Why babies cry, and what you can do to calm yours down
Why babies cry
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 instead, they cry. It’s their way of saying “Mom, I need you!” What should you do if all of your baby’s needs have been met (he’s rested, fed, has a clean diaper) and he’s still crying? Don’t assume the worst.
All infants have periods of fussiness during their first few months, perhaps because they have an immature neurological system. And some babies are just more sensitive—noises, smells, even certain sensations can upset them. Most newborns cry for an average of three hours a day, peaking at around 6 weeks. The good news: By 3 months, most babies’ crying will subside to about one hour a day.
Why you’re not a bad mom
When a baby cries, it triggers the release of the hormone prolactin (dubbed “the mothering hormone”) in moms, which creates an urge to pick up the baby and meet her needs. You’re hardwired to soothe your baby, and when that doesn’t happen, it can make you feel like a failure. But your baby’s fussiness is not a reflection on your parenting skills—and it’s completely normal for a baby to cry even when there doesn’t seem to be a direct cause. If you’re ever in doubt, however, don’t hesitate to call your pediatrician to make sure there isn’t an underlying problem.
Simple soothing strategies
Not every strategy will work for every baby, and some techniques may only work at certain times, depending on your baby’s mood. The key is to experiment; over time, you’ll figure out what’s best for your baby, and when.
Re-create the womb.Your infant may be fussy because he misses his first “home,” so simulating the amniotic environment can calm him. Try these techniques, together or separately:
- Swaddle him snugly in a blanket with his arms down.
- Hold him while he’s on his side or stomach rather than his back.
- Make shushing sounds, or create other white noise by running a hair dryer or fan (the inside of the womb sounds like a constant pulsing whoosh).
- Jiggle him gently (the rhythmic swaying resembles the movement of the womb).
- Give him something to suck on—either a pacifier or a finger.
Use your hands. Touch stimulates receptors in the brain that calm your baby, and research shows that long, smooth strokes tend to work better than short, brisk ones. Try caressing your infant’s cheek, back, legs, or stomach. Or keep your baby close by wearing her in a front carrier. You don’t have to spend all day toting her around, but the more you touch her (giving her a mini-massage during a diaper change, for instance), the happier she’ll be.
Talk. The familiar tone of Mom’s voice is one of the most effective soothers for babies, according to research. So keep the chatter going—but speak quietly so your baby isn’t overwhelmed.
Release your inner pop star. Singing can also be calming. Don’t worry if your voice doesn’t sound like Norah Jones’s. To your baby, you’re the ultimate star. Sing calm, slow songs, such as lullabies—the body responds to music by adapting heart and respiratory rates to the tempo.
Take a drive. Driving around the block combines steady motion and white noise. If driving isn’t convenient, try a vibrating bouncy seat or swing, which also have the white-noise/movement combo.
Get wet. Many moms swear by baths to calm their babies. The sound of the running water and the warmth on the skin can do wonders for a crying baby. You can get into the tub, too, to add soothing skin-to-skin contact.
Distract him. Introduce a new toy or shift his attention to the family pet or a mirror (so he can gaze at himself). He may well forget all about his cranky mood.
Keep your cool. If you get frustrated, your infant will pick up on that tension and react, and this pattern can become a cycle that’s hard to break. Trying too hard to calm your baby can also backfire—some simply don’t like to be handled as much as others. While you shouldn’t let infants under 3 months cry it out, it’s okay to let them fuss for five minutes. This will give yours the opportunity to start to figure out how to soothe himself (and it may give you a chance to regroup, too).
Keep doing what works. When you find a strategy that soothes your baby, stick to it. Trying something different every five minutes can be overstimulating. Limit yourself to two or three methods that seem to work—if one fails in one instance, try the other, instead of introducing several new techniques. You almost always get results after a day or two if you stick to a consistent pattern.
The best baby holds
Carrying your baby helps her feel safe and comforted. A few tried-and-true methods:
The cradle-carry: With both elbows bent about 45 degrees, rest your baby’s head in the crook of one arm, supporting her with both of your forearms along the length of her back. Rock or bounce her gently while patting her bottom. She may find this position especially soothing, since she can see your face.
The sit-and-rock cradle: This a great way to let your baby see her world and distract her when she’s fussy. While standing, hold her against your chest, facing away from you. Place one hand under her bottom to create a “seat” and wrap the other arm around her chest (and under her arms) for support. Sway from side to side or walk around to find a view she likes.
The football hold: Because this method puts pressure on your baby’s tummy, it can help relieve gassiness. Place your baby facedown along one forearm, using the crook of your arm to support her neck. Place your other arm between her legs to support her lower body. Once you get the hang of it, you can even use one hand to prepare a bottle.
The over-the-shoulder hold: Like the football hold, this one’s good for gassiness. Hold your baby’s stomach against your shoulder and let her head and neck drape over it. Support her head with your hand until she’s able to control it herself.
The heart-to-heart: In this position, your baby will feel extra close to you as she gets in tune with your rhythms. Hold your baby vertically, with her head resting on your chest, near your heart. Sway from side to side.
Decoding the wails
It’s not easy to figure out what your baby’s various cries mean. But keep these general guidelines in mind:
- Newborns have a very distinct, high-pitched wail—and contrary to what you may think, this often doesn’t indicate pain. They simply take in short, rapid breaths and let out a short crying sound each time they exhale. Older babies begin to breathe in deeper when crying, so each cry is longer.
- When he’s hungry, a baby will quietly fuss and squirm. If he isn’t fed, the cry will escalate. (Unless he’s a newborn, and then the big wails are likely to start right away.)
- If he’s in pain—from gas, teething, or illness—your baby will probably have a piercing cry and a pained look on his face. He’ll also be especially difficult to console.
3 strategies to avoid
Popping in a pacifier right away. Yes, it might quiet her, but you won’t get to figure out what’s really wrong.
Rushing to feed. If you stick a bottle or your breast in your baby’s mouth every time she cries and before you’re sure she’s hungry, you could be showing her that eating is a way to comfort herself. And that can eventually lead to overeating.
Trying too many different ways of soothing at once. It takes a while for soothing techniques to work. If you quickly change positions, or swaddle and then unswaddle immediately, your baby will probably become more agitated.
The warm touch of your hands can console your baby instantly. In a warm, quiet room, undress him except for his diaper and put him on a comfortable surface (a bed, couch, your lap). Use baby oil or a moisturizing lotion.
Apply gentle yet firm pressure with each stroke. Be aware of your baby’s cues: If he wriggles or fusses, stop and try again another time. You can do this entire sequence or just the parts your baby likes. Begin with your baby on his back:
1. Using your open hands, stroke both sides of the face, from the forehead to the neck and back up again.
2. Using a circular motion, stroke over the temples and the hinge of the jaw.
3. Lightly massage behind the ears and continue the circular movements over the rest of the scalp, avoiding the soft spot on the top.
1. Wrap both hands around the baby’s upper arm and stroke down from the shoulder to the wrist, using a gentle, milking motion.
2. Stroke the palms of the hand with your thumbs.
3. Gently squeeze and then pull each finger.
Starting with your hands flat on the baby’s chest, stroke up toward the neck, and then downward to his sides.
Using a hand-over-hand motion (like a paddle wheel), stroke him moving from high to low on the abdomen.
Wrap both hands around your baby’s upper thigh, and stroke down toward the ankle and back up to the hip.
1. Use a thumb-over-thumb motion to massage the entire bottom of the foot.
2. Gently squeeze and then pull each toe.
3. Make small circles all over the top of the ankle and foot.
Now turn your baby facedown:
1. Stroke, in a hand-over-hand motion, from the upper back to the buttocks, with the flats of your hands contoured to the shape of his back.
2. Using your fingertips, massage the long muscles next to your baby’s spine with circular motions from his head to his buttocks. (Don’t rub directly over the spine.) Continue massaging down his legs to his feet.
Finish by lightly massaging your baby’s neck and shoulders.
Crying is a normal part of your baby’s life, and after some experimentation, you and your baby will figure out how to calm her down together. And take heart: After three months, her crying jags will be less frequent and much more comprehensible, so you’ll be better able to decipher what she needs.
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