How To Translate Your Baby’s Tears

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Of all the changes that new parenthood brings, your little bundle howls and shrieks may be the hardest to adjust to. Your immediate reaction, of course, is to staunch the tears for both your baby’s happiness and your peace of mind. Being unable to do so may feed any new-mom insecurities you may feel and even leave you questioning your parenting abilities.

But we’ve got news for you: Crying is not only natural, it’s your baby’s only means of communication!

“Pediatricians need to educate parents that crying is developmentally normal,” explains Karen St. Claire, a pediatrician at the Duke University Medical Center for Child and Family Health in Durham, N.C. “We [medical professionals] think of it as a neurological phase that babies go through.”

A baby’s peak crying period usually occurs at 4 to 8 weeks old and tapers off by 12 weeks. Until that quieter time arrives, the following steps can help soothe both baby and parents.

5 tips for dealing with your baby’s tears.

Translate the tears

“Crying is the way a baby attracts the attention of the parent,” says Kathleen G. Nelson, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham. “You need to respond and figure out what’s going on.” Often, that’s not easy. First, experts say, address the obvious. Try to feed the baby, burp her, put her down for a nap, change her diaper, pick her up and hold her.

If those responses fail—they often do!—give these a shot:

  • Rock baby in a chair or cradle.
  • Sing a sweet song.
  • Give a warm bath.
  • Gently rub baby’s belly.
  • Offer a pacifier.
  • Place baby in an infant wind-up swing (one with head support for newborns).
  • Stroll around the neighborhood.
  • Put your baby in the car seat and take a drive.
  • Walk around the house cradling your baby.
  • Use the football hold (with baby’s body on your forearm).
  • Make sure no thread or strand of hair is wrapped around baby’s toe or finger.

Remember, these aren’t guaranteed to work. If baby keeps crying, it’s no reflection on your parenting skills!

Try swaddling

Wrapping your little one in a snug- fitting blanket is an age-old custom still practiced in hospital nurseries and by mothers all over the globe. “Babies have something called a startle reflex,” explains Larry Scherzer, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Conn., and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. “Swaddling helps minimize these involuntary jerks of the legs that can get them started on a crying spell.”

Research has also proven what mothers have long known: Swaddled babies stay asleep longer and sleep more deeply than those who are not wrapped up. In addition to inhibiting the startle reflex, swaddling keeps babies warm and gives them a sense of security and comfort.

Determine if it’s gastric distress

You may have heard of colic, a term that is widely misunderstood. Colic is not an ailment or condition, as many parents believe. It simply denotes an inconsolable baby who is otherwise healthy. Colicky babies can have crying jags that last from a few minutes to four or five hours. Although these bouts can drive parents crazy with worry, they are part of a normal behavior pattern for many babies during their first three months of life.

A percentage of colicky infants, however, “have either acid reflux or milk protein allergy,” contends Bryan Vartabedian, M.D., pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and author of Colic Solved (Ballantine Books, 2007). “Both are treatable conditions.”

If your baby is prone to prolonged wailing, Vartabedian says to watch for these signs of gastro distress: arching of the back away from the breast or bottle after a few sucks, chaotic feeding pattern (e.g., takes an extraordinarily long time to eat), weight loss, frequent hiccups or prolonged congestion. If your colicky baby has these symptoms, tell your pediatrician, who may refer you to a pediatric gastroenterologist.

Take a break

Although her face is bright red and she seems deeply distressed, remember that crying won’t hurt your infant! However, an exhausted, frustrated, stressed-out parent isn’t optimal for the Herculean task of caring for a baby. This is why every pediatrician we talked to recommends you take a break from the crying.

Ideally, call a family member or friend to relieve you for an hour. If this isn’t an option, swaddle your crying baby, put her in the crib and take a 15-minute herbal tea break. Check occasionally to make sure she’s okay. Continuous crying can result in an overly irritated, impatient parent.

In fact, in America, an estimated 1,400 babies are shaken each year, generally in response to continuous crying. So before you’re at your wit’s end, take a break!

Keep in mind, too, that there’s light at the end of this teary tunnel: Crying decreases when a baby is 8 weeks old.

Call your doctor when…

If your infant’s crying is accompanied by any of these symptoms, seek the counsel of your pediatrician:

  • A change in crying (for example, a listless moan instead of the usual lively bawling)
  • A fever
  • Unusual vomiting or spitting up
  • Sleeping more or less than normal
  • A red or swollen scrotum (for boys)
  • Diarrhea or bloody stools
  • Feeding issues (as described in Step 3)
  • Congestion or noisy breathing while baby is sleeping

You’re caring for a person who can’t tell you what’s wrong. So, if you’re worried, don’t hesitate to call your pediatrician, who will be happy if she can reassure you that all is well.

Writer Nancy Gottesman, of Santa Monica, Calif., recalls singing Grateful Dead songs to her son, Robby, when he was an inconsolable infant.

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