Face it: Kids cry. They weep. They wail. They sob, bawl, and blubber. And they do so from the minute they're born until long after they've been weaned, toilet trained, taught to read, and sent off on their first sleepover. Of course, they don't do this continuously (though in the first month or so it might seem that way), but parents spend an inordinate amount of time listening to their children cry and trying to figure out exactly why.
This task can be extremely difficult, especially before your baby can speak. And once you've ruled out the basics -- a dirty diaper, hunger -- it's easy for new parents to segue quickly from "He wants to eat" to "Call an ambulance!" At which point you may begin to weep yourself.
You can relax. Yes, kids cry, but usually for simple reasons you can do something about. Here, some causes that often aren't immediately apparent.
BIRTH TO 6 MONTHS
Diaper in a Twist
A baby doesn't need big drama -- falling out of the high chair and hitting her head -- to let loose. A hangnail will do. "Her shirt could be too tight, her dry diaper might be rubbing her the wrong way, one of your hairs might have gotten twisted around her finger, she may have scratched herself in the eye," says Victor Turow, M.D., a pediatrician at North Shore University Hospital, in Manhasset, NY. The safest and coziest of cribs is full of tiny hazards like these. "If a baby is crying for no apparent reason, the first thing I suggest is to get her undressed and have a look," says Dr. Turow. Check for red spots on her skin, which could indicate some irritation (she may have been lying on a toy, a rough clothing tag, or a wad of wrinkled blanket). Let her wear as little as possible -- there's just less to be uncomfortable about that way -- and maybe let her hang out naked and free on a cloth or towel for a while.
Some babies are undone by the very world around them. "A door slams, someone says 'coochy-coo' too loudly, a light is too bright. For a certain kind of baby, this will overwhelm the internal regulation of sensory input -- he won't be able to maintain his focus," says Donald Shifrin, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle. "This isn't abnormal -- some infants just have trouble integrating sensory input. The extreme reaction rarely lasts more than four months after birth." To calm a hypersensitive baby, soothe: Sing softly, hold him, let him listen to your heartbeat. To forestall future episodes, try to reduce sources of stimulation (turn down the volume, don't spend the entire day at the mall, build quiet time into a busy afternoon).
Even babies who aren't unusually sensitive can be overwhelmed merely by life. "Infant brains reach a threshold at which their figurative perceptual reservoir is full," says Peter Gorski, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and child development at Harvard Medical School. "In order to take in more stimuli, they need to empty their sensory reservoirs. Crying does that. After that, the baby will be either wide-awake and ready to sit on your lap again or peacefully sleeping." How to know if that's why she's crying? There's no evidence of physical discomfort, and maybe you've had a busy day, lots of visitors, or a particularly strenuous game of peekaboo.
Despite the beneficial effects of this kind of breakdown, you should still try to comfort your blubbering bundle. "Children develop a sense of security in the first six months of life," says Dr. Gorski. "By consoling them quickly and consistently now, you'll help them learn that you're always there for them, a stable, comforting presence."
If your baby doesn't soil his diaper at all for a day or makes hard, pelletlike poops, doesn't want to eat, and writhes with apparent discomfort, you're dealing with a plugged-up papoose. Consult your pediatrician, but the solution isn't high-tech, says Dr. Turow: "Prune juice. If the baby is two weeks or older, it's fine. Infant suppositories are okay, but they should be used in acute cases only and under a doctor's supervision, not for maintenance." Reflux "Most babies spit up," says Dr. Turow. "A baby with reflux does it more." Since stomach acid is an irritant, repeated regurgitation can be painful. Symptoms include a lot of spitting up, reswallowing spit-up milk or formula (look for curds on her tongue), reluctance to eat, crying at feedings, and calm periods between feedings. It's easily diagnosed by a pediatrician and can be treated either by modifying feeding (smaller, more frequent meals and keeping the child upright for 30 minutes or so after eating) or, if your doctor approves, with an antacid.
This condition makes the list because, ultimately, no one's sure what causes it, so no one knows why it makes kids cry. Its hallmarks -- pulling up the legs toward the chest and twisting -- look like a gastrointestinal problem, though no scientific study has proven this to be the case.
Regardless of the cause, it typically begins at three to five weeks in a full-term baby and can last as long as two to four months. Although some colicky infants cry day and night, most pick one particular time to let loose. The witching hour is usually between 5 and 10 p.m. or between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
If your baby routinely cries inconsolably, take him to the pediatrician to salve your fears that it might be something more serious. A few tricks might be recommended, such as carrying the baby in the football hold (his tiny face in your palm, his legs straddling your forearm), rubbing his belly clockwise, or creating some white noise by turning on the vacuum or an air conditioner. But there's rarely a magic bullet. The closest thing to one for some parents is an electric swing, but there's no guarantee. In the end, you'll probably just have to endure those few months.
6 TO 12 MONTHS
Imagine the strain of wanting to roll over and not being able to. Of wanting a toy that's just out of reach, of finding it almost impossible to get your pudgy little fingers around a simple bottle. Babies are experts at try, try again, but with each successive failure, they grouse. The cumulative effect might be a meltdown. "Look at frustration and failure in a positive light: Your baby is trying to learn," says Dr. Gorski. "Eventually, he'll succeed and leap forward in motor and thinking skills." Until then? Help when you can. "Give him a push if he can't roll over by himself. Move the toy closer. Make it easier for your baby, within the limits of common sense," Dr. Gorski says. "If you move the toy every time, he won't be motivated to learn."
Kids and adults wake spontaneously during the night. Adults fall back to sleep easily, but babies have to learn how. Until they do, late-night wake-ups can be scary and lonely. Hence, the 3 a.m. call for arms -- yours. Don't be fooled into thinking the midnight howl is about hunger. "A meal at three a.m. isn't nutritionally necessary for an eight-month-old. You have to teach your baby to fall back to sleep by herself, without the crutch of a bottle," says Dr. Turow. He recommends modified Ferberizing (crying and reassurance cycles at increasingly greater intervals). This works for the vast majority, if you're consistent, he says. But such consistency takes a will of iron.
Not every parent has that will -- or even wants to have it. If that's the case for you, just offer comfort -- reminders that you're in the next room, a few situationally appropriate endearments -- and a few kisses. You might supplement that by keeping a few of her favorite toys in the crib and leaving on a nightlight.
"Before, when an object disappeared, it no longer existed," says Dr. Gorski. "But at eight to ten months, when an object -- Mommy, for example -- is out of eyesight, the baby understands that you still exist, and he wonders where you went. Not knowing is a cause for panic. The more connected he is to the object, the greater the distress." Therefore, when you mysteriously disappear to go shopping, it will be more disturbing now than it was when he was younger.
You can ease the fear by explaining in words (babies understand more than you think) where you are going, who's staying with him, and that you'll be back soon. The caregiver can ease the angst by busying him after you've gone. Often, the goodbye is much harder than the time spent apart.
1 TO 3 YEARS
The Word "No"
For a toddler, the frustration of being denied what seems to be a perfectly reasonable request is as painful as running into a brick wall. And because a toddler is like a not particularly bright scientist who lacks impulse control -- lots of ideas for crazy experiments accompanied by the conviction that they have to be done now -- you'll have lots of opportunities to deny her things. Tantrums ensue. And since "you cannot reason with a two-year-old," says Dr. Turow, "don't try to."
Tell her in extremely simple language why she can't do whatever it is she wants to do ("It's not safe" will suffice for most infractions). Then put her in a safe place and walk away. A tantrum rarely lasts longer than 20 minutes. Let it run its course, and hold your ground at all costs -- after all, seeing what it's like to dance atop the glass coffee table is unacceptable whether followed by an outburst or not.
At home, you can reduce the likelihood of such meltdowns by giving your child the opportunity to experiment freely in safe ways. Make sure her room or a play area has lots of stuff to mess with and as few hazards as possible so you hardly ever have to say no while she's there. If life consists of constant "no's," frustration will build and explosions will be more likely.
The day-to-day necessities of life are a bother to busy toddlers. "I've seen kids burst into tears just getting dressed. Clothes are a nuisance, a waste of their time. They just want to play," says Dr. Turow. "They can't be bothered to sit and eat or put on a fresh diaper." Instead of simply submitting, they rebel, at a high volume.
Sure, if there are things that have to be done, you just have to do them, whether your child cries or not. And the more swiftly and definitively you get it done, the less crying there will be. As long as there's the slightest speck of a chance you'll cave in, the crying will continue. Just ignore it and carry on calmly and confidently. Bear in mind that it's perfectly all right to spare toddlers unnecessary drudgery. Don't force a 2-year-old to stay in his high chair for a full adult meal -- let him out to play nearby if he's squirmy and miserable.
Before age 2, kids have one emotion at a time. But as they mature, feelings mesh -- messily. "It's not just the wider range of emotions that causes trouble -- it's the complexity," says Dr. Shifrin. "The child is excited and happy to walk on her own, but she's scared too -- and also frustrated that she can't run. She's full of joy to run and play but terrified to look up and not see her mommy. It's exhausting for her." The bombardment of feelings can cause what Dr. Shifrin calls "an overflow. They have no choice but to let it out, so they cry."
The solution: Give her a big hug and wait for the crying to abate. Then you should move to a different activity. Read a book, put her down for a nap, or pop in a video. After a break, she'll be ready for more.
A Hectic Schedule
Kids are like rubber bands: They're durable, as long as they're not stretched too thin. "Most toddlers are ready for Gymboree or music class, but too many activities can be overwhelming," says Dr. Gorski. "Some can handle novelty -- new places and faces -- very easily. Some adapt more slowly to the unfamiliar. Parents have to learn the proper pace for each child." A kid who cries upon entering swim class may be just temporarily freaked out by the new surroundings, but he may also be telling you he's had enough for one day or week. Take your cue from him, and make sure over the course of each day (and week) that he gets plenty of unstructured time just to play, nap, or do nothing.
3 TO 5 YEARS
"You're not my friend." "I don't want to play with you." "Go away." No kid should have to face this kind of rejection at such a tender age, but this is when it starts, often at preschool. "Teasing is deceptive because most children have a delayed reaction," says Dr. Turow. "Your child may be fine for two or three weeks and then come home crying," and you'll have no idea why. Chances are, it will come out eventually, though probably not if you ask directly.
Try a sideways approach: What was your favorite thing that happened in school today? What was your least favorite thing? Or it might just come out of the blue as you're talking about something else. "Normal social development requires some skin thickening," says Dr. Turow. "She has to learn sometime that people aren't always nice." As a follow-up, "encourage her to make friendships with the nice kids who don't tease. You can help by arranging playdates with them."
Also, be sure to give your child the tools she needs to protect herself in the future. She may not know that she's allowed to walk away. After all, she hates to have her hair brushed, but she still has to endure it. She may think it's the same with mean kids.
A New Sibling
By age 3, kids are smart enough to know that a new baby means less time for them. "Crying is a way older siblings try to gain attention, to make sure that the pie is evenly sliced," says Dr. Shifrin. "Any stress can trigger an emotional response, and a baby is just about the biggest stress there is." The hard part is that a preschooler isn't likely to articulate it, so tears will flow at unexpected times. To help, schedule some time with him -- doing a favorite activity or even just driving to the store -- in which you can be together without the baby, and find a new privilege or two (a later bedtime, perhaps) to accompany his new status as big brother.
Ultimately, it's all about understanding. Figuring out why your child is crying will usually show you the clearest path to helping him. And if you can't figure it out, that's okay too -- sometimes, all that crying child needs is your shoulder.
Valerie Frankel's new novel, The Accidental Virgin, will be published next year.