Why Babies Cry

by Charlotte Latvala

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.

What the tears do to moms

It’s not your imagination: Your baby’s cries affect you in a way that other aggravating noises (chain saws, barking dogs, a too-loud television) don’t. “Moms have a biological response when babies cry,” says Robert Sears, M.D., coauthor of The Premature Baby Book. Their infant’s cry triggers release of the hormone prolactin, dubbed “the mothering hormone,” which creates an urge to pick the baby up and meet his needs. So it’s actually a good sign that your baby’s wailing gets to you like nothing else, Dr. Sears says.

Because we’re wired to respond this way, we moms tend to be tough on ourselves when our babies keep right on crying. Tara Feaster of Bronx, New York, felt guilty when she couldn’t immediately soothe her newborn daughter Cassandra, now 17 months. “I felt like a terrible mom and that my baby deserved better,” she says. Even more experienced moms feel the pressure. Christine D’Amico, a mom of three (Max, 6, Charlie, 4, and Francesca, 1) in San Diego and the author of The Pregnant Woman’s Companion, says that her babies’ cries often pushed her to the limit. “I would obviously never do it, but I realized why kids get shaken to death,” she says. “You reach that really frustrated place, and you just don’t know what to do.”

The fine art of baby soothing

Fortunately, there are as many ways to calm a crying baby as there are, well, crying babies. My daughter Mathilda, now 9, settled down when my husband, Tony, rocked her on his shoulder  — but only if he stood on a certain squeaky floorboard in our living room. Her brother, A.J., now 7, was a rocking-chair man. And my 1-year-old, Mary Elena, fussed in the rocker but loved to cruise around our floor in her stroller. Other infants will only quiet down with a drive in the car, an hour in the baby swing, or after being tightly swaddled. Dimming the lights, turning on relaxing music, or stripping a baby down to her diaper are other tried-and-true methods.

You may need to experiment to figure out what clicks. When her 4-month-old daughter, Hannah Olivia, cried for three hours, Nicole Leon of Hollywood, Florida, tried rocking, feeding, and walking, but nothing worked. In desperation, Nicole ran a warm bath and got in with her baby. “It did soothe her, so we spent the rest of the afternoon there,” she says. “Now I know that whenever she gets fussy, a bath always works.” Don’t underestimate the power of distraction either. “Cassandra always stopped crying and shifted her attention when either of our cats walked by,” says Feaster.

It may seem counterintuitive, but adding even more noise to a crying baby’s environment may help calm her. “Carly fell asleep to white noise during her first six months of life,” says Maxson. “We would run the sweeper or turn on my hair dryer. It was the only thing that worked consistently.”

Play around with various positions, too. Some babies are happiest slung over a shoulder, but others enjoy being held across your forearm, tummy down, like footballs. You can also try humming or singing while you hold your baby close; in addition to the sound, the vibrations from your voice box can be soothing to her.

Needless to say, don’t overlook the obvious problems. Make sure your baby is dry, fed, and burped. “One day, my two-month-old daughter, Phoebe, had been crying for a long time,” says Denise Mussman of St. Louis. “Finally, I rubbed my fingers gently along her spine, starting at the bottom and working my way up. She let out a tremendous belch, and then she was fine.”

Don’t neglect yourself

No surprise here: Babies can pick up on our tension and stress. It’s a vicious cycle. The baby cries, his mom gets anxious, he cries even harder. To break the chain, you’ve got to figure out a way to soothe yourself, whether it’s putting on headphones for ten minutes or (ideally) handing the baby off to a trusted friend or relative while you take a hot shower or just a much-needed break.

Another vital step: Do your best to get out of the house and spend time with other people. There’s something about the act of socializing  — even if it’s just exchanging pleasantries with a coffee-shop clerk  — that brings us back to reality. (Also, babies in strollers are less apt to cry; they love motion, fresh air, and a change of scenery.)

Sometimes, too, a reality check is in order. Logging the actual minutes of crying can help put things in perspective, says O’Brien, because you’re likely to discover your baby doesn’t cry as much as you think she does. “It’s also a good way to track when her fussiest periods are and help yourself remember which soothing techniques work and which don’t,” she says.

If all else fails  — you’ve tried everything, your baby is still crying, and you’re in danger of losing control  — put her in a crib or another safe place and take a time-out in another room. Crying alone for a little while won’t hurt her.

The big picture

No matter how awful your baby’s crying seems, take heart. It will soon be over. I used to be appalled when well-meaning strangers (usually older women) would stop me with my fussy newborn and say, “Enjoy this stage; it goes so fast.” What planet were they on? Enjoy being sleep-deprived and constantly frazzled? At the time, I thought their comments were further proof that there must be something wrong with me. But now, with two more kids and almost a decade of perspective under my belt, I understand what they meant.

After three months, your baby’s crying jags will be less frequent and much more comprehensible; soon she’ll be cooing, blowing kisses, and saying “Ma-ma” and “Da-da.” Even if you never become an expert at decoding her cries (I could never distinguish “hungry” from “overstimulated”), the crying phase will soon be over, and you’ll be on to other challenges  — like listening to her chatter nonstop through the toddler years.