Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Baby Behavior Basics Part 4: Crying: Your Baby’s Super Power

Newborns seem to be so tiny and helpless. They need their parents to keep them fed, safe, warm, and dry yet, they can’t use words to describe what they need. How then, can babies make sure their needs are met? Instinctively, they use their ultimate “super power;” they cry.
To most adults, a baby’s cry is one of the most irritating sounds on earth. When babies cry, stress hormones are released and parents spring into frantic action as they search for reasons for the crying. With all this activity, it is certain that the child’s needs eventually will be met. By using their special super power, babies, out of necessity, control their little worlds. One of the biggest secrets of baby behavior is that babies’ ability to cry is really a wonderful talent. Of course, most new parents won’t agree.
A better understanding of why babies cry and what parents can do to calm their babies can help everyone feel better. In this post, we’ll provide an overview of infant crying. We’ll talk about “colic” in later posts.

Crying Babies Aren't Always Hungry
Babies cry whenever they feel uncomfortable or distressed. For babies, being hungry is very uncomfortable and healthy babies cry if they are not fed in response to early hunger cues (see Baby Behavior Basics Part 3). However, babies also cry when they are:
· Tired
· Wet or have a dirty diaper
· Over stimulated
· Too cold or too hot
· Startled or scared
· Bored or lonely
· Sick or in pain
· Frustrated

Using Crying Babies' Cues
Since young babies cry to indicate any kind of distress, parents have to rely on other cues to understand why their babies are crying. Generally, babies who are hungry use many cues to make sure that food is on the way! For details about these and other baby cues, see our last post, Baby Behavior Basics Part 3. Babies who are not hungry will use other cues when they cry. For example, babies who are over stimulated by too many sights, sounds, smells, or well-intentioned relatives may cry and use “disengagement cues” such as turning or arching away. Babies who are over tired, may open and close their eyes and nod their heads as they cry.
If babies don’t get a response to their subtler cues, they will cry. That means responding to early cues can help reduce crying. Remember, young babies can't communicate specific messages and you need to think “big picture” when trying to interpret your baby's cues. Fortunately, as you and your baby get to know each other, you’ll get better at anticipating your baby's needs and recognizing her cues.

Calming the Storm: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Unfortunately, fixing the problem (such as removing the barking dog or changing the diaper) doesn’t always stop the crying. Sometimes, babies cry even if there is nothing obviously wrong. Fortunately, there is a solution. Babies are hard-wired to respond to repetition by calming down. That’s why singing, rocking, or riding in the car can help quiet crying babies. Many parents will instinctively pick up their crying babies, hold them close, rock them back and forth, and softly repeat the same words. These instincts are great! Problems start when parents give up too soon because their babies may not calm down right away. Depending on how upset they are, babies can take awhile to relax. By trying lots of different things to stop the crying, parents can make their babies even more upset. Be patient! Keep doing the same thing over and over until your little one feels better.

When the Crying Makes You Crazy
Infant crying is very stressful and in these challenging times, one more stress might be just too much to take. If you feel angry, helpless, or overwhelmed in dealing with your baby’s crying, it is time to get help. While your baby has his “super power” to make sure his needs are met, it is important that you don’t try to be “super human” and deal with your rollercoaster emotions on your own. If you feel out of control, ask a trusted friend or family member to care for your baby or put your baby down in a safe place so that you can take a short break. Every new parent has moments of extreme frustration and fatigue. Talk to your doctor if these moments don’t pass quickly.

Next time: You’ll meet the rest of the moms at the UC Davis Human Lactation Center!

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