signs are displayed, seek your GP’s help as soon as possible.
Young babies are particularly sensitive to noise and will show their unhappiness with it by giving a piercing loud cry, followed by gasping of breath.