Every new mum’s been there. Your little bundle of joy is cradled in your arms at last. But rather than looking up at you lovingly and gurgling sweetly with contentment, your beautiful baby is a not-so-beautiful shade of puce.
Her delicate features are contorted in undisguised rage as she emits a high-pitched wail that hits you smack in the pit of the stomach. You’re gripped by a mixture of fear and panic. You want to soothe her and soothe her quickly. But you’re not sure where to start…
Why your baby’s cries are normal
It can be heartbreaking listening to your baby cry, but it’s their first and most effective way of communicating with you.
Remember, your baby is a very clever little creature who quickly learns the valuable lesson that when she cries, you come running. This is why her crying increases at 2 to 3 weeks, reaches a peak at 6 to 8 weeks then eases off as she discovers that a coo and a smile can be pretty good at grabbing Mum’s attention, too.
But of course in those first few sleep-deprived months it can be very hard, if not impossible, to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Also, many new mums are slightly taken aback by their own reaction to their baby’s crying. Until you’ve experienced it, you simply can’t imagine how upsetting it can be.
Your baby’s sobs affect you like nothing else. It’s a sound that pierces your very being.
‘Mums have a biological response when their babies cry,’ explains author and paediatrician Dr Robert Sears. ‘Their infant’s cry triggers the release of the hormone prolactin, dubbed “the mothering hormone”, which creates the urge to pick up the baby and meet his needs.
‘Because they are wired to respond in this way, mums tend to be tough on themselves, especially when their babies appear to be crying inconsolably.’
Realising that your baby’s tears are normal and your reaction to them is also perfectly natural doesn’t always make them easier to live with. But learning to distinguish between your baby’s different cries will enable you to soothe and comfort her more quickly. Here are some clues to help you work out what your baby is trying to tell you.
I’m hungry, Mummy
Cries of hunger have a pleading quality, with the cry often starting slowly and building up over time. At its peak it will sound loud and rhythmic. He might even have his hand in his mouth, trying to suck while crying. But as soon as you pick him up, the chances are he’ll stop. He’s already anticipating feeding time and the relief that will bring. Babies vary in how much milk they need. If it’s been a while since you last fed him, it’s worth seeing if he wants more.
I’m in pain
If you’re lucky, you won’t hear this cry until he has his first jab at 8 weeks, because once heard, it’s never forgotten. It’s more of a sharp scream than a cry, followed by a brief period where the baby stops breathing or gasps for air. Repeated anguished cries followed by another piercing scream, even after picking him up, is a sure sign that he needs urgent attention. Check for a too-tight nappy, or perhaps a sticky tab is irritating him somewhere.
Bored, bored, bored
A cry for attention that usually starts with fussing and builds up to a crescendo if not responded to can be down to boredom. Different from the hunger cry, the bored baby will often intersperse his behaviour with attempts at getting your attention, such as smiling or vocalising. Your baby probably wants some gentle action, such as looking at you, some toys or mobiles. He may also want to be talked to, or have a change of scenery. But if moving him around and picking him up doesn’t help, check for a dirty nappy. Alternatively he might need winding.
All too much
It’s been a long day for you, so just imagine how long it must have seemed to your baby! Cries of letting off steam and restlessness usually occur at the end of the day. It begins as a whimper, asking for attention, and continues to rise in pitch and intensity. Your baby may ‘need’ to be restless at this time to settle himself down. Try moving him from loud noises and other people. Sing to him, whisper quietly in his ear, rub his back. See if he can be calmed and relaxed.
No matter how awful your baby’s crying seems now, take heart. After 3 months, his tears will be much less frequent (while a newborn cries for an average of three hours a day, by 12 weeks that’s down to an hour). Before you know it, he’ll be cooing, blowing kisses and saying ‘mama’ and ‘dada’.
So even if you never become an expert at decoding his cries, the crying phase will be over soon enough and you’ll move on to other equally exciting challenges – like listening to him chatting non-stop through his toddler years!