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A Mom's Guide to Baby Tears

To the untrained ear, a baby's cry is simply a baby's cry: It's loud, it's uncomfortable, it's interminable. Once you're a mom, though, you learn that your child has a whole repertoire of shrieks, sobs, and wails. And just when you think you've figured out what her cries mean, she uses them in new ways. Here, what triggers the tears, and how to handle them.


Infants: Birth to 6 months

Your newborn's wet? She cries. She's in pain? She cries. Wants milk? She cries. Newborns can't control their crying any better than you can control your hiccups. In the first few weeks of life, crying is sometimes a reflexive behavior. But it gives us that panicky feeling: "What's wrong? How do I stop it?"

It's important to step back, take a deep breath, and remember that infants are supposed to cry. Their crying isn't inherently good or bad, says Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. "A baby isn't always attaching emotion to the crying -- she's crying because she has no other way to communicate."

Thanks to some amazing growth in the brain and nervous system around 6 weeks, a baby gains more control over her crying -- not much, but enough to make the connection that when she cries, you'll come to her with a diaper, a meal, or a cuddle. With every passing month, she'll make more sophisticated connections between her crying and your reactions. Oh, the fun you can look forward to!

What to do:

Give your baby a systems check. If you're not sure why she's crying, work through the top culprits. Is she fed? Check. Burped? Check. How's that diaper looking? Oops. Problem solved.

Swaddle, sway, shush. Your baby just spent nine months in a cozy, temperature-controlled environment. No wonder many infants respond to swaddling, swaying, and shushing, which mimic the feelings and sounds experienced in the womb. Since a newborn has no control over her muscles, swaddling keeps her arms and legs snug to her body and lets her get the uninterrupted sleep she needs.

Stop trying so hard. One day when Elaine Appleton Grant of Strafford, New Hampshire, had exhausted every idea to get her son Teddy to stop crying, she put the 2-month-old down in a quiet, dark room. "It was amazing," she says. "The crying stopped immediately. He just needed to get away from any stimulation."

Expose your baby to the real world. Some moms tiptoe around their newborns, thinking that peace and quiet are always what they need. In fact, she might be craving the sounds of the world she heard in the womb, like your voice, your spouse's singing, or music you played. Read aloud in a normal tone of voice, sing, or get creative. Suzanne Thiele of Livonia, Michigan, says her daughter Katie went through crying jags at 3 months but calmed to the sound of U2.