Though everyone knows that infants cry, new parents in particular often feel uncertain about what baby’s cries mean, how much crying is normal and when to be concerned. Of course, this learning curve sharpens as we realize that the spectrum of “normal” is vast and that every child is different.
A means of survival
The most important thing for a new parent to remember is that crying is not only normal—it’s good! It’s how a very vulnerable infant (who can’t yet move, feed or understand that people who leave the room come back) expresses herself.
As James J. McKenna, PhD, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory and professor and endowed department chair of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, says, “When all is considered, it is dangerous to be an infant … Crying is the infant’s primary mode of communication, and it functions not just to accommodate infant needs but [also] to bring the caregiver close. Proximity to the caregiver is critical to the infant’s survival.”
The closeness that McKenna refers to means many things. Physical closeness both protects the infant from possible danger and helps immature biorhythms regulate. At the same time, emotional closeness facilitates trust and emotional well-being. It also allows mamas and papas to better understand their babes.
Babies have feelings, too
Another benefit of crying, for the infant, is the discharge of built-up energy. Much like how an adult may feel better after “a good cry,” the release relaxes baby. “Charge of emotion builds up—anyone, even a baby, needs to relieve that tension,” notes Dale Rosin, DO, a child psychiatrist practicing in Somerville, New Jersey. “Sometimes the baby needs to get out feelings. Feelings from birth, feelings perhaps transferred from a new mother’s anxiety.”
Observe a baby’s face for any 5-minute period, and it should be no surprise that she is intensely sensitive. You can watch her express worry, frustration, euphoria, love, contentment and loneliness. Crying helps her let those feelings out.
The language of infants
Many wonder whether different types of cries mean different things. Is there a universal guide to interpreting an infant’s cries?
“I think, yes,” says Tammy Johnson, a birth and postpartum doula, lactation counselor and parent educator in Burnsville, Minnesota. “Just as there are vocalizations we, as humans, make universally when communicating or experiencing situations—such as the vocalizations during the stages of labor or even the different sounds men and women make during sex—there tend to be universal truths in the type of sounds heard in crying.”
A shrill cry might mean panic or fear. A sharp cry often signifies pain. A whiny and persistent cry could indicate hunger; a sad cry, loneliness.
This breakdown of how cries usually sound gives an idea on how one might interpret the cries by listening, empathizing and paying attention.
“If you view a child crying too mechanically, you’re not in emotional contact,” explains Rosin. Emotional contact refers to one of the kinds of closeness McKenna described as crucial to survival. That closeness, that bond, is exactly what will allow a parent to become an expert at interpreting different cries.
When to worry
In my previous work as a postpartum doula, my golden rule was to trust a mother’s intuition. An emotionally connected mother will know when something is cause for concern, and in the face of such certainty, no doctor or doula or in-law should doubt her.
“Crying in the presence of other symptoms, like many attempts to feed a baby with refusals or pulling away, for instance, would be cause for concern,” cautions Johnson. “It might mean the baby is under the weather; it might mean the baby has thrush.”
Rosin adds that it may be time to worry if a child cries and cries without relief and doesn’t stop. This could mean pain, such as an ear infection. It could also be colic …
And then there’s colic
Colic is another story. Should parents be concerned if they have a colicky baby? Concerned for their sanity, perhaps. Although the term “colic” dates back many years, it is still somewhat of a mystery. Generally speaking, it can be defined by the “Rule of Threes”:
- Starts at 3 weeks of age or older.
- Lasts for approximately three hours in a stretch.
- Happens at least three days per week.
- Lasts for longer than three weeks.
Anything else can be considered a rough patch or developmental growing pains.
Colic is frequently described as “tummy trouble” and is often used to describe trapped gas, even in adults. But if you ask a family deep in the trenches of infant colic, they will vehemently express that it is not “just bad gas.” They have likely burped endlessly and tried gripe water, probiotics, different feeding positions and so on.
For the families who are certain that their baby’s colic has nothing to do with gas, take heart. New findings about colic are coming to light all the time. Some studies have linked incidents of colic with individuals who later develop migraine headaches. Given a colicky baby’s sensitivity to movement, noise and light, this is highly possible. Whatever the potential, yet still unconfirmed, cause of colic—be it gas, early onset migraines or respiratory reflex confusion—it is imperative that the parents practice good self-care and heed the following advice:
1. Try to remain calm.
2. Take turns dealing with an inconsolable child.
3. Get fresh air.
4. Take measures to get rest.
5. Wear the baby, both during episodes of colic and throughout the day. The upright position will help with gas, the intimate snuggle will eliminate sensory overstimulation, and the proximity to a parent will help regulate out-of-control respiratory impulses.
How we react
For at least the first year of a child’s life, it is imperative that the caregiver responds to an infant’s cries. This in part shapes the way in which the child will view the world. Can I trust those whom I’m closest to? Do I know that my voice will be heard? Am I able to ask for help when I need it?
That doesn’t mean there is harm in waiting a breath to see if your little one settles down on her own. Gradually minimize involvement (think phasing out rocking back to sleep in favor of a gentle hand on the back), or give yourself a 2-minute breather during a particularly intense crying session.
And keep in mind that the goal isn’t to eliminate the crying, but rather to respond to it. “There are two extremes in which parents might continuously handle crying in an ineffective way,” explains Rosin. “The first is to rush in and frantically try to put a stop to it. The other extreme is adopting the idea that you have to let a baby cry alone.”
Rosin points out that somewhere in the middle is more reasonable. You can allow your tot to cry while letting her know, via a gentle touch or soothing word or response to a basic need, that you are there.
Remember that your own intuition is your biggest teacher in terms of under- standing, responding to and coping with your baby’s cries. Never doubt that you know your baby best. This confidence in your bond will see you through.