Learning to interpret your baby's cry

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How to help your baby stop crying

Learning to interpret your baby's cry
Baby tears can have many different meanings. (Getty Thinkstock)

Babies are just like grown-ups. They all have different personalities. It’s all a matter of trial and error.

— Kathy Goolsby of Arlington, Texas

Babies cry to communicate. They cry when they need a nappy change, when they are hungry, tired or teething. For new parents or even seasoned ones, those hours of crying, of rocking your baby back to sleep, can be exhausting. But what do those tears really mean and how do you get them to stop?

Crying theory

Learning to interpret your baby's cry
A crying baby could be sending one of several messages. (David Woolley/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Kathy Goolsby raised two daughters and is now helping to raise three of her seven grandchildren, including her 4-month-old granddaughter, Haley. She knows that baby cries vary and so do the solutions.

"Babies are just like grown-ups. They all have different personalities," Goolsby says. "It’s all a matter of trial and error."

When Haley cries, Goolsby holds her tight against her chest, or blocks out sound and light by covering Haley’s eyes or ears.

Theories like the Dunstan Baby Language suggest that infant cries are universal. That work by author, mom and former opera singer Priscilla Dunstan outlined five universal words or sounds created by babies from birth to 3 months old. It interpreted a "neh" sound as a hunger cry. "Owh" means "I'm sleepy." "Heh" means discomfort, "Eairh" indicates an upset stomach, and "Eh" means the baby needs to be burped.

While some parents swear by the method, it has been widely criticised by experts and health care professionals who say there is no evidence-based research to support it. Many babies make sounds beyond the five outlined in the Dunstan method, and parents focused on sound interpretation may not respond properly to their infant's needs.

What's normal and what's not

While some parents can determine what their child wants based on his cry, others may have to explore different techniques, says Helen Neville, a paediatric nurse and author from Oakland, California. Neville said that as a young mother herself, she was never able to distinguish one cry from another.

"Sometimes, babies don't know why they are crying," says Neville, who studies infant temperament and has written several books on parenting. "There are some really easy, mellow babies and some parents who breeze through this, but there are other children who are very sensitive or who are emotionally very intense."

Leticia Shanley, a mother and pediatrician at UT Southwestern and Children's Medical Center Dallas, said it's normal for a healthy baby to cry one or two hours a day. But if you have fed, burped, changed and held your baby and nothing seems to make the crying stop, check to see if your child looks sick. If anything is abnormal, such as your baby has a high temperature and won't stop crying, you should seek medical attention.

At some point, letting a baby "cry it out" is fine, Neville says. Some parents follow the Ferber method, where crying babies as young as 4 months old are left alone to prepare them for nighttime sleep. The theory behind it is the baby will learn to soothe itself and will not need constant comforting.

Calm response

Learning to interpret your baby's cry
Stay calm when handling a crying baby. (Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

No matter how loud the crying gets, or how tired or frustrated you feel, you can never solve a baby's crying with physical actions like shaking. Inconsolable crying is the primary trigger in most shaken-baby cases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. Shaken Baby Syndrome is the leading cause of child abuse deaths in the United States. Newborns to 4-month-olds are at a greater risk of injury from shaking.

As frustrating as the crying may be, Neville says it's always best for parents to stay calm. "Put down a screaming baby and leave the room for a few minutes," she says. "It's far safer to step away than be around a baby when you are so angry."

If you are alone, leave your baby in the crib for up to 10 minutes, then try to address the crying again. The American Academy on Pediatrics recommends that parents seek help if they feel overwhelmed or exhausted.

Goolsby says parents should not be afraid to ask for help from more experienced mothers. For example, ask them what helped comfort their child or what methods they used to get their baby to sleep through the night. But the best thing to do is check the basics. Is your baby hungry, gassy, or wet? Is the child dealing with a health issue like colic, constipation, teething or a cold?

"Common sense is really the best advice," Goolsby says.

Tips and warnings

  • Neville recommends parents use the five-step method to stop crying as outlined by author and paediatrician Harvey Karp. The method is known as the "5 S's." "Swaddle" by tucking your baby close to you in a blanket. Place your infant in a "Side-Stomach" position to alleviate pressure but not for sleep. "Shush" by creating a calming white noise or sound, such as humming. "Swing" the baby gently for relaxation or in a quick back-and-forth motion to alleviate crying. Finally, allow her to follow her natural instinct to "Suck" on a bottle, breast or pacifier.

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