If Your Baby Could Talk

What your newborn is trying to tell you with her cries.

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It isn't easy to listen to a baby — especially your baby — cry. But understanding that crying is something every healthy newborn does (sometimes for as many as four or five hours a day) makes it more bearable. And learning what her cries mean can help more than anything.

"Crying is sometimes the end result of a series of miscues," explains Tracy Hogg, a registered nurse, newborn consultant and author of Secrets of the Baby Whisperer (Ballantine Books, 2001). Babies often try to "speak" using body language first and resort to crying when that doesn't work, she says.

Other cultures typically focus on these physical cues, while Americans tend to respond to a baby's cries. "We put babies in their own rooms and turn on our monitors," says Barry Lester, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I. "We know the kid needs us when she cries.

"In many cultures, where babies are carried all the time, they don't utter a sound but somehow signal to Mom, 'I'm hungry,'" Lester adds. "If the baby is physically close, then communication is not based on vocalization."

A Not-So-Foreign Language Understanding your baby's language is a skill acquired through trial and error. "You may not be right all the time, but that's not going to hurt your baby," says Michael Speer, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. In fact, sometimes you'll only know what works by trying a few things that don't.

"Get used to observing and don't rush in to fix, fix, fix," suggests Hogg. She uses the acronym SLOW to remind parents to stop, listen and observe before deciding "what's up." To help you with this, we've come up with a list of needs that your baby may be trying to communicate to you.

I'm hungry. A hungry baby may arch her back, looking for a breast or bottle. She may also turn her head toward you, searching with her tongue (rooting), or she may pull her fist toward her mouth.

I'm tired. A tired baby may stare off and yawn. She may grab her ears and, when she's a bit older, rub her eyes. If she's lying down, she'll move her head from side to side as though fighting sleep. If you're holding her, she'll turn her body in toward yours.

A tired cry can sound much like a hungry cry. Since new parents often don't realize how much sleep new babies need — 18 to 22 hours a day, on average — they are likely to try feeding them too often. So if all else fails, just give your infant a chance to fall asleep.

My clothes need to be changed. Too much or too little clothing can make a baby uncomfortable. An overheated baby breathes rapidly and may have a clammy neck. A cold baby's skin appears marbled and blotchy.

I want new scenery. A baby often turns away from a toy or person because she's bored or overstimulated. If she's bored, a new plaything or playmate should do the trick.

The word overstimulated describes a baby who has been exposed to an activity or noise for too long. In this case, it's time for a nap or a calmer environment.

I need to blow off steam. Babies can't turn to exercise, a hot bath or a cup of tea to relax, so they cry. Often this cry is repetitive and moanlike. Hogg describes it as a mantra that babies repeat until they calm themselves or fall asleep.

I'm in pain. Until they're about 6 weeks old, babies have only two cries: a hunger cry and a pain cry. A pain cry comes on suddenly, has a longer period of breath-holding and is louder than a normal cry, and can be high-pitched. Sometimes a baby in pain appears to hold her breath between shrieks.

If you're using cloth diapers, an open safety pin could be the culprit. A pinched diaper, too-tight clothing or gas pains also could be to blame.

Just 'cause. Sometimes babies cry for no reason at all, at least not a reason parents — or even the experts — fully understand. If such crying persists for three hours a day at least three days a week for three consecutive weeks, it's often labeled as colic. About 20 percent of normal, healthy babies qualify as "colicky," according to pediatrics professor Lester.

Some babies have their worst colic episodes in the evening. Occasionally, Lester says, colic is secondary to a sleeping or feeding difficulty; consult your pediatrician if you're concerned. "If it's not [due to sleep or feeding problems]," he says, "then there are things you can do to try to help."

Now what? Here are some suggestions to calm your inconsolable sweetheart:

  • Nurse her.
  • Rock, swing or walk with her.
  • Snuggle or swaddle her.
  • Stroke her back, pat her tummy or massage her.
  • Sing or read to her.
  • Walk outside into the fresh air.
  • Help her find her thumb.
  • Give her a break. Some time may have passed since she started fussing; by now she simply could be tuckered out and ready for a nap. Try laying her down or rocking her.
  • Give yourself a break. Let someone else — your spouse, a grandparent or a neighbor — try to comfort the baby while you take a nap or a walk. If no one's around to help, put the baby in her bassinet while you check the mail, refuel with a glass of water or call a friend for a pep talk. A few minutes alone won't hurt a baby and may be just what she needs.
  • If your baby simply cannot be consoled and seems to be in distress — and if she cries for 15 to 20 minutes nonstop — call the doctor.
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