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A Mom's Guide to Baby Tears

Babies: 6 to 12 months

Around 6 months, your baby starts to figure out that he can cry to get a reaction from you. It's sort of like when he hurls his squash across the room and coolly watches you clean the mess, or when he extends his arms to be picked up. He's amassing an internal database of causes and effects.

This is also a time when you can see some personality changes: A big crier might be a lot happier these days, but a formerly placid infant can turn into Oscar the Grouch. My husband and I got to see a whole new side of our easygoing son Oliver around this time. We couldn't figure out why he cried so much more until he nipped me during a feeding (ouch!) and we noticed how irritated his bottom gums looked. Babies typically get their first teeth between 6 and 10 months, which can cause a lot of pain. And pain = tears.

Your baby is also puzzling out a psychological concept called object permanence. He was fine if you left the room when he was an infant, because he couldn't really comprehend that you were missing. Now when he sees you leave, he may be confused about where you are and whether you're coming back. Since he can't call out for you or ask where you're going, he uses the only tool he has -- crying -- to get your attention. After all, his early experiences prove that when he cries, you come running.

By now you may be able to distinguish between his different kinds of cries. But don't stress if you can't. It's a myth that all moms learn to tell what their babies want by the sound of their cries. "Neither my husband nor I really ever figured it out," says Sue Yuhas of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, mom of Stevie, now 6. "He was a cranky baby. All his cries sounded the same to us."

What to do:

Teach him to self-soothe. One cry you might be able to distinguish more easily than others is a tired cry: It comes in starts and stops. "Let him soothe himself -- you'll be giving him a valuable lesson," says Dr. Jana. If he cries every time you leave the room, simple games like peekaboo will help him learn the concept of object permanence, and eventually he'll realize you're still nearby. He'll still cry for you, but probably not every single time.

Change one thing at a time. Sometimes all a baby wants is to look at the other wall or try out a slightly different toy. So when he wails, don't go into a frenzy and give him five new things to absorb in the space of five seconds. Take it slow.

Try signing. Sign language can help babies communicate their needs without resorting to tears. Charlene Rucker of Coldwater, Michigan, taught her son Eric how to sign when he was 9 months old. At 13 months, he can sign "drink," "eat," and "more," which means he doesn't have to cry when he wants those things.

Give him something to chew on. Some babies don't give any physical signs that they're teething, like excessive drooling, biting, or irritated gums; they're simply more teary than usual. Try a chilled teething ring or a washcloth (first dampen an edge and then freeze it).