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Why Babies Cry

I was so prepared for my first baby. I had survived Lamaze classes, knew how to operate a breast pump (at least in theory), and had enough diapers for quintuplets. What I didn't anticipate were the hours of crying: I came completely unglued at the sound of Mathilda's heartrending wails. I vividly remember sitting in my new rocking chair, holding her on my shoulder while she screamed and I sobbed, thinking it was never going to end. "Why did I have a baby?" I blubbered more than once. "I'm not cut out to be a mother."

Every new mom has been there. Your baby is shrieking, you have no clue how to calm her, and you would give your life savings to someone who could tell you how to stop it. "I remember one night when Carly was a newborn, and she screamed from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.," says Sally Maxson, a mom of two in Chippewa, Pennsylvania. "The only time she would stop was when I nursed her. It was one of the most stressful times of my life."

What's important to remember is that all infants have unexplained periods of fussiness during their first few months. "Crying doesn't reflect on your parenting skills," says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Your Fussy Baby. "Crying is universal behavior, in all cultures. As I like to say: 'Birds fly, babies cry.'"

Still, realizing that baby tears are normal doesn't make them easy to live with. But there are ways to get your baby  -- and yourself  -- through this tough period, once you know what you're up against.

The lowdown on crying
Babies can't tell us "I'm hungry," "I'd like to get out of this car seat," or "This itchy tag is driving me crazy!" So they cry. The challenge is not to take it personally. Marjorie Carlson, a mom of three, ages 10, 7, and 4, in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, came up with a method that helped her empathize with her babies. "I tried not to think of their cries as annoying sounds," she says. "I imagined it was their way of saying 'Mom, I need you!'" But then, it might sound like your baby needs you all the time. In fact, a newborn cries for an average of three hours a day, peaking at around 6 weeks. By 3 months, your baby's crying will probably subside to about one hour a day.

Of course, even a short crying jag can seem like an eternity to any mom, especially one who's exhausted and overwhelmed. "When you're in the postpartum period, five minutes can feel like two hours," says Maureen O'Brien, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist with The First Years and the mother of 11-year-old twins. "At the same time your baby is going through the initial crying period, you're adjusting to your new role as a mom, dealing with sleep deprivation and postpartum hormones. It's all bundled together: the baby's crying and your own ability to cry on a dime."

Charlotte Latvala wrote "Family Traditions We Love" for the February issue of Parenting.