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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.