Soothing a crying baby: Why they cry and what to do

By: Dr. Claire Halsey soothing

Crying is your baby’s most important way of communicating with you, especially in the early days. She’s trying hard to help you understand what she wants and needs. Crying tends to be at its most frequent (about two hours per day) when your infant is three to six weeks old.

Common reasons your baby cries…

• Being hungry or thirsty

• Having a wet or dirty diaper

• Being too cold or too warm

• Needing reassurance that you are around

• Boredom and wanting to play or the opposite— being overwhelmed by too much going on

• Being overtired

• Being in pain and needing help

• Colic

If your baby is crying and you’ve ruled out illness, and practical solutions such as feeding, a diaper change, and more or less clothing haven’t worked, then hands-on soothing strategies are the next step.

Hold: Feeling securely held can be calming in itself. Position your baby firmly against your body; either in your arms, upright and supported against your shoulder, or in a baby sling.

Sing: The sound of your voice is naturally soothing to your baby, so humming, singing softly, or murmuring can help reduce her state of arousal. If you speak to her, keep to a low, steady tone, rather than your usual “sing song” voice.

Pace: Hold your baby close and simply pace the room. Make sure you are not too abrupt as you turn and choose a dimly-lit room with nothing else going on, particularly no TV, loud music, or other people moving around.

Wrap her up: Swaddling your child by wrapping her firmly in a soft blanket can recreate the reassuring feeling of being held tightly that she experienced in the womb.

Gently rock: Repeated, smooth rhythmic movements can have a settling effect. Keep your baby’s head well supported and rock her in your arms side to side or up and down.

Massage: Touch has a powerful soothing effect. Softly patting her, rubbing her back, or gently holding her hands or feet may help. Try baby massage which is known to reduce episodes of crying; don’t do this while she is distressed though, wait until she’s calm and relaxed.

Communication: When your baby cries she is trying to explain to you that all is not right in her world and she is asking for your help. It is up to you to determine what she’s trying to say.

Machinery: Oddly enough your baby may be calmed by the rumble of machinery, such as the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, or dryer. She may also like tape recordings of heartbeats or other rhythmic sounds. These sounds mimic the noises of your body that she heard before birth. Sounds of nature can also be soothing, such as recordings of birdsong.

Take a break: It can be very distressing, not to mention exhausting, trying to soothe your crying baby. It’s important to recognize your tolerance levels and seek help from your partner, family, or friends before you reach the breaking point.

No relief? If your baby’s cries persist no matter how hard you try to soothe her, and you judge that she is in pain that you can’t relieve, seek medical help from her pediatrician.

Colic: trying to understand

The specific cause of colic is not known. Experts suggest a range of explanations, from food intolerance to gas to overstimulation. Its effects are well known to many parents; up to one in five babies will go through it. Crying as a result of colic can last for several hours and is worse in the early evening. Your baby is likely to graduate from cries to screams, and her body will be involved.

She may pull up her knees, clench her fists, pass gas, and show facial expressions of pain. Colic and its associated crying usually start at around two or three weeks of age and will often have abated by 12 weeks. Since a colic spell may last for hours and is difficult to soothe, it is intensely stressful for both you and your baby.

To manage your colicky baby, try all the usual techniques to calm crying. Other suggestions include laying your baby face down over your lap and gently patting her back, encouraging her to suck on the breast or bottle, and practicing baby massage when she is calm. Through trial and error you will find the combination of strategies that work best for your child. If colic seems worse in the evenings, one possibility may be overstimulation; soothing measures such as swaddling and dim lights may help, as well as a calmer daytime routine.

Getting a break from soothing your colicky baby is crucial, since coping with her distress is exhausting in itself. Be reassured that by the age of four months, very few babies still experience this condition.

Myths and Misconceptions

Is it true that…

I will spoil my baby if I pick him up as soon as he cries?

No! Your baby is crying because he needs you and his only way to call too you is to cry. When you go to him right away and wrap him in your arms, you are teaching him that he is safe and secure, that he is important to you, and that you’re there for him. Studies have shown that babies who are responded to quickly when upset grow up to be happier, more confident children.

It is easier for me to hear my baby when he wakes than my partner?

Mothers do seem to be more sensitive to their baby’s cries and will wake up very quickly when the baby stirs in the night. Although you’ll tend to be first to notice her, both you and your partner will feel a sense of urgency to go to your crying infant. This is specific to your child and you won’t get the same sensation if you hear another baby cry.

Excerpted from Ask An Expert: Answers Every Parent Needs to Know copyright 2011 DK Publishing




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