It’s the first sound babies make, and the sound parents soon become all too familiar with. Dorothy Waide looks at what all the noise is about.
Crying is a great talking point in parenting circles today, yet I still see a lot of uncertainty as to how to respond to our babies when they cry. No one likes to hear a baby crying, however crying or grizzling is a baby’s primary way of communicating and it is important that we let them tell their story, and then we can figure out what baby may be trying to tell us. Yes, I’m afraid that can be as tricky as it sounds, but it does get easier as babies get older. Trust me, it takes time to understand more of what your baby might be communicating through their crying and you won’t get it right all the time, but as long as you listen and respond, you are on the right track.
One of my favourite sayings is that crying is words - words that should make us stop, listen and respond. Crying, as a form of communication, plays an important role in expression, development and also a baby’s process of finding sleep. As time passes, your baby will find other ways of communicating, for example, making eye contact, smiling and cooing, which will in turn reduce baby’s need to cry or grizzle for attention.
In the context of this article, I refer to crying as whinging and grizzling that starts and stops. Screaming and continuous crying are a different story, and require a response as soon as possible.
The early days
As we’ve established, a baby less than 12 weeks old has limited ways to convey feelings, needs, and discomfort or pain, so it is quite normal for them to cry or grizzle. Baby may be hungry, tired or overtired, too cold, too hot or maybe they simply want company. Crying is not always a negative communication - often babies cry before falling asleep, some newborns cry with the sensation of passing urine or during a bowel motion, and some days your baby may cry or grizzle for no discernible reason at all! Sorry about that.
A baby under 12 weeks is too vulnerable to be left alone to cry, so whatever the reason for the tears, ideally you will always respond. I feel that the ‘leave to cry’, non-responsive approach goes against the nature of nurturing and can potentially lead to other problems, such as sleeping and feeding issues. It is vital at this young age that a baby’s cries are responded to.
Some parents are surprised by the pitch, intensity or volume of their baby’s cries. Many parents comment that one of their greatest fears is not being able to tell why their baby is crying. In response to a baby’s cry, the first questions you should ask yourself are:
⭐ Is baby hungry?
⭐ Do they need to be burped?
⭐ Does their nappy need changing?
If you still have a crying baby and find yourself at a loss, ask yourself the following questions:
⭐ Is baby tired or overtired? Remember, an overtired baby tends to cry louder and longer.
⭐ Do they want to suck? Offer a dummy for comfort — they may not be hungry but babies in pain like to comfort-suck.
⭐ Does baby need to be held to sleep in your arms? Try holding your baby in the ‘engulf hold’ (see ohbaby.co.nz).
Try not to do large movements when holding your baby, such as rocking, walking or jiggling. Instead use small movements that can be replicated in a cot, such as cupping and patting.
As you get to know your baby, you’ll learn how to read their cues. In the meantime, trust your instincts to see you through. You’re more capable than you realise!
Sometimes you may find yourself with an inconsolable baby. Please don’t be put off by comments like “You just have one of those babies”. Continue to search for answers and someone who will listen. Be wary of any messages that imply that you’re making a rod for your own back and that by responding too quickly you will spoil your baby. This is a theory I cannot abide, hence the title of my book – You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn. When your baby is crying, take a deep breath and remember the essence of what is happening – crying is words, and baby is still trying to tell you something, or ask for something. It’s our job as parents to find out what baby needs and then meet that need.
Colic and reflux are common causes of crying in young babies. These are articles in themselves, and you will find more information at ohbaby.co.nz. Colic, typically associated with prolonged and inconsolable bouts of crying in the later afternoon or evening, remains somewhat of a mystery with experts unable to agree on the causes. I believe stress is a factor, and that colic is commonly associated with a build-up of intestinal gas in a baby who has not been burped properly.
Reflux and colic have similar symptoms - in particular, a lot of crying - but reflux is related to the upper digestive tract, colic the lower. If you believe your baby is suffering reflux or colic, seek medical help and advice. It is important to remember that babies with reflux and colic need extra nurturing to help them through this distressing phase. They need to be comforted and this takes time, but be encouraged - babies do grow out of this tricky stage. Dummies can help reflux babies, as they provide extra comfort and can reduce the crying.
Is there a magic solution to avoid a baby crying? Sadly, no. Crying is a very normal expression for a baby and a fact of life for your parenting journey. It is hard on parents and caregivers though - let’s not pretend it isn’t - so it’s very important you have strategies in place so you can cope. Acceptance is important. Remind yourself that crying is to be expected, and do what you need to do to stay as calm as possible. If that means leaving your baby safely in their cot for a few minutes while you have some space, then that is a wise choice you can make. However, I’d never recommend that you leave a baby under 12 weeks old to cry or grizzle for more than five minutes (unless it is necessary for the safety of the baby and caregiver). Ask for help if you’re struggling, and take a break when you can - even just for a walk around the block while someone else takes care of your child/children. Fresh air works wonders to ease stress levels and help your perspective.
Translating the tears
People often ask me to describe the different types of baby cries. I like to recommend Priscilla Dunstan, who has a background in music and an amazing ear, as she explains the differences well.
A quick breakdown of her interpretation of newborn cries are as follows:
Neh: I am hungry
Eh: I need to burp
Heh: I am uncomfortable or need a nappy change
Eairh: I have lower gas pain
Owh: I am sleepy
All of the above sounds are accompanied by body movements as well. You need a good ear to recognise these sounds, as some sound similar. But it’s worth a try, and with practice you might be surprised by what you can decipher. For more information go to dunstanbaby.com.
Please note: if your baby has a weak, high-pitched and continuous cry, seek medical attention immediately.
16 weeks and beyond
As your baby grows, their cry will become louder and stronger. But they will also now have found other ways of communicating, eg making eye contact, smiling and cooing, which will reduce their need to cry for attention. You’ll also understand baby’s cries better as you get to know them and understand their personality. But babies this age still don’t have words, so it’s still important to listen and respond to crying.
Older babies and toddlers don’t just cry for the sake of crying. They cry because they are over-stimulated, tired or over-tired, bored, frustrated, hungry, uncomfortable, in pain or have a fever. If your baby is in obvious pain from teething or sickness, or has a fever, you might consider using a pain relief medication, such as paracetamol, that is safely formulated for infants and designed to reduce pain and fever.
At the 16-week mark, babies enter a new sleep progression cycle (which accompanies developmental milestones) and some of these methods you have been using to get baby to sleep no longer work. If you’ve never allowed your baby to cry and have always settled them with large movements such as rocking, ‘plugging’ with a dummy, or feeding to sleep, then your presence is going to be required to help establish effective sleep habits.
When you decide to leave your baby to cry for a bit longer (as part of the process of helping them find their sleep), it’s important that the decision sits well with you, and that you’re not doing it because someone said so. Your baby will cry – there is no such thing as a ‘no cry’ sleep solution - and we need to allow baby to tell us their story. What is crucial is where you are and what you are doing when your baby cries.
If you’re putting a baby or toddler to bed for a nap or night-time sleep, you can leave them to cry for an appropriate time. My rule of thumb for babies under 16 weeks old is one minute for every week of their age, but no longer than five minutes. This might not sound long on paper, but it can seem a lifetime when you’re listening! In my experience it can take approximately 20 minutes for a baby or toddler to fall asleep. As long as they’re the right age and it is an appropriate noise (a quiet grizzle), then you can leave them for this time frame. However, if it’s louder crying or screaming, or if they’re younger babies, then I’d intervene earlier.
By intervention I mean being there physically and supporting your baby to help them find their sleep. Your presence is powerful. For older babies I tend to touch them with a hand gently on their body. For younger babies, I pick up and engulf them, then I cup and shush. Or I cup and shush in the cot. Check out ohbaby.co.nz for further details on my settling techniques.
Take your time
Parenting takes TACT - Time, Acceptance, Consistency and Touch. Aim for consistency 80% of the time, and remember that touch can mean simply your presence. Parenting is a life-long journey and part of this is parenting to sleep (a term I much prefer over ‘sleep training’). Sometimes you’ll feel you have it all wrong, but remember you’re doing your best at the time. There’s no right or wrong way and you can’t fail as a parent. There will be tears – for babies and parents - but dry your eyes and take a deep breath, the amount of crying does lessen with time, and the smiles and giggles increase exponentially!
Dorothy Waide is a baby consultant and Karitane Mothercraft nurse with over three decades of experience, and a member of the OHbaby! panel of experts. She is the author of You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn, available at all good book stores. Visit Dorothy at babyhelp.co.nz or ask her a question in our experts section.